Who Do We Really Work For?

I am involved in the music and record businesses, wearing a variety of hats, including those of the artist, the recording engineer, the producer and the mastering engineer.
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For the past few months, I've been exploring the mysterious relationship between audio levels and loudness and how those of us involved in audio production might get such things to be consistent and satisfactory for our viewers. Last month I got tripped up by Tim Carroll, who queried whether or not this is really our proper goal. He suggested that our real obligation may be to our producers, and to manage levels and loudness to their satisfaction. I promised to discuss this in a little more depth this month. Happy New Year, everybody!

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE RECORD/MUSIC BIZ

I am involved in the music and record businesses, wearing a variety of hats, including those of the artist, the recording engineer, the producer and the mastering engineer. (Right now, I am also working on being a consumer loudspeaker manufacturer.)

As a result of these varied experiences, I have a lot of perspective regarding the wishes, needs and abilities of the artist, the producer, the engineer, and a particularly favorite object of study, our beloved end user. I'm very familiar with and comfortable dealing with the struggles artists go through trying to anticipate how their work will sound to end users, while at the same time trying to successfully create their music in the first place. For them, it's a little like Michelangelo lying on his scaffold painting that ceiling of the Sistine Chapel while worrying about how it's going to look in future postcards.

The point is, in that work we acknowledge that the artist (and producer) don't have time, in the heat of production, to deal with these concerns, which relegates such concerns to post- and post-post-production, where we have found it is far easier to struggle with them. We know that getting the music right for the end user is a problem, for a lot of reasons. We use a lot of strategies, often in tandem, to help us get through this.

Those strategies include:

  • "The ultra-standard precision monitoring environment," where everything always meets spec and nothing ever changes, and so we can trust our judgment about the magnitude of any fix we might want to put in.
  • "The end user screening room," designed to mimic a consumer environment, so we get a chance to perceive how end users might actually experience our work. (We can then run back to the "ultra-standard" room and dial in the corrections.)
  • "The mastering engineer," who is a neutral outside specialist in predicting how productions will sound for end users.

In all of these cases, all the interested parties remain pretty much involved right up to the point where the mastering engineer pronounces the work finished. Conflicts and disagreements are mostly resolved by negotiation, accommodation and consensus, coupled with (usually) a dollop of mutual professional respect.

Just so you know, there is also a fine tradition of teeth-gnashing and rending of garments by all of the above parties when contemplating the abuses subsequently encountered during radio air-play of their completed works of music. And here's where the rubber meets the road.

Our radio broadcastin' cousins clearly have their own agenda, which is to improve listener satisfaction. They also have their own ideas about how listeners are best satisfied. They have essentially no interest in what the artist/producer/engineer/masterer had in mind or desired (I know this for sure, because I've actually been there, helping radio stations tweak "their sound"—it's a fascinating thing to behold). Their only interest lies in what will get their listeners jazzed and also what will hopefully attract even more listeners desiring to be similarly jazzed. Now, does this sound at all familiar? A central tradition in TV broadcast production has been to look and listen ahead to what we think our viewer/listeners will experience. Unfortunately, we do this in anarchical fashion, in both parallel and serial streams of tweaks. Each of us in the broadcast flow seems to keep his/her hand on the spoon stirring the pot, and each of us opines that we can "make it better"—(a) in support of what we believe the producers "really wanted" and (b) what our end users really want to experience. The result is painful variability. As I've repeatedly noted, we can't even get levels close to consistent, much less loudness!

SO WHO SHOULD WE REALLY SERVE?

The rigorous way to do this, of course, would be to defer to the producer(s). We could slavishly adhere to whatever standards are inherent in their production. This means: make no changes, period. Little by little the producers would come to some sort of reasonable consistency (we can hope, anyway), driven by critical and consumer complaints as manifested in ratings, calls and e-mails.

But we don't seem to be able to bear to do this. The urge to tamper, to "make things better," seems to overwhelm us. Unfortunately, the labor costs inherent in really making it better, in real time all the time, are daunting. So, we seek to create really improbable magic black boxes that will (a) know what the level is and should be and make it so, (b) know what the loudness is and should be and make it so, and (c) know what the lip-sync time is and should be and make it so. All of this without human intervention, correcting for all the human interventions that we all made with our best intentions, if less-than-perfect production craft. In so doing, of course, we hope to please both the producers and our viewers. Not very reasonable, but there it is.

I don't think there's any easy way out of this tangle. The kind of polishing and refinement that goes on for commercial music recordings and films just isn't possible in real-time live broadcast contexts. Our producers don't have the time to reconsider their efforts, everybody in the transmission chain is just trying to make the signal conform to their particular needs and worldview, and the end users have no reasonable way to understand, much less adjust for, the range of signal variability they seem doomed to encounter.

Any fix, therefore, is going to have to be multifaceted, accounting for variability in production, variability in transmission and variability in playback. Unfortunately, we've got to please everybody.

Thanks for listening.

Dave Moulton's 401(k) is entirely too variable these days. Sound familiar? You can complain to him about anything at his Web site, www.moultonlabs.com.