News From The Woods.29


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published April 1, 1999

""A Question of Quality and Ethics""

(First, a brief history lesson……….)
Years ago when music recording technology was in its infancy, a recording session was conducted by arranging the principal players around one or two well-placed microphones. A recording technician sat behind a big glass window operating a console with knobs on it while a tape recording device would record the sum of what was being performed in the other room. If one instrument or vocal needed to be louder than another at a given moment, then that musician would step closer into the sound field of the nearest microphone during the performance. If any one person missed a cue, made a mistake, or failed to hit the vocal line, then everyone would have to perform the song again until every person associated with the recording (including the technicians and tape operators) did their job right. The result was the final master, which would then be duplicated and distributed if demand for the song was forthcoming. This method usually succeeded in capturing the very best performance during a given time window. It also placed an immediate demand for record producers to find the very best talent, the very best song, and the very best recording environment possible to produce a performance so unique that it would find it's place in the annuls of popular recorded music. In other words, as a player or singer, you had better be GOOD!

Then along came Les Paul who was instrumental (literally) in developing a system by which one person could play along with themselves, which later became universally known as multitracking. Suddenly, and almost overnight, it was possible to not only separate instruments, but add other accompanying tracks at a later date (and even in a different location). In this brave new world, songs were now mixed after the initial session and after the players went home. Effects could be added after the performance instead of during. Stereo recordings opened up new vistas of the audio spectrum. The role of audio engineer came into it's own and more tools for engineers began to materialize. Reverbs, equalization, compression and limiting enhanced the original performances. Individual microphone placement became a critical factor and mixing consoles grew accordingly to accommodate more and more microphones. Hit records were being produced for the first time by manipulating the signal after the session. Engineers and producers eventually became as well known as the artists themselves.

Today, recording equipment manufacturers are producing bank after bank and row after row of "black boxes" for studio use. Digital workstations, Distressors, Noise gates, Harmonizers, Enhancers, Expanders, MultiBand Compressors, Pitch Correction, and other specialized audio tools are at engineer's fingertips. In this new digital age of recording, 16-bit, 32-bit, 64-bit and 96KZ are the industry buzzwords. Trade publications present article after article on the "how tos" of getting the best possible recording quality. Exotic microphones, "Monster" cable, and time-aligned reference speakers insure the "best" sound. Automated consoles costing a quarter of a million dollars and more grace the covers of these magazines and have the same effect on sound engineers as a "Playboy" centerfold effects a college freshman. Thanks to the lower cost of production, cheaper component prices, and the development of a recording studio "middle class", the ticket price of everything has plummeted so now even the most modest investment can get any young engineer-at-heart started in his (or her) own project studio. I would go so far as to say the sound quality of recording in a modern project studio with a digital 16-track system totaling in the $15,000 range would rival a professional recording studio of the 1950's with a million dollar investment. Of course, ALL the investment is relatively worthless without a great engineer or a great song.

However, in recent years, I have noticed a subtle change in recording methodology. This, I believe, is due to several factors. First, technology has now reached into the hands of the masses as opposed to just the favor of the "elite". Most of these users have no "proper" training and tend to just "plug in a play". This has become not only acceptable by the industry, but in some cases becomes en vogue and enhances the artists' musical identity. And second, sampling technology has introduced the use of sampled sound bytes, such as is popular in rap music. Furthermore, the use of these loops in entirely new musical creations not only raises legal questions of ownership and royalties, but "re-sampling" technology (where sound clips are degraded and under-sampled to help make it sound more "cheesy") actually encourages the audio corruption of the quality if the sound. Imagine, if you will for a moment, the thoughts running through the engineer's head who worked for years and years to perfect the cleanest possible connection between a guitar and an amplifier, only to see and hear for the first time, a "FuzzTone" pedal placed in the guitar signal.

(I KNEW there was a point here………)
We now cut to the Internet, with its limited bandwidth and promises of wealth and fame to all starving musicians and artists. We are FREE, friends, from the bonds and shackles of the major label moguls and cigar-smoking fat cat producers. We can make our music available to THE ENTIRE WORLD, armed with only a website, a sympathetic server, and a little HTML knowledge. We just haven't quite figured out how to do that though. The net is becoming so crowded that an individual site can get easily lost in the maze, so getting "hits" takes on a new meaning in the modern "Search For Stardom" saga. Many enterprising Internet marketing schemes have already been developed to "guarantee" enhanced Internet visibility for the musician/artist or hopeful new band. Plus, the Internet is changing so rapidly that its pace is measured in terms of months instead of years, and no one really knows where it will all lead.

What most people have been doing is either joining some internet clearinghouse of new talent, like IUMA or any of a dozen similar artist showcase/database sites, or placing their own website on a server and offering audio "samples" of their material. But one of the problems of any method is the confusion surrounding all the various audio delivery formats. CODECS (compression/decompression schemes) with names like ShockWave, RealAudio, and LiquidAudio do battle for superiority on the Internet. The real trick in audio delivery is how to lower the numbers of bytes used in a file with the least loss in sound quality. These CODECS use what is termed as "lossy compression". In layman's terms that means "as much info as we can dump and still sound decent". No, they actually refer to THAT as "near-CD quality". "Lossy compression" is an oxymoron in the first place, like "military intelligence" or "rap music". And "near-CD quality" sounds to my ears like "as good as a Wal-Mart cassette".

The most recent development is with the controversial MP3 format. Don't ask me to give you the background on MP3, but suffice to say it is CD quality and it's compressed but still in a manageably sized file. It's still much larger than any of the other CODECS, but the apparent sound quality is "acceptable" by its users. MP3 has really caught on with the average Internet music junkie. Artists, performers, bands, and songwriters are picking up on this and many Internet cottage industries have popped up. Small, palm-sized Discman MiniCD-recorders have been introduced to take advantage of the ability to download CD-quality song files from the internet into this hand-held device, and also allows you to create your own compilation CD's for "personal" use. Make your own TOC (table of contents), too!

And here lies the underlying problem. As I see it, terms like "near-CD quality", and "lossy compression" are becoming known as acceptable practices in the music industry. Doesn't this sound like a counterproductive activity to you? I mean, we have spent years and millions of research dollars doing everything we can as professionals to ensure the absolute BEST in sound recording and reproduction techniques, only to have the end result "squashed" down the internet using one form of compression or another. Until the industry can widen the bandwidth barriers or initiate new technologies this disturbing trend will only continue to grow. In the meantime, and on another front, MP3 sites are popping up all over the Internet, encouraging consumers to download sound files for free without regard for the owners of the songs or how/if they might be paid their royalties. In my opinion, this is just another "clean" form of piracy. Who knows how much royalty money will be lost over the Internet as this piracy continues?

As the owner of an independent record company and music publisher, I have taken steps to keep these recent events to a minimum impact level on behalf of my artists and CD releases. First, I only include edited clips of songs on our website. These clips are in the RealAudio format, which downloads very fast and still has acceptable sound quality……. Good enough to give an idea of the song. If a potential customer plays several of these clips and decides they would like the album, then they send the purchase price to the listed mailing address on the site and we will send the product direct to them. No online credit card forms means no fear of Internet transactions or credit card abuse to the customer. It is a simple, one-to-one business transaction. I suppose the only drawback to the consumer is that they must wait for the product to arrive. Aside from that inconvenience, it is as safe and secure as using the US Mail and the artist is guaranteed that they will receive their fare share of the sale of their product and full royalty payments as per their respective contracts.

This is currently the only way I know of to do my part in curbing the encouragement of piracy while still ensuring that the artists' project can be sampled and assessed by consumers. This "try before you buy" concept is more than fair to the consumer, who can let their own ears and music taste decide whether they want to make the purchase or not. Since internet statistics show that our website is getting over 200 visitors per day, this is surely better than any other form of marketing without "selling the farm" or giving up a large percentage of the profit margin to a major distributor or record company in the hopes that they will (eventually) get behind the product, based on sales. Also, having their own web site dedicated to the artist is not only a good Public Relations tool, but it serves as the information center for the band's career strategy. Tour dates, products, and other pertinent information can be accessed by their fans, and the artist themselves can post feedback and messages to their fan base. We even print the band's website URL address on the CD's jewel case label so people can access the site and read all about the recording of the album, post lyric content, and pictures of the group.

Indeed, the Internet is the future….. But let's give the creative control back to the artist and keep song piracy to a minimum. POWER TO THE PEOPLE!

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