Allow me to speak some truth about the recording arts — the overall quality of music production has been going down since before I started. I’ve done nothing to reverse the trend ;-).
This is due to multiple factors not least of which is the march of technology and the reduction of overall recording budgets bootlegging has brought us.
How much would you spend on producing an album that most of your actual fans won’t even purchase?
There is also the tools of the producer to consider. Modern tech has enabled massive amounts of parallel processing during production, giving producers literally thousands of instances of thousands of effects, including multi-band limiting.
They also have limitless powers of automation, down to the millisecond granularity, and virtual routing that no analog studio could come close to without violating the laws of electronics.
Another ingredient that has changed dramatically is the editing abilities – immediate speed, replication, compilation, layering, beat-to-grid, auto time, auto tune, and auto key change are all at the fingertips of every producer now.
The end result is often times a sound so removed from natural acoustics that there is very little mic/room/air left in the mix. This is not done on accident, because of course there’s enough real rooms and virtual reverbs to compensate – but the MP3 loss process attacks that very air, or transient sound, to accomplish it’s lossiness.
Knowing it will be removed makes you spend less time putting it in. Then you can focus on other sonic tricks.
These sonic tricks include computer-generated automation channels on every parameter on nearly every virtual device, giving the sound all types and sorts of unnatural movements throughout the sound stage.
Sometimes micro-movement is used to blur the signal while fast math-based sweeps and curves allow the sound to pop and shift around the soundstage in a very aggressive way. The speakers respond, your modern ears respond, and you forget you are hearing much less signal since it’s moving around so aggressively.
So how to decode this as a listener? There are a few rules of thumb based on when the recording was created:
- Before 1960 you were hearing a finely crafted microphone or 2 put into a lightly treated room with good musicians standing around it. Not much to mess up there.
- The 1960-1967 years are hit or miss for recording quality because the music industry was growing quickly. Early gear had concrete limitations. Basic multi-tracking was being done, and stereo was right around the corner, but gear was still being developed that would realize more advanced concepts.
- Professional recordings from roughly 1968 – 1994 will almost always sound good. The equipment used sounded great, there wasn’t much of it, engineers were disciplined, reverbs were real, and artists were supported financially allowing them to develop amazing works, capture them professionally, and market them correctly.
- 1982-1992 brought in digital keyboards, early digital drums, sampling, and heavy gated reverbs with many overdubs, but the overall quality was still there because they were still tracking to huge tape machines through real reverbs.
- 1992-2002 was a transition period, with Pro Tools and other DAW’s showing up for editing first, then tracking, and now everything. Quality varies based on the studio’s converters, mics, preamps, and how many bad plugins were avoided. During these years sound quality really depends on genre, producer, and artist.
- 2003-2013 was when we entered into the anything goes phase. Laptops and home PC’s could produce music, and many did. Cheap production gear flooded the market. Large studios and large reverb tanks went out of business worldwide. The consumer format became MP3 played on portable devices so barely anyone bothered with improving recording quality. Many production people worked at 16/44 due to the inevitable degradation to MP3 and the expense of hard drive space. It’s rumored that some pop and hip-hop producers actually mixed in lossy!
- 2014-2015 was when products like PonoPlayer, Fiio X5, Tidal streaming, and the various Sony and Harmon products finally started to inform the public about higher quality digital audio. Artists are noticing and starting to release their music in “master quality” 24bit files.
- Perhaps we have hit the bottom and will turn this around?
Of course there are exceptions to every rule above. This is art not science. There’s stuff from the golden era recorded/mixed/mastered poorly, and I can point to some modern albums that avoid most of the modern pitfalls and sound comparable to classic albums.