All about producing and mastering audio for disc, the web and beyond

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"...talent is overrated and... it’s really the hard work..."

The subject of this post kind of says it all. It's less a statement than a question. It seems like another version of the nature vs nurture argument. I have SUCH mixed feelings about it, starting with the idea that being capable of hard work IS a talent, or a predisposition. I mean if you don't want to do something, or don't NEED to do it, why would you work hard to hone your skill or realize your ambition? I believe that hard work certainly is 99% of success. I also believe that repetition and a feedback loop that includes experimentation, observation, and self assessment is really what's required to improve.

So, do I believe talent is overrated? Only in the mind of the talented artist who has no appetite for the work and only wants to be discovered. Do I believe you can succeed simply by working hard? Probably, though I do think that an open mind and sensitivity to idea and aesthetic are also required. Is it possible to succeed without one or the other?

I think not. I suppose how one defines success....

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sometimes people say the nicest things...

I think it's probably a truism that, if you do something long enough, repeatedly, over many years, you get pretty good at it and people notice. Sometimes they even say nice things about you. While it's really important to be acknowledged, and get positive reinforcement, it usually the kind of thing that most of us digest privately, quietly, in the comfort of our own studio/office/living room/whatever, unless we're in the midst of a full on PR campaign....but recently a slew of nice feedback has come our way, from all quarters of the globe.

So pardon me while I post one such notice. This one in particular because I appreciate the content, the sentiment and the metaphors. It is well crafted as a short story all its own, with some modesty, but not too much:

"The sound of my CD was greatly improved by Jonathan Wyner’s mastering
magic at M-works. Individual tracks have found their unique sonic
destinies, while sounding more related to each other as an album.
Aloof guitars achieved newfound warmth, and apprehensive drums
discovered unprecedented courage. Behind the board, Jonathan is facile
as a flying monkey—a true master of the tools of mastering technology,
and his extraordinary abilities to hear and imagine lead one to wonder
whether he is part bat."

—Jonathan Feist, Fantasy Monologue

Saturday, September 4, 2010

What is Loud? (redux)

“When I was a kid, I was filling balloons with oxy/accetaline mixtures and tying a firecracker fuse in the bottom of them and lighting them. I had one go off at point blank range as soon as I lit the fuse. That seemed pretty loud at the time. Of course, I’ve never been around anything really loud, just things that seemed loud at the time.” – anon internet

“Music is the space between the notes” – Claude Debussy

“We think the record sounds pretty good but really, we just want to be sure it’s loud.” – a renowned American String Quartet that shall remain nameless

What is Loud?

This question is at the heart of so much of our work. How to measure volume, either in an absolute sense or a relative one. How loud should you listen, how loud should the vocal be in a mix, how loud should you record a track or a mix?

The related question, What is TOO loud may in fact be more germane. If something is TOO loud than something else gets lost. In a live sound reinforcement context too loud might be described as a point when the level becomes painful….you lose your hearing.

When recording too loud is when unintended distortion takes place…you lose fidelity.

In the context of mixing, too loud might be when one sound obscures others…you lose the balance.

In mastering too loud might mean that you lose the space between the notes.

In the days of analog recording and the early days of digital there was a relationship between the nominal level of a recording (‘0 VU’ or +4dbm or –20 dbfs) and the peak level (‘+20 VU’ or +24 dbm or 0 dbfs). In fact when mixes were heavily compressed you might see that 20db dynamic range shrink to 16 or even 14 db, thought that was the extreme. So the loud part of a song would peak at a level at least 14 db hotter than the nominal level of the music. And the quiet sections of the music would reside lower than that. There were technical and aesthetic considerations that helped form this ‘equation’.

Now, with our all powerful dsp chips we can actually make recordings that have a nominal level of –8 or 9 dbfs or even LOUDER! Now, often the quiet sections of the music are living in the area that was previously reserved for the med-loud sections.
Have you ever compared two level matched version of a mix, one at a ‘mildly compressed volume and one at a highly compressed volume to see which is louder?

The reasons for this? It could be that technology has improved and we simply can make hotter records. It could be that we live in an culture riddled with attention deficit syndrome and the only way to get people’s attention is to yell all the time and hope to be heard. It could be that the typical MP3 playback system is poor and dynamics don’t translate well on the poor equipment playing over the sound of a subway train.

While it’s not likely we can change the louder world, whatever the reasons for this phenomenon, we need to understand what the implications are.

The answers to these questions emerge in the context of every project and they bear asking. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

What does it mean to music when the difference between loud and soft is disappearing?
What does it mean when the average signal level presented to a D/A converter is so hot?
What does it mean that the excursion of a peak of a drum hit is now only 3-6db hotter than the rms level?
What does it mean when clipping distortion is an acceptable practice in recording?
What does it mean when listeners are routinely subjected to high listening volumes and levels of distortion in the recording?
What does it mean when engineers, producers and fans accept a hotter level as ‘standard’?
What does it mean when the level of a recording is sustained at a high enough level that you never get to hear the low level detail/ambience/etc.

What does it mean when you never get to hear the space between the notes…………………………

Friday, September 3, 2010

Bobby McFerrin - what can you teach us?

Today I had the privilege to sit among my 'professorial' colleagues of Berklee College of Music and witness a happening (more than a performance or a lecture) conducted by Bobby McFerrin. He's an artist I have had the chance to see more than a few times, from the audience and from backstage. He's one of those artists that brings me to tears, not only due to the pathos, or artistry or technical bravado. The tears are those of recognition of a true artist.

Mr. McFerrin aspires, as much as possible to always fire on all cylinders. He never holds back. He never stops risking and he strives to bring his 'truth' to the room. This seems to be the case in conversation as much as when he's singing.

As all of us sat, astonished, mouths hanging open and with involuntary grins I slowly became aware of a rising discomfort within. It had to do with concern for my students. You see Bobby McFerrin gives us a glimpse into the whole artistic package. He is successful in the moment, he is successful commercially, artistically and he has put this work in. He's earned all the success, no doubt, but the world has room for only so many such figures. In the meantime, the rest of us toil in a much more mundane world, struggling to succeed, and in many cases success means simply surviving. I feel responsible to my students to give them a perspective on what the struggle might look like. What to do when they are not at the level of the most illustrious and successful. We don't all have the time to sit comfortably in the stream of extreme creativity and play to the extent that he does. So how then to live happily and continue to strive toward being realized as fully as Bobby McFerrin, even if we don't get to that 'level'?

Well the things is....If we didn't have Mr. McFerrin we would never even be asking the question/ We wouldn't know it's possible to do what he does. We wouldn't understand 'superlative' in the same way. He is a force of nature and we can learn by knowing he is in our world, and be seeing what IS possible. Who knows where that example might lead. Who knows how each person will interpret that lesson....but thank goodness for him, and for all our heroes and all the self-realized artists who are truly themselves. It is a gift to us that they are in our world, and I am grateful. Thank you Mr. McFerrin, and to all artists who strive to find their own voices....