How to make music quality matter to people in a digital age (Wired UK)


“We talk about celebrity, about charts, about digital
distribution — what we do not talk about enough is sound,” said
Luke Wood, president of Beats Electronics speaking on a panel of
prolific music producers and artists. Getting consumers to not only
care about access to music, but the quality of music has been the
challenge facing headphone manufacturers since the advent of
digital music.

As Wood — himself a former industry executive and
professional musician — sees it, the desire for top audio
quality has not followed the same trajectory as video, which we now
have an “obsessive fetish” with, but he is also of the belief that
this should and could change.

The panel at the symposium, which also included Zane Lowe, Ed
Sheeran, Eminem’s manager Paul Rosenberg and veteran music producer
Spike Stent, all seemed to have differing opinions about what the
biggest change technology had brought about in the music industry
so far.

“The phone for me has been a huge change in the way people
consume music,” says Lowe. You’re moving constantly, streaming
constantly… you’ve got infinite choice.”

For Sheeran, the answer lies in the Ableton software that allows
him as an artist to have direct control over how his music sounds
on stage. Both Stent and Rosenberg on the producing side noted the
significance of Pro Tools, which allowed them to stop recording on
tape and splicing reels together as part of the production process.
“From analogue to digital is obviously the biggest change, but I
think the most specific for us was Pro Tools and change the
recording completely,” says Rosenberg. “You could do as many takes
as you wanted and then just manipulate it on the computer and
before it had to be physically done on this magnetic tape.”

“The amount of times I clipped someone’s vocals and they were
gone for good,” says Stent wistfully. Rosenberg estimates that he
stopped using tape completely around 2000 and Stent 2004.

Of course digital recording didn’t only change things for
professional musicians and producers — it also made it easier for
those who hadn’t already made it in the industry to make music.
“The important thing is that any artist can have a home studio and
produce on a very small budget and they can be kids,”

“The ability to home record broke down barriers for entry,” adds
Rosenberg. “Prior to that there wasn’t home recording equipment so
you had to go into a studio.”

If anyone can vouch for this, Sheeran can. “If digital in
general did not exist, I wouldn’t be here. That’s not to say I
wouldn’t be able to play music, but from the perspective of me
becoming successful, no-one takes notice until you do it


It’s a gateway, he acknowledges, as it was getting his song
played on Radio 1 that propelled him to stardom, but at the same
time it was the fans that he had gained online that turned up in
their hundreds at a gig he played in Camden. Lowe’s producer came
to the gig and later played it to the DJ. “I had a relatively
alright fanbase, but as soon as I started getting played on Radio 1
it went nuts. Radio is still an important format — you can do it
yourself to a point.”

Wood believes though that it is the internet that has brought
about the biggest change of all, as the thing that has enabled
artists like Sheeran to break out and be discovered — by labels,
but also by fans. “I remember that to find music was a chore,” he
says. “It was like mining for something you didn’t know existed.”
Sheeran believes that at the same time, the internet has made music
more “disposable” — you access more music and therefore move on
from it quicker than you would have done.

“There’s more onus on the artist to make it special for the
audience and for your fans — just because you are able to put it
all up there and get it all there, you’ve got to make it special,”
says Lowe. “They used say you are what we make you, now you are
what you make you.”


So where in this world of disposable music, artists connecting
directly with fans and consumers caring more about accessing the
music than the quality of the production does this leave
professional producers?

“Producing is being a tastemaker,” says Lowe, whereas Stent
talks about approaching a new song and finding for it the “right
sonic palette the moves people and touches their emotions”. “What
I’m mixing, it’s got to touch you,” he says. “I mix records so they
can be played anywhere, so it’s just about getting the emotion

This point about the context the music is listened to in is key.
Rosenberg recounts a story about how Eminem had the car he always
listened to music in driven from Detroit to Malibu as he wanted to
make sure the records he recorded sounded good in that particular
car. “It sounds ridiculous, but that was his reference,” he says.
“You need a reference point. When I want to listen to a mix, I have
to listen to it in my office through these particular speakers
because that’s how I know how something should sound.”

The more sophisticated the technology becomes, the bigger part
production plays across all genres of music. It’s also still
entirely possible, despite the technology, to spend ages on
something and then realise it’s not right, though. “I’ve spent two
days on the mix, I’ve poured over it and finally I think I get
there and it’s like two in the morning and I sit back to listen to
it and relax and I go ‘shit!’ — it’s one of the most demoralising
things,” says Stent.

But artists and producers are working hard to make the music
sound good no matter how it is listened to, it has been hard to
convince consumers that they should take audio quality as

“There was a time when, I’m not saying we didn’t pay as much
attention, but you’d just shrug your shoulders and say fuck it –
they’re just listening to it through those white earphones through
the stereo speakers on their computers anyway, what difference does
it make?” says Rosenberg. “That was sort of a shitty time because
you felt like people weren’t experiencing what you were creating
and how hard you working on it.”

“You move now into a world now where headphones are important
and they can hear that stuff and people aren’t necessarily satisfy
the headphones come with your iPhone and they want something
different so maybe thats going to change,” he says pointedly in
Wood’s direction. Apple obviously bought Beats not long ago,
presumably with the aim of improving the rather naff experience of
listening to music through Apple earbuds for every single person
who uses an Apple product. “One of the things thats good about what
Beats it doing and the return to quality sound in headphones,” he

Lowe agrees that change is very much afoot. “What you see with
Beats now is all different ages wearing headphones and listening to
music in a really enhanced way,” he says. “Getting headphones on
people, that’s the investment in the music for the listener.” agrees that Beats headphones are certainly better
than the standard issue white ones, but true audiophiles should probably look elsewhere.

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