The first time you hear one of your songs that you slaved over for hours played over a store PA system or in a lift should be one of pride, and yet for many of us, it's a moment that makes our hearts sink.
You hear a version (after all that's all it is) of your track - you can't hear the backing vocals, the guitars sound like shit and the drum parts that took days to get right wouldn't sound out of place used as effects on an original Gameboy game. There's nothing like some of these sound systems that pump out music all day to make a million dollars appear more like ten.
The same goes for those working in post-production, foley or sound FX on movies as their months of hard work are played back through the speakers on a tablet or phone.
It's a moment like this you are tempted to stop and think to yourself "well that was a waste of time".
NO! It isn't a waste of time.
When They Go Low
I see too many threads on forums with people saying things like "it doesn't matter as they are only going to listen to this as an MP3 on earbuds". Perhaps they are, but there isn't a single invention, work of art, artisan craft or creative process on this planet that doesn't suffer the same fate. We are not exempt as musicians and sound professionals from the reduction of our work, often to the lowest common denominator.
There is someone right now quaffing down a stunning glass of Cheval Blanc 1947 without it touching the sides. And someone else who has just taken a beautiful cut of Wagyu beef and microwaved it. The same applies to clothes, shoes, beers, spirits, ad infinitum that were lovingly imagined and then made, only to be consumed in ways that make their creators want to weep.
Does that mean we all give up and go home, or just head to the bottom of the pond?
Quite the opposite, in a world which wants to reduce everything to a commodity, we should rise as the guardians of quality. As craftsmen and women fighting the industrialisation of the creative, we should stand like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings and say "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!"
But to the title of this piece, with more and more people consuming content on phones, consumer headphones and systems like Sonos, I want to suggest that high-quality studio monitoring is more important than ever before.
Nothing New Under The Sun
Let me be clear I'm not a member of the flat earth society, in our house, there are several tablets and phones, headphones of varying quality and a Sonos system, which means we can move the music around the rooms of our house. I'm also not suggesting that any of the devices we use is rubbish, but they do deliver the audio in less than studio quality or the case of the Sonos systems et al, in mono.
What I am suggesting is, as music is consumed in so many different ways, many inferior, that it is vital that what leaves our studios is the highest possible quality.
Our music, not being heard as we hear it in the studio and mastering suite, is not a new thing. We've had the record deck, transistor radio, ghetto blaster, car stereo, tape cassette... in fact every generation has listened to music on the latest playback technology - many of them created to make listening to the music as easy as possible. One of the challenges that mastering engineers have had over the decades is finding ways to make your studio sound translate to these formats, and some of you thought that mastering engineers just made tracks louder! It takes an exceptional talent to cut vinyl, especially when they are handed a mix that pushes the format to its limits.
Guardians Of The Galaxy
I was with Barry Grint at Alchemy Masters recently, sitting in his vinyl cutting room. I asked Barry about cutting to vinyl, and he came to life as he showed me how the lathe cut, he also shared some of the cool things he had managed to do with it. He could have been a shoemaker, or a baker, or a painter - what I experienced in that short time was an artisan who cared. I also think of my friend Dave Lynch who runs Echo Zoo Studios in Eastbourne and his passionate desire to create a studio built around classic recording gear. Dave is determined to make the process of recording something to be savoured; he appreciates the method is as important as the end product. Dave wants to hold the master and smile with pride knowing what it took to produce the music, I have to say it's inspiring and contagious.
I've recently taken delivery of a pair of Kii THREE studio monitors, which with the monitor controller come in at around £10,000. Yes, you read that right ten thousand pounds. For the sake of transparency, the reason is that I work with the team at Kii on artist relations, so I'm declaring an interest in said brand. That said, it didn't take me long to realise that what these and other high-end speakers do is show you things in the sound you had missed before. For example, within an hour of installing them, I heard some clipping (the bad kind) on a track I'd been listening to for years, a Grammy winning album at that. So convinced was I that it was the speakers and not the track I went back into the house and put the track on with some headphones, and lo and behold there was the clipping I had never heard in hundreds of listens. I also heard an acoustic guitar on the chorus of Video Killed the Radio Star by the Buggles, since discovering this I've played it to lots of people, many of whom also did not know of its existence until I pointed it out. I've also heard clipping on two new song releases in the weeks since owning them.
This article is not about what speakers you should buy; it's about making sure you invest in decent monitoring, room treatment, possibly software correction and while I'm on a roll some decent microphones to make sure you capture the stuff right too.
Bottom line - you can't mix what you can't hear. To that point, you can't track what you can't hear either. I'd go as far to suggest that the two most important parts of your recording and mixing process are the transducers.
It's wise to check mixes for mono compatibility and check it on several playback devices to see how it translates, but let's not buy into the idea that our mixes shouldn't sound great because they are going to end up being consumed by some people who don't care about quality. Some modern playback technologies offer us the chance to give even more people the opportunity to hear our music as intended; it is both sad and ironic that those who distribute music do the opposite opting to reduce quality rather than maintain it.
For An Audience Of One
But this article is about more than the gear we use; it's about the attitude we have to the things we create. Just imagine if those who created some of the most seminal albums in music history had adopted the same stance and thought 'what the hell the reproduction is going to be bad so why bother?'
Thankfully they didn't, they invested in the best mics, amps, mixers and speakers so that they could squeeze every ounce of goodness into recording and make something they could be proud of.
You see, real artists don't consider the millions who may never care about the quality of their work, but the one person who does. Because real artists know that person will experience the same joy in listening that they had in creating the work, and for that one person it's worth it!