I remember my first CD purchase; it was 1984. The album was 'Alf' by Alison Moyet, which I played to death... albeit an impossible feat according to the manufacturers of compact disc.
Very soon the death of vinyl was predicted and tape cassette too. The show Tomorrow's World featured CD in 1981 and declared it to be the answer to all our audio dreams. CD had great sound, was more compact than vinyl and virtually unbreakable; the third of which proved untrue if you had young children or pets.
Audiophiles were in their element as they purchased CD players and a host of other HiFi equipment to put in their listening rooms... even stands with spikes on. Some purists thought the CD format was nasty and said it would die as quickly as it has arrived. It was 18 years before the decline of CD started and not until 2014 that sales via digital platforms began to signal the demise of CD.
The arguments over which is better CD or vinyl will continue to rage, but this is not the purpose of this article.
Up until the introduction of CD, music playback quality for the masses was on an upward trajectory as we saw improvements in frequency response and signal to noise ratio. For mastering, it removed some of the restrictions that vinyl imposed. So impressed was the recording industry that the CD format won a technical Grammy in 1998, presented to both Philips and Sony.
Super Audio CD or DVD audio made a brief but small appearance, however, neither format has had widespread take up on a mass-market scale.
At the same time, domestic playback devices were improving with better home hi-fi systems, speakers and portable playback devices such as the Sony Walkman, Discman et al.
My elder sister was given a stereo for Christmas when we were teenagers in the 80s. It was the size of a fridge and behind a glass door were a record deck, tuner, amp, double cassette deck and graphic equaliser. The speakers were so big they had their own postcode, but these systems were not uncommon in homes around the world.
There's still a niche of HiFi enthusiasts who spend serious coin on gear, who are perhaps the last bastion of quality, but for the masses, that ship has sailed.
There has been a resurgence of vinyl recently with physical media seeing a boost in recent years. Some reports show physical media sales outselling downloads, but that's not because people are returning to them wholesale. It is more likely because while consumers love streaming, they couldn't give a rat's ass about downloading, hence Apple ditching the option. Fewer streaming services are offering the opportunity to download, and most consumers don't even realise this, even fewer care.
There is now mass adoption of Smart Speakers from the likes of SONOS, Apple, Google and Amazon. The recent collaboration of SONOS and IKEA has a simple number behind it - IKEA has over 1 billion customers. All of these speakers work in mono, and even though many of the systems allow pairing for stereo and also surround, most are used in mono on a room-by-room basis. We review the IKEA SYMFONISK Wireless Speaker and give our verdict.
We haven't even touched on TV in the home, but many technological advances such as multi-speaker set-ups, 3D TV etc. have not lasted. Some may argue that 4K and 8K TVs are selling in their droves and that's right, but the majority of owners are using them to watch highly compressed content from cable and satellite services. In other words, they are wasting their money.
One factor links all modern formats and playback devices, and it's not price, it is convenience. When the mass market is given a choice between quality and convenience, they usually choose the easy option, the line of least resistance. The average consumer would much rather have unlimited subscriptions and watch low-resolution pixelated movies than experience a limited number in Blu-ray with Atmos sound. CONVENIENCE IS KING.
Many consumers spend even more on their technology than they used to, but it's not quality that counts but features, ease of use and convenience that wins for the masses.
To think that a majority of consumers will never experience our music, movies or TV in the way we intended can seem depressing. But there's nothing new about this, over decades some of the best music was listened to by most on AM radio, vinyl, or compact cassette. Or we watched in black and white, 4:3 or standard definition on TV and not on a giant movie screen in surround.
Where does this leave those us making the content, knowing our carefully crafted album will be listened to in mono or MP3 on shitty earbuds, or through overpriced fashion headphones? Film and TV have the same challenges with many watching hits like 'Game of Thrones' or 'Dunkirk' on their smartphone with the subtitles turned on.
In my opinion, this all leaves us with two considerations. First, when crafting anything, working to the lowest common denominator is pointless. Since the invention of recorded music, film and TV, there's always been a group of consumers who don't care about quality. Thankfully there are still some who do.
Furthermore, when I create anything quality matters to me, the artist and the client. That's my priority, so why would I compromise my craft because not everybody cares? If we try to second guess our audience, then we are doomed to the average and the substandard. Plenty of people skim read books, magazines and newspapers, does that mean authors and journalists should write to account for that? Certainly not. This week I came across an App for my iPhone that takes any book and condenses it into a 15-minute read or audio playback. I'm busy, and it sounded like a good idea, so I tried it. It's awful, even down to the text-to-speech playback. It might work for some, I thought it might work for me, but I realised I still care enough about the written word to want all of the book, not just the headlines or an abridged version.
However, there is the second consideration, which may seem to contradict my first. While we may not want to compromise our craft to account for the masses, it would be foolish to ignore how our work will be consumed. Some think the whole debate around TV sound and intelligibility is partly due to a mismatch between the mixing and playback environment. Many post audio engineers are wise enough to check their mixes to account for this and not just rely on the huge monitor in the dubbing suite; some are not.
For years, mix engineers have used 'grot boxes' in the control room, or a single Auratone (called by some Horrortones) in mono to account for AM radio mixes, many run out to the car to do their final checks.
Studio quality has improved for on a mass market scale, now anyone can make a great track on their laptop, but at the same time, consumer playback quality has declined. Given this mismatch, any wise person would consider this and ensure that our music will translate to the masses - another reason for using a mastering engineer. A mastering engineer has always had the limitation of format to consider, be that vinyl or MP3, in my opinion, there's never been a greater need for this skill.
So in summary, playback quality seems to have hit a high and is now more about convenience than quality, and we should be aware of this. Many pro recording studios and post houses have always been aware of this and account for it when checking mixes. Some simple things we can do to emulate their workflow are;
Check mono compatibility - it’s always been important, even more so now.
Buy a smart speaker to check mixes on for both sound and mono compatibility.
Use a tool to check what your mixes will sound like on formats like MP3, Sonnox make a good tool, here is a video of it in action. Alternatively Nugen Audio make a similar tool. here is a tutorial showing how MasterCheck works.
Some post house have a TV in the control room to check their mixes on; you may want to do this. You can get a cheap TV for less than £100.
Consider using a mastering engineer who is experienced in ensuring mixes translate.
Keep doing your best, but also consider many will never hear your best, that’s a sad fact and to ignore it is unwise.