One of my favorite jokes of all time is from the bone-dry delivery of comedian Steven Wright. It goes like this; “I was looking out my window the other night and I saw a Martian. So, I say “Hey Martian, why are you so small?” To which he replied, “I’m not small, I’m really far away.” 

Today’s topic: Perspective and context

When I was just starting out in pro audio many years ago, full of good intentions but no actual experiences to back them up, one of the hardest things to get my head around was context. The expectation of what a given input, or even a mix “should” sound like vs. what was possible during a tracking or mixing session in the studio. I could multiply that curiosity and search for context by an order of magnitude when I was taking on a live sound job, which as we all know encompasses both tracking and mixing skills along with a lot of other variables all rolled into one. 

So what do you do? How do you react when you hear your very first input and have that “um okay, now what do I do to it?” moment? What’s wrong with it? What’s right with it? Do I move on? Do I start over? Wait, what kind of music are we making? 

Well, I’m of the opinion that with nothing else to guide us, most of us would instinctively fall back on all of the recorded and live music that has imprinted on our conscious and unconscious minds, especially the music of our formative years. We’d begin to recall the countless plays of songs who’s tones and mixes we attempted to undress a million times over imagining how those sounds were created. Or we’d recall every concert experience we ever had before we ever touched that first fader and cautiously pushed if from infinity up to 0db.

So what am I getting at here? Well, if your life is in music production in any way shape or form, at any level of work or experience, you are likely a creature of your life’s listening experiences. You know the saying “you are what you eat” … well maybe as mixers and engineers, “we are what we listen to” – or maybe “we become what we’ve heard.” If true, those statements put a very different slant on the acronym GIGO. (G-arbage I-n G-arbage O-ut) With regard to audio, we’re essentially victims of the music, its production qualities and the listening environments in which it was received.

For example, my generation of “listeners” was raised on stereo hi-fi, vinyl and tape—regardless of musical genre. As I was growing up into my formative years, if it wasn’t your goal to acquire the best and baddest stereo system for your apartment or house along with THE most kick-ass car stereo… Well, you just weren’t all that relevant when it came to music culture. If you had a reel-to-reel machine, you were in rarified air. 

And notably, my generation listened “in space” to speakers interacting in a room—and usually LOUD. The only time we ever switched to headphones was when the command came from on high to “turn it down and go to bed”. Which of course made us get out our Koss headphones, turn off the lights and experience an entirely new depth of focus on what we were listening to. 

In retrospect my generation grew up during a golden and rich age of recording exploration. Finding THE sounds was a considerable part the task at hand and it all seemed new and uncharted. My friends and I marveled at record production. There was a sense of nobility for an artist to take an extended period of time on their recordings in search of an illusive great SOUND and the great engineers and producers of that time we’re (and still are) our hero’s.  My friends and I could talk for hours about how a band sounded in concert and if the experience was as good as the record and we simply could NOT wait until the next show or next record that would magically raise the bar of what was sonically possible. I know for certain these imprints impact how I mix, record even listen today. 

So I wonder how today’s generation of listeners are being molded? What sonic imprints and influences are being programmed into their collective psyches and what will it drive them to be, and in turn do as future engineers, mixers and producers? It seems any nobility in today’s contemporary scene is building a better workflow. i.e. who can work the fastest with the least perceived harm to creativity. 

I also wonder what the current generation of fans have developed from their listening experiences and in turn expect from a record or concert production in terms of live audio given that there are very few club scenes with live music any more? What is their audio imprint? Where do they then develop skills and expectations? What do they think is good? What are they impressed by?

I marvel at the thought that my kids may never or rarely experience music listened to in an actual space. They only know music via the ear-bud experience with audio presented “at the ear”. They don’t have stereos other than the odd blaster or computer speakers nor are they even interested in them.

Also, and maybe just as importantly, they may never experience contemporary pop and rock music with any real dynamic range. I’m fascinated by how mono-dynamic music is today and how much bigger the impact of the arrangements could be if their was more dynamic positioning within the song structure. It was such a vital part of my generation’s music productions. My kids’ generation of music offers an intro that is the same volume as a verse, and that’s at exactly the same volume as the chorus, and a chorus that is exactly the same volume as the bridge, and that bridge is the same volume as the outro.  I would be willing to wager they would be really annoyed by expanded dynamic range where quieter parts of a song were followed by louder parts of a song because they would then feel the need to constantly turn the volume up and down in order to level it all out. (Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I do now when I’m watching—and listening—to movies!) I can’t imagine how challenging it must be to arrange music where any and all emotional change gets nearly zero support from the element of dynamics within the production. I mean, people have complained about the lack of sequencing of the songs into an album. I say what is the point if every song is mastered to within 3db of 0dbfs? The emotional tug of the sequencing is marginalized at that point. Can you imagine listening to classical music mixed, mastered and sequenced in that fashion?  

I wonder how this generation of fans will ultimately reconcile this with their concert experiences? All they’ll have in terms of expectation are countless “at the ear” experiences and the odd blaster by the pool in terms of spectral experiences. No sense of dynamics or the emotional ride that can take place with a well-sequenced set of songs from a single artist. I find myself as a parent wanting to shout at them while they are in their rooms to “stay up late and turn it up”. We’re definitely on the other side of the looking glass now. 

Maybe more importantly, I wonder how the up-and-coming breed of live sound engineers will reconcile a 3db dynamic range in music with considerably less than hi-fi bandwidth in recorded music when they are in charge of their own concert sound mixing experiences on large PA systems in large venues? I fear they will undoubtedly—and likely unconsciously—gravitate toward their imprinted experiences and will try to recreate them. But maybe in the end, that’s what their audience will expect and want, yes? 

I know during my concert work over the years with Tom Petty, I kind of marvel at the dynamic range that he and The Heartbreakers can put on display within their live shows. There are times when it seems quiet as a mouse and at times it’s a raucous roar followed by an effortless slide right into mid-tempo, mid-dynamic where it effortlessly cruises along. I try very hard to honor and even accentuate those dynamics at our shows and I think his crowd has an appreciation for it. 

I wonder if a younger audience would see those dynamic shifts as an asset to the show or a liability and in turn be disappointed by them. I sure want to believe it would be the former but alas, it might be that I’m just from another generation with completely different sensibilities. But then again, maybe “I’m not small, I’m just really far away” … Ah yes … context and perspective. Nice.