We live in strange times. Thirty years ago, we could put a man on the moon or fly from London to New York on a commercial flight in a couple of hours. We no longer have the capacity to do either.
30 years ago, record production was at its pinnacle and audiophiles would spend thousands on amps, turntables and speakers to reproduce their record collection with the best possible quality.
These days we listen to mp3s, often encoded at low bitrates, and which sound absolutely horrible. Our device of choice is a smartphone which delivers the audio to the headphone socket via a cheap and nasty audio circuit. The headphones themselves can usually only reproduce bass tones down to about 100Hz and treble tones up to 8 or 10 KHz – a subset of the human hearing capabilities. Furthermore, headphones deliver the signal directly to our left and right ears giving the audio an unnatural stereo field.
Moving on to how we listen to music, most of us are playlist addicts, with the more lazy and/or adventurous opting for random shuffle. Who listens to whole albums anymore? It may be true to say that most albums consist of 3-4 singles surrounded by 5-8 filler tracks, but what of the classics? There are people growing up today who will only ever experience Tubular Bells as a series of discrete tracks distributed randomly through a playlist. This makes me sad.
Another huge problem is the so-called loudness wars.
Over the course of the 90s, mastering engineers engaged in a never ending battle to make their album sound louder than the other guys, using multi-band compressors and brick-wall limiters to sculpt tracks which had maximum loudness from the opening bar to the final note. These loud tracks initially seem to have more impact than a more naturally mastered track, but in reality they are harsh and fatiguing to the ears.
Another big issue is the complete lack of barriers to entry in the music business these days. When The Beatles were starting out, gear was expensive and venues were fussy – if the band wasn’t tight and musically proficient, they would be booed off stage. Today, anyone with a computer and the right software can record a complete album. They can automatically generate a complete, natural sounding drum track, enter the bass track note by note on a sequencer and record one verse of guitar and copy-paste it several times to make up the required number of verses. They can correct out-of-tune and mistimed vocals, and even automatically create a three part harmony from the original vocal track. It’s ridiculously easy, which unfortunately means that we have battalions of musically illiterate bedroom divas subjecting us to their mournful caterwauling.
Advances in technology now mean that we have access to wider range of music than ever before in history, but this overwhelming choice means that we no longer treat music with the same reverence. Who remembers coming back from the record shop with a new puchase, placing the vinyl on the turntable, and taking the entire duration of the first side to pore over the liner notes and cover art? Good times.