Walking into a serious audio store these days is like entering a time machine. All the talk is about room-filling high-fidelity sound. The gear is new, but the conversations are much like those your father and grandfather had when they went shopping for hi-fi.
Outside the store, meanwhile, most people under 25 are getting their music from cheap ear buds, tiny laptop speakers and compact sound files that have had much of the music’s sonic juices squeezed out of them. Convenience has brought about a low-fi revolution in the way we hear music.
So what’s a record producer to do? Keep on recording music to sound great on conventional stereo systems, or tweak things to get as much as possible from a speaker as big as your fingernail?
It’s not an entirely new question. When AM radio play was essential to selling records, some musicians and producers trimmed their mixes in line with the limited capacity of pocket transistor or car radios…
… Time may be on the side of those who don’t let the little speaker change their methods too much. When the Beatles’ early recordings were remastered a few years ago, great effort went into trying to boost the tracks’ anemic AM-radio bass. What seemed a smart move in the early sixties didn’t sound so good a half-century later.
Better earbuds are coming on the market, and iPod storage capacities are much greater now than when the most reductive MP3 format was standardized 20 years ago. People may start to realize that they can get better sound with less compression and no loss of convenience. They may insist on better-quality sound files, even if those take up more room on the hard drive. That’s assuming they haven’t become so used to the “sizzle” of skimpy MP3s that they expect and want to hear it, the way some people expect all pop voices to be smoothed out with pitch-correction software.
“It’s so hard to know how listening habits will change,” says Siddall. “I’m waiting for a full hard swing of the pendulum in the other direction. I’m waiting for somebody to start a 24-bit craze” – a reference to the high-resolution audio standard used by most producers and bands while in studio. Hi-res versions of some albums are already for sale, at a premium, though if demand were to grow sharply, the price would drop. “And when that craze happens,” Siddall says, “you’re going to be really glad that your sound recording and mix were made to the best possibility.”