Music Production and Sound Quality: Does it Really Matter?

This is the first of several installments exploring sound and production quality.  Upcoming posts will address specific aspects of the production process, and provide suggestions on ways to get the best results.  In this post though, we will briefly discuss the question of if production quality really matters, and if so – why?

One might argue that it doesn’t matter:

There are a number of strong indicators that the sound quality and production quality of a project are fairly insignificant.  The early sound of MP3 was frankly pretty terrible, but the convenience factor was a worthwhile trade off,  and the format was widely and quickly accepted and allowed to revolutionize the industry.   In the early days of the internet a number of bands found success and exposure online through posting mediocre and even low quality tracks.    Bootleg” recordings of live shows continue to remain very popular, in spite of the poor quality of most of the recordings.   The hum, hiss, buzz, crackle, and pop of vinyl records do not deter large numbers of the population from continuing to not only seek out old recordings, but to also still release new material on vinyl.

Teenagers are used to listening to music on their phones, laptops, and through earbuds – generally with compromised sound quality and weak bass.  These same teens then listen to music in their cars and on their home stereo where the bass is so overwhelming that the music is muddy, and the high end so cranked that it can become shrill and fatiguing.  Get those same teens in the car listening to a “hot” song and it probably doesn’t even matter if the radio signal is breaking up and going in and out of mono.  YouTube has given us an endless supply of often low quality audio and video material, yet from that mess of mediocrity, “viral” hits grab our attention and get thousands, even millions of views.

Much of the popular music in recent years is unnaturally compressed, and distortion and clipping of vocals, drums, and other elements of the music is actually considered cool as opposed to being a bad thing.    Last but not least, isn’t it the content and performance of the song that matters most?

Yes, I think it is safe to say that there is a strong argument that sound quality and overall production quality simply aren’t as important as they once were.

One the other hand, maybe it DOES matter:

Over the course of modern music production, there has been a never-ending pursuit of “better” quality.  Vinyl gave way to tape, and analog gave way to digital.  Mono gave way to stereo, and  surround sound has taken music to levels of realism never before imagined.  FM surpassed AM in the radio music markets and we now have options for HD and Satellite radio.   While the early MP3 quality was not that great, the technology has moved at a frantic pace to keep up with the ever increasing demand and expectations for compact and convenient quality.   We have a lust for technology, and an insatiable desire for realistic and hyper-realistic media.   More and more, audio is being bundled with embedded video and graphics –always pushing the limits of production quality.

Much more than in times past, songs are listened to in “shuffle” mode more than as part of a complete album.  When songs are listened to in shuffle mode, the local band that you listen to at the club on Friday nights is suddenly sandwiched in between artists who are working with the most gifted producers and engineers on the planet.   The volume-balancing offered on many MP3 players can’t begin to level the playing field.

Yes, the content and performance of a song are critical, but it takes a very special song or performance to stand proudly in spite of poor quality sound and production.

A purpose for both:

Both high and low quality productions have a place and fill a need.  I contend that good sound quality and high quality productions will help get you noticed by fans, record labels, booking agents , and promoters.  This is especially true when trying to elevate your act beyond the typical “local” music scene.   Many record labels will tell you point blank that your “demo” must be able to hold its own against commercial, major label tracks, or they won’t even listen past the first few seconds.   A good production can also attract new fans.  Numerous successful bands have seen their fan base explode when they stepped up their production quality.   Fans enjoy being rewarded with a great sounding album.

With all of the good that comes from taking the time to invest in getting a great sound, and a great overall production, there is also a great risk – that of overproducing.   If you are a gigging artist, remember that you need to be able to pull off a credible live rendition of your studio masterpiece.  While your studio album might sound amazing, your fans may be grossly disappointed when they hear you live.   When fans are disappointed, word gets around.   You need to find the right balance.  That may mean not getting carried away in the studio, or it may mean adding to your band or live production.   Keep in mind the genre also – the production for a punk band should be much different than that of a pop artist.  The punk band should sound a little more raw and in your face, and should come off easily in a live show. The pop artist should sound more polished and produced, and that may mean it’s appropriate for sequenced tracks and effects to be incorporated into the live show.

Lower quality productions are very useful in different ways.  Keeping your hungry fans “feed” between albums and tours is important.  Giving your fans access to recordings of band rehearsals and live shows is a great way to include the fans in the life of the band.  Acoustic versions of songs are widely liked, and are a great way to sell the same song twice, or simply reward loyal fans.  Try releasing copies of tracks that didn’t make the final cut for the album.  Give your fans a close –up view of the production of one song on your album by sharing the song at various stages of production.  For example – the original draft of the song idea, early rehearsals with the band, initial recordings in the studio, and alternate mixes.  All of this leading up to a final, high quality release.   Using sites like YouTube makes it easy to reward your existing fans and attract new ones.   With minimal effort and expense, you can be releasing a steady stream of content to keep your fans engaged and immersed.

In closing, just a reminder to know who your listeners are and what they want.  You don’t need a high definition surround sound mix to get booked at a small local dive.  You don’t want to blow your best shot at a significant recording or distribution deal by going in with a poor quality production.  Know your listener, and give them what they want!

I’ll be releasing several more articles on sound production, with tips on how to get the best production possible.  Watch for my next installment that will show you that to get the best end results you have to start at the source.

Matt Mylroie enjoys writing, producing, recording, and performing. You can find him online at http://recordingpro.blogspot.com or http://facebook.com/1recordingpro

Music Production and Sound Quality: Does it Really Matter?

7 thoughts on “Music Production and Sound Quality: Does it Really Matter?

  1. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts on this. Reading this got me thinking about the “lo-fi” aesthetic that has now claimed its own genre, as well as the stories about John Bonham’s recording practices. “Know your listener” sounds like the most important principle here.

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  2. matt says:

    thanks. i hope this is taken in the spirit it is intended. The last thing I hope to spark is the thought that everything needs to be layered and drenched in effects! Knowing your target audience and having great songs is the most important. There are genres where low fi is appreciated, and a “lower quality” production may be completely appropriate because of the genre or other factors. In fact, if the production is appropriate for the genre and purpose, then its hard to call it low quality….its just appropriate. So, maybe we should be wording it in that manner rather than comparing low to high. My upcoming articles will focus mostly on getting better quality productions but there will be many points where i touch on ways to keep a production simple but effective. Thanks for your feedback.

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  3. This is an important article, and highlights something important that a lot of Linescratchers might overlook. “Know your audience” seems to be the key. In many cases, a high-gloss sound can ruin your credibility with certain audiences. Often, recordings that seem “too perfect” sound inauthentic, robotic, and insincere. A lot of “LDS music” you can purchase at Deseret Book seems to grate on people’s nerves for exactly this reason.

    However, some genres demand perfection. Prog comes specifically to mind with me. Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree pride themselves on very polished recordings, because such complex songs with lots of layers would sound awful if there was too much slop in there. Know your audience!

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  4. Good article. Back in my A&R days, I can certainly say that if there was ever a time that a record label would look past a poor quality demo to see the gem inside, that time is LONG gone. Demos now do need to sound good. They don’t have to come from a $400 an hour studio and be mastered by Tom Lord Alge, but they do need to sound nice. There is certainly the flip side of over-production. For a prime example of the over production and over compression you speak of, listen to Metalica’s latest album, you may only be able to listen once. It is harsh.

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  5. Matt says:

    funny you should mention metallica. they made a great move when they stepped up the production quality and released the black album. really blew their career into the mainstream. they clearly went too far on recent albums….ugh

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