There has been this notion going around for a while concerning the audio quality of future music releases. The notion being that since music consumption is now happening mostly through digital downloads and streaming which ultimately means that music is played back on ear-buds, laptop speakers and iPads, that it isn’t that important for production quality to be of such a high standard anymore.
The idea being that you can get away with doing a lot less, sacrifice quality and not spend as much time and money creating the final result as everyone will be just as happy anyway since no one will be able to appreciate the differences in the end.
It would even be a great idea too if it wasn’t for this single fact, that we’ve already seen the worst of digital and it has been getting better and better for the last 35 years, except for that little bump in the road called the Loudness Wars that ruined digital audio for 25 years. Good news though is that it’s over, or it’s over quite soon and we owe that a lot to the death of CD and the revolution of streaming services like Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music.
Since the quality of digital audio on the recording side has skyrocketed during these 35 years and is now on par with the most high-resolution analog formats, the only thing that is of a concern nowadays is storage space. The streaming services are in the business of selling data transfers over the internet, and this data just happens to be music. Since digital storage costs money and takes up physical space, and while keeping a library of all the worlds music on file in a low-quality format versus a super high-quality format makes for about a 95% difference in the amount of storage space and internet speed needed to transfer it, so it might not come to anyones surprise that this now is the current state of things.
Digital streaming is gearing up!
Vinyl releases are seeing a huge boom while the CD is almost gone and digital streaming is gearing up slowly but surely and we’re not going back any time soon. The quality of streaming is going up at the same rate that the world is getting better and better connected and storage is getting more effective and cheaper. If we jump back to about 15 years ago to the dawn of Napster and say that this was the first ever global music streaming/distribution service, we can see that today the quality of sound has tripled or even quadrupled in comparison.
Listening to old MP3’s of what you might have downloaded through Napster back in the day but on todays modern ear-buds, laptop speakers or iPads and compare that to the quality you get from todays streaming services listening through these modern playback systems would come as a shock to most people and kills the notion of good production quality in this day and age not making any difference in the long run.
It’s only fair to assume that the quality of streaming music will improve drastically in the following years and for now it seems that Apple is the only company taking this seriously and is on the forefront of development in this area.
The future is bright, but the sound is warm!
If the same argument of dumbing things down would’ve been made in the early 80’s when the CD became the #1 source of music distribution, or even much, much worse had it been made at the birth of Napster, we would’ve had to listen to horrible sounding productions today. The people who thought CD was great back then only thought so because of the fact that it was much simpler and easier to handle compared to vinyl records while the people who thought MP3’s were awesome thought so mostly because they were much easier to handle than CD’s. Not because any of it actually sounded better at the time but in hindsight, pretty much no one would like to listen to an early 80’s CD or lossy late 90’s MP3 given the choice.
The sound of these formats were nothing short of horrible compared to what was actually created in the studio. Why? Because when CD came out the analog to digital conversion was completely new and it would take 10-15 years before things started to sound good on this format compared to the master tapes leaving the studios. The same thing is happening now, since when Napster let the world in on the glory of MP3’s, it would take the same 10-15 years before things started to sound OK in lossy encoded formats due to development, internet speed and the structure and standards now provided by the streaming services.
Since record labels nowadays make their revenue off of streaming music and there mostly through huge back catalog, it would not be a good investment for anyone to produce music that no one would want to listen to in 10 years time and cringe in the same way one would hearing an old Napster MP3 as we know it today.
If we let the way things sound and the way people listen to music at the moment, dictate how we ultimately choose to produce, record and document music for the future, we can only look back at this in 10 years and go -“What the hell were we thinking?!”
The author is the founder of “The Panic Room” which is a multiple grammy awarded and gold/platinum selling music production company in Sweden offering Production, Recording, Mixing and Mastering services.
Thomas “Plec” Johansson – Producer / Recording, Mixing & Mastering Engineer