Saturday, March 21, 2009

FFW08: Hearing it like it is

Hard love… It’s rarely given without controversy, or taken without offense. How do you tell an entire industry that it’s below par? After spending the best part of a week listening to dozens of locally-produced CDs while voting for Engineer Of The Year (13th ARIA awards), I was left with one sadly obvious conclusion: the work of Australian engineers and producers was not up to an international standard. So I wrote about it with the hope of opening dialogue and perhaps even motivating local engineers to push a bit harder. But it didn’t go over too well, as will be seen later… Here's First Word #08, from sometime in late 1999.

Hearing it like it is
A couple of issues ago I discussed my approach to voting for Engineer Of The Year for the 13th Annual ARIA Awards. Now that the awards are over and we’ve enjoyed our moment of self-congratulation, I’d like to air some related dirty laundry. Some of you won’t like what I’m about to say, and some will disagree strongly. I couldn’t care less. This is my magazine, and I’m going to say it like I hear it.

As you’d expect, a major part of my voting process involved carefully listening to each nominated recording – a daunting task, considering there were 42 CDs submitted. While listening to each recording, I’d occasionally hear something that sounded truly world class and worthy of an award. Excitedly, I’d scan through the CD’s documentation to find out where it was mixed and mastered. To my disappointment, the vast majority of the recordings I considered world class were in fact mixed and/or mastered by US engineers in major US facilities. (The few exceptions were mixed by local engineers with considerable overseas experience, or ‘immigrant’ engineers who honed their skills overseas before taking up residence in Australia. Most were mastered at Studios 301.) Because the US engineers were not eligible for our awards, the local engineers who tracked the recordings received the nominations by default! Make of that what you will. It’s the numbers that bother me…

I was unable to find mixing and/or mastering details for seven of the 42 submitted recordings. Of the remaining 35 recordings, eight were mixed by overseas engineers in overseas studios, and 10 were mastered overseas. Assuming the seven recordings I couldn’t find details for were mixed and mastered locally (a best case scenario), we can safely say that 20% of all nominations were mixed and mastered overseas. That’s one in every five, but it gets worse. That same 20% of recordings included many of our bigger budget mainstream artists for that year, and therefore represented significantly more than 20% of the total recording budget for Australian artists over that time period. Interestingly, they were also the artists who enjoyed the most local chart success during that time period (e.g. Human Nature, Bachelor Girl, Taxiride, etc.)

Think about it. Our record companies are sending our big budget artists overseas for mixing and mastering, while many of our smaller budget artists are opting to mix locally but master overseas. Why?

Some dismiss it as ego-driven ‘wank factor’, but that’s a serious case of denial. Record companies aren’t stupid – if they weren’t seeing any financial benefit from sending work overseas, they wouldn’t be doing it. The reality is that albums mixed and/or mastered in the USA consistently sound better and sell better than those done locally.

Others argue it’s for the overseas technology, but if that were true we’d be sending our local engineers overseas to do the work – the same engineers who track the recordings and are intimately familiar with the artists’ intentions. Besides, we’ve got similar facilities with the same ‘brand name’ equipment here in Australia. Not as many as you’ll find in the USA, and few as glamorous, but certainly enough to service our meagre handful of big budget artists.

If it’s not for the wank factor or the technology, could it be for the people overseas? You bet. Witness the speed at which our local record companies and artists form a queue at the studio door whenever an overseas engineer or producer drops in for a working holiday!

Has our local industry lost faith in itself? The answer is obvious. As far as our record companies and artists are concerned, Australian engineers are not up to the international standard. Unfortunately, I think they’re right. Anyone who critically listened through all 42 nominated CDs, as I did, will agree that there’s a definite Australian sound. But it’s not a good sound and it’s not a sound to be proud of, either. It’s cheap, dry and two-dimensional, and rarely possesses the polish, sparkle and depth required to make it world class. Most locally mixed and mastered recordings sound like demos on steroids, cheap imitations of the real thing. Why? I’d like to think it all comes down to markets and budgets…

Let’s look at some statistics. Australia has a population of 17.8 million people, mostly concentrated around the edges of a country encompassing an area of 7.7 million square kilometres. In contrast, the USA (where the bulk of our overseas mixing and mastering was done) has a population of 273 million people distributed throughout an area of 9.2 million square kilometres. In other words, the US market is potentially 15 times bigger than the Australian market, yet their country is only 1.2 times larger. Assuming an Australian artist produced an internationally competitive recording, they could expect to sell 15 times more CDs in the USA than they’d sell in Australia, for about the same pro rata distribution costs!

Is the entire US market too mind-boggling? Let’s scale it down. The state of New York has a population of 18.2 million people distributed throughout an area of 122,309 square kilometres. That’s a population equivalent to all of Australia, but concentrated into an area that is 63 times smaller! The infrastructure to reach all those people is much simpler. How many newspapers and magazines do you need to advertise in? How many radio stations and music video shows do you need to get onto? How many record stores do you need to distribute to, and over what distances? It is cheaper and easier to reach the same number of people in the USA than it is in Australia.

No wonder we’re always trying to crack the US market! It is the single largest English speaking market in the world. But the secret is to produce something that holds its own among the dozens of international recordings presented daily to the program directors at the radio stations and music video channels across the USA. If the program directors don’t like the sound of it, it’s not going to get played and you’re not going to reach that huge market. Simple. (The same rationale applies locally, too. Many Australian mixed and mastered recordings stand out like sore thumbs when heard on local radio or video shows. Licensing requirements mean that broadcasters must present a certain percentage of Australian content, otherwise much of it would never be heard at all!)

Which leads us to budgets. With the potential for 15 times more sales, recording budgets in the US are understandably higher than they are in Australia. And this, I believe, is the core of the problem. Australian engineers don’t get the necessary studio time to refine their skills and work towards achieving that truly international sound. Australian record companies and artists want their recordings to sound international, so they do whatever’s necessary to add a dash of that truly international flavour – to make them stand out from the rash of locally produced ‘demos on steroids’, and to improve their chances of cracking that huge US market. And that means getting all, or part of it, done in the US. Historically, many of our most successful bands end up making their entire albums overseas, particularly in the USA. As the budget gets lower, the options are to mix and master in the USA, or just to master in the USA. Obviously, our record companies and artists can afford to pay for this type of work, so what can we do to keep that money in our own pockets?

We must learn how to create that international sound, and we should start by studying the people who are taking our work. Read their magazine interviews. Visit their websites. Listen carefully to what they produce. Analyse what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. We must learn to think like they think, because that’s where the difference lies.

It’s time to break free of the “near enough is good enough” and “she’ll be right” restraints that have obviously become so prevalent in our studios - particularly among our younger generation of engineers. We have to swallow our pride, take a detached and critical listen to what we’re doing, and ask ourselves, “does this sound truly international?” Hear it like it is. Because, at this point in time, we’re obviously not cutting it.

The number of emails crowding my In Box left me in no doubt that issue #08 had hit the streets. Most applauded me for bringing the topic into the open. Then the phone calls started - and didn't stop! Angry industry pros were ringing the magazine's office and being deflected to my mobile phone. Most began with a barrage of insults and threats, during which I applied a valuable philosophy I'd learned from Philip Spencer: "it takes two to argue". After letting each person vent their spleen, constructive conversation followed. In most cases the caller reluctantly agreed with my statement that Australian recordings were not up to an international standard, but disagreed with my assumptions and conclusions. From those discussions I wrote the follow-up piece 'Hearing it like it isn't', published in issue #09. Stay tuned...

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