Is Sound Quality Genre-Related?


Audiophiles bewail the sound quality of contemporary recordings on a regular basis. Low-resolution MP3s and "the loudness wars" are, if you read posts on the Internet, the scourge of the earth. My question is simple - are some musical genres more guilty of egregious violations of sonic sanctity than others?

Obviously, music has to achieve a minimum level of decipherability in order to qualify as music to begin with. But once you can make out that you are listening to music as opposed to white or pink noise, what else is needed to connect with listeners? Depending on the genre, the most important "musical" qualities will be different. For dance, club, R&B, and Techno, the beat is the thing, and the beat comes largely from the bass regions. So for dance music, if there's no bass, there's no music. And some modern music has a lot of bass, take the latest Daft Punk album for instance - tons of synthesized bass, detailed, well recorded synthesized bass.


You would think that dynamic contrast would also be important in modern pop and dance music, but that's where many pop albums fall prey to the evils of dynamic compression. Sometime in the recent past, some influential pop producers decided that soft passages needed to be louder for radio play. Some of these producers had big hits and soon others adopted this scheme. Most times a "club mix" and a "radio mix" are identical, but sometimes, especially on the vinyl copies for club DJs, the dynamic range of the club mix will be much wider.

In my experience the genre that has the wildest swings from fabulous to flabbergasting bad is in country music. On one extreme you have pristine recordings from Allison Krause and Dierks Bentley, on the other you have the top-40 country cannon-fodder heard on the radio with a dynamic range of maybe 8 dB between loudest and softest passages.

While classical music rarely suffers from compression like pop, it seems to have its own unique set of sonic foibles. Far too many classical albums have what I call "the velvet fog." Instead of accuracy, engineers have tried to get the perfect orchestra sound, which may have as little toehold in reality as the latest dance track.

On bluegrass albums, especially from smaller regional labels, the usual sonic problem is the opposite of classical music - too little sweetening. Some voices and instruments need a little distance, real or artificial between them and their listeners, to sound their best.


So, where am I going with this? Every musical genre has some aspects of their music that require the recording quality to be decent, if not good, for them to connect with their audiences. And while we older listeners would like to lay the blame at the feet of newer musical genres, that would be a gross oversimplification of the problem.

As has been proven many times, good recordings are possible in any and every musical genre if a recording engineer has the skill and is given time to do a recording properly. And while particular details and methodology of what goes into making a "proper" recording vary drastically by genre, it always comes down to an engineer's ears and their free will. Unfortunately, sometimes, recording engineers and producers have neither. 

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