Letter Regarding Sonics On New Released CD

fa_burton_releasedRecently I received a very interesting letter from a listener, one David Ring, regarding the new release of Jenny Burton’s CD entitled Released on Watchfire Music. It was from a fan of the music and asked a number of good questions. I sat down and wrote him back immediately. Later, after responding and reading back my answers, I thought it might be of interest to all of you.

In it, he took issue with some of the sounds on the CD and asked a number of pertinent questions that I found enjoyable to answer.

Here it is, Letter from David Ring, reprinted excerpts with my responses.

On Jul 31, 2009, at 12:35 AM, David Ring wrote:

Dear Peter,
There is some wonderful music here. I will definitely be buying the CD. In the meantime I’d like to give you some feedback on my web experience of this music. I jack the sound through my stereo boom box rather than use headphones.
He also later admitted that, “I didn’t mention that (my) boom box is practically an antique with two cassette tape decks.”

Hi David,
You are an astute listener. Thanks so much for your feedback. Your questions are quite valid and I will do my best to explain the answers.

Overall the issue is this: Most of these songs were recorded in the late 80s and early 90s when the whole sampling technology was just a baby. Hard drive space and processing power and the limitations of technology then made many of these samples today sound a little ‘cheap’ and basically somewhat unrealistic. Sampling technology has really only come of age in the past 5 years.

So perhaps some might say comparisons are odious and some others might say that this CD sounds “Retro” – the one a complaint, the other a compliment.

Unfortunately, with these sounds and these tracks, with most of the songs all I had remaining were the stereo mixes – the multi tracks long since disappearing into oblivion or the technology around them hopelessly out of date.  So with some songs I actually added today’s strings and mixed them subtly in where I could – like on “You’re Leaving Me”.

Other songs I could only resurrect and re-master. Now see below for specifics:

You mention you listen on your boom box. A boom box will make things tinnier because the main purpose of their speakers is loudness rather than fidelity. The songs will sound a lot better on better speakers, but of course that’s true with all music. But in your case, an older boom box “that is practically an antique” is a severe judge of practically any music. Cheaper speakers produce a “cheaper” sound.

On the other hand, it’s what you’re used to. We are each different human beings and I suspect we each hear things differently from one another. How we each hear things is definitely not an exact science because we each listen to different things as we listen to music – some like more bass, some less – some people listen to the lyrics, some don’t, etc.

On the Katherine Hepburn song it seemed that the mix/balance was off with the instrumental track(s) competing a bit too strongly with the voice track(s).

Ah yes, in those days Jenny was a dance music artist. Dance music engineers always mixed vocals down and drums and bass up, burying the singers so that the people dancing in the clubs and discos could really feel the beat.

If I were able to re-mix the multi-track today, I too would bring Ms Burton up in the mix. I guess I could say dig into the track and enjoy it for what it is – or get up and dance to it.

This song was produced for Jenny’s second album on Atlantic Records and then not released because the folks at Atlantic felt that since Jenny was an African-American artist, she shouldn’t have a heroine who was a white woman. Duh.

In those days people were a bit more confused about racism. Still I love the song, what it says, what it stands for and as a special tribute to a great star.

It is difficult to describe this next impression, but the “electronic effects” sound great in some songs and just don’t seem to work as well in others. Here are two examples: In “I Wanna Stay” there is a sound that seems like a pig snorting, which is probably made by running a stick across a ribbed surface… this is surprising and works! I really like this touch despite the unflattering sound comparison.

One night while emptying the dishwasher I grabbed two glasses with one hand by their rims to pull them out of the washer. They each had heavy glass bottoms which bounced together when I pulled the glasses out resulting in this percussive sound. I said, “Hey, that sounds pretty cool!” So the next day I took the two glasses down to my studio and spent an hour or so sampling the sound. Thai’s what you hear on the recording.

In contrast the reverb keyboard effects on “There is You” seem “gimmicky” and distract from Jenny’s wonderful voice. It seems especially troubling coming after four really great songs which endear this collection to me.

Again, I agree, and that’s why ultimately I moved the song to a later position in the CD. Sonically it was a bit harsh for me because the sample technology just wasn’t up to today’s 24 bit quality. Go back 30 more years and listen to some old 45s or even some 78s – a world of difference. But I loved the song and I loved what Jenny brought to it. It didn’t need to sit on the shelf any longer. Put on your disco clothes and give it a listen.

So, I ask, is there possibly a technical difference in the way the songs sound when presented on a manufactured CD that would make the resulting sound better than on these Webcast samples?

Well… yes. Remember that a CD is a 16 bit aiff file and better quality than the MP3 that you hear on the site and, in fact, download. I used to hate MP3s. They were nowhere near the quality of 16 bit aiff files. They have, however, gotten much better in the last year or so.

Why do we use them then? All of the Web does. Because they download quickly – you don’t have to wait. People have no patience on the Internet. They expect things instantly and will not wait around for nuttin’. Play a sample on the site. It plays immediately when you click it. If the sample were an aiff file, you’d have to wait while it loaded to hear it.

Kids don’t seem to mind these days. Unfortunately they drive the music business. Perhaps they are not such discerning listeners. I prefer CDs.  iPods play only MP3s. I don’t own an iPod for that reason. Actually I prefer what I hear in my studio which is 24 bit .wav files, but today’s technology won’t allow me to get that to you.

Take heart however, at least we’re not downgrading from 1/2″ 30 ips tape to cassette anymore. That was a real bummer. The loss of fidelity from the studio to the consumer back then was frightening and always disappointing.

(The reverb thing is more a matter of an arrangement choice and personal taste than a technical problem.)

I think in those days people were a little reverb happy. Digital reverbs had come of age and were overused. I too, find that on several of the songs the reverb is much more than I would use today, but you know what they say about reverb… “You can always add reverb, but nobody’s ever come up with a devise that can take it away once it’s mixed in.”

Today many pop producers have gone the opposite direction and mix extremely dry – no reverb.  Occasionally I like the sound, but most of the time, I don’t. I prefer the more natural sound of a good, sparingly used reverb.

My motto concerning reverb is: If you can hear the reverb, it’s too much.What you want to hear is the voice or instrument in a chosen space.

You are the tech guru and can tell me if my sound system may need tweaking or that somewhere along the line there is some sort of signal distortion or degradation.

There should be no signal distortion. There is none on any of the songs. If you’re hearing it, it’s your system, not my mastered mix. If you’re hearing distortion, turn your system down. It means your speakers or your amp isn’t good enough to handle things at that volume.

No offense, but if you’re listening on an ancient boom box and you’re trying to be a discerning listener, it’s time to break down and get yourself a good set of powered speakers.

As to degradation, see above.

I have downloaded other songs in the past and those seemed to be all right. I don’t know why there should be or seem to be a difference this time around.

Very simple, really. My sampling technology is so much better today. I’m very fortunate to own the best in the world and have spent nearly a half a million dollars to get it that way. You’re hearing a lot of late 80s early 90s technology, that’s all. Go back and listen to a great Miles Davis CD. It would sound a lot better if produced today and it’s all acoustic. It’s just the changing times you’re hearing, my friend.

{At this point I think I’d rather pay up for the CD than do the download and burn approach. Should I be persuaded otherwise?}

I think you’d be somewhat happier with a CD. You seem to me to be a discerning listener. I’m not, however, saying that the CD will solve all your problems over an MP3, but for a discerning listener, yes, the CD will sound better because it captures more of the overtones. This gives the music more fidelity.

In summary,  Jenny Burton’s CD Released captures the spirit of the past, the power of a great artist singing in her prime. Technology has come a long way since then. Much of the CD has been brought up to today’s high sonic digital standards. My masterer, Phil Klum, and I worked very hard to get this CD up to today’s sonic standards. In 90% of the cases I believe we were successful. The rest reminds us of how far we’ve come.

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