Study Hall

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Artificially Flavored Audio: Do We Actually Prefer Processing & Loops To Real Instruments?

Are we too content with "close enough" at the expense of the actual thing?

As a large human, you can rest assured that I know a few things about food. Following a similar train of thought, after more than 20 years in professional audio, I know a little about sound. I guess my ears serve a similar purpose as my taste buds. They know what they like.

This concept hit me after a shopping error, when unintentionally purchased a box of artificially flavored instant grits. Not just any artificial flavor, either. This packaging claimed to have a “real butter flavor.”

Butter is one of the cornerstones of my physique. If reduced to a survival scenario where there was nothing left to eat except butter, I would still feel pretty good about life.

But this manufacturer had the audacity to declare, to this overweight southerner, that its product tasted like actual butter. Well, the fact is that it wasn’t even close. But I ate it anyway… After adding plenty of butter.

The point of this madness is that there’s obviously a difference in the real thing and something artificial. Like professional, studio-grade acoustic instruments as compared to cheap software tools and/or overly processed junk; digital or analog.

I’ve been in the studio with performers playing vintage guitars that were worth more than the cars we arrived in. I’ve listened to flutes and violins played by masters that could draw emotions that were previously unknown. I’ve felt the passion of true artists pouring out their passion in ways that lifted my soul.

We seem to have a shortage of that type of skill in the current live concert and studio offerings. In my view, at least, too many folks seem content with loops and excessive low frequency saturation to make things sound… well, close enough.

I recently attended a local concert at an indoor venue with a band I ‘d never heard before. Knowing the room, I made sure we were seated at the front edge of the balcony, right over the front of house position – the best seat in this particular house.

From the first note, I was mesmerized with the sound of the drum kit. The mix struggled a little with vocals and an overzealous youngster playing through an overpowered guitar amp, but the band was tight and those drums were magical.

During the show, I couldn’t help but focus on how accurate the tone of each head sounded as pure in my seat as the best studio sets I ever touched. The kick and snare were perfect. So were the toms. Even the cymbals were crisp and beautiful.

In short, it sounded like I was sitting on the studio floor listening to an un-amplified kit. It was simply clean and natural sounding. I know that many of us have an unnatural obsession with that kick on channel one. I know that the pursuit of the perfect snare drum sound has driven plenty of folks to madness (and paid for plenty of studio expansions). We all have our concept of perfect sound, mostly based on years of experimenting.

But I have to wonder if our ears have suffered the same fate as our taste buds. So saturated with miserable imitations, labeled as “good” or even “real,” that we have become uncertain of what either one actually is. Maybe the decline of musical quality is similar to the decline in food quality. Maybe the masses have been accommodated to the point where they’ve begun to prefer the genetically modified and unnatural choices over the genuine articles.

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My point is not to criticize or condemn anyone for creating signature tones. Sounds right is right – I understand that idea. But, especially for the younger techs who are still searching for their holy grail of acoustical flavoring, I offer this advice: take the time to find out what an instrument really sounds like before tweaking a gorgeous feat of artistic engineering into a cheap imitation.

Those amazing ears stuck on the side of your head are there for a reason. Use them. Savor the tone, taste the flavor. And by all means, enjoy the real butter.

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