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Artificially Flavored Audio

Have we reached the point where we actually prefer processing and loops to real instruments?

By M. Erik Matlock June 28, 2019

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 twenty 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.

That 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 their 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 is obviously a difference in the real thing and something artificial. Like professional, studio-grade acoustic instruments as compared to cheesy software or overly processed junk; digital or analog.

I have been in the studio with performers playing vintage guitars that were worth more than the cars we arrived in. I have listened to flutes and violins, played by masters, that could draw emotions from you that were previously unknown. I have felt the passion of a true artist 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. Most 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 had 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 ancient vocal mics and an overzealous kid 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. The toms were perfect. 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 we have an unnatural obsession with that kick on channel one. I know that the pursuit of the perfect snare drum sound has driven men to madness and paid for plenty of studio expansions. We all have our concept of perfect sound, based on years of experimenting.

I have to wonder if our ears have suffered the same fate as many of our taste buds have. 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 have begun to prefer the genetically modified and unnatural choices over the genuine articles.

I am not here 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… 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, God-given ears stuck on the side of your head are there for a reason. Use them. Savor the tone, taste the flavor.

Enjoy the real butter.

About M. Erik

M. Erik Matlock
M. Erik Matlock

Senior Editor, ProSoundWeb
Erik worked in a wide range of roles in pro audio for more than 20 years in a dynamic career that encompasses system design and engineering in the live, install and recording markets. He also spent a number of years as a church production staff member and Media Director, and as an author for several leading industry publications before joining the PSW team.


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Gary Lorenzen says

Hear, hear!

Keith Broughton says

Everything is better with butter Erik!
Nothing beats real instruments played well.

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