They call it "red" for a reason: why Abbey Road doesn’t come in a box

I was at a dinner in Rome a few years ago at which the dinner speaker was Terry Fisher of that law school whose name cannot be said and author of various books that touch the music world. (“Touch” might not be the right word.)

I witnessed yet another example of what I call the “Abbey Road in a box” speech given by someone who has probably never been to a state of the art recording studio, who has never made a record in such a studio and who hasn’t bothered to actually do any rigorous research about it.

The problem was that he was speaking to a room full of policy wonks who hadn’t been in a studio, either, but most or all of whom thought that what was said by a professor from that law school was somehow important. And worse yet–had some effect on intellectual property laws in their countries. These people uncritically trusted what Fisher uncritically said (the subject of which was “the rise of the amateur” intoned with the importance of “the decline of Western civilization”). And of course there was no Q&A for a dinner speech.

The other problem was that I was the only person in the room who knew first hand that you can’t make a record in your bedroom that sounds as good as a record made at Abbey Road. Professional recordings are made in accordance with the professional standards of a discipline that has evolved over time into a serious academic course of study based in research and governing bodies. All of which Fisher ignored. (And in addition to being downright insulting, that “rise of the amateur” thing turned out to be quite the bust.)

Now if I were to say to a serious audience that the scaling paradigm of Moore’s Law is coming to an end without being able to engage in a serious discussion of the memristor or comparable technology, it is doubtful that even a room full of policy wonks would let me escape unchallenged. Yet Fisher and people like Fisher routinely make these “Abbey Road in a box” claims without so much as a raised eyebrow. The ones who are making records in their bedrooms want to believe that it sounds as good as Abbey Road and have no reference point, and the ones who know better are working.

I was once listening to what passed for a “mix” by one of these Abbey Road in a box aficionados. The playback was on studio speakers. I noticed an incredible amount of compression (which my ears hear as distortion) and that all the levels were in the red. I said (or rather, shouted), “All the levels are in the red.” I got blank looks from the purported engineer and the artist/producer. “The levels,” I said. “In the red.”

Again blank looks from the digital natives.

“THE RED, GET IT?” I reached over and tapped on the sound level meter that was practically buried all the way to the right–in the red part of the measurement range. “THAT RED.”

They handed me a pair of ear buds and told me they mixed for ear buds because that was how everyone listened to music. Like that made it alright.

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There is an excellent piece on NPR called The Loudness Wars: Why Music Sounds Worse which discusses this phenomenon. The piece is predominantly an interview with Bob Ludwig, who is the greatest mastering engineer on the planet (as I have introduced him at SXSW) and a very serious player in a world that exists far outside of Harvard Yard and the house with the little red door. If you are at all interested in the study of the science of audio engineering or the art of sound recording, you should read this article and pay close attention to what Bob Ludwig and Professor Oxenham have to say.

A good illustration: