Poor Man’s Video
by Andy Stewart.
What is that exactly – poor man’s video? Well, audio of course. In the same time period as video resolutions have increased exponentially, and consumer products have advanced like rockets off a launch pad (my 4K TV is already old news, and as for my 42-inch ‘Full HD’ 1080P plasma: that’s a dead-set dinosaur from another epoch), audio has advanced us what? Different coloured headphones… and vinyl.
I’m being cynical, of course. A lot has changed for the better in audio over the last decade or so, particularly in the studio and at FOH, and specifically in the realm of software. But at the other end of the spectrum, in that crucial landscape where people consume music, along with its various playback devices (that in the distant past were simply called ‘stereos’), things have gone decidedly backwards.
Today’s ‘hi-fi’ shops seem to be little more than a bunch of sorry keyboards and Chinese-made guitars, mixed together with ’80s-styled ‘stereos’, all hidden in the bowels of giant retail outlets behind the cane furniture and washing machines.
Turntables are back in vogue and things like vinyl cleaners are ‘new’.
In these back corners there’s often almost no staff, very few punters and dust on much of the ‘cutting edge’ technology. And as for the CD sections of these stores… they have weeds growing in the isles, and warning signs of heavy fines for dumping rubbish.
So what the hell has happened to audio, and could we have foreseen this 30 years ago? I do not know, and very much doubt it.
If these so-called ‘advancements’ had occurred on the visual side of the entertainment industry, we’d be buying old Rank Arena tube TVs by now, only some of which would be in colour, and remotes would be science fiction.
We’d never have even heard of screen shapes like 4×3 or 16×9, let alone video, and we sure as hell wouldn’t be buying movies, streaming TV shows 10 at a time or troubling ourselves with ‘spoiler alerts’.
It’s as if a meteor struck the earth in 1978 and people recently dug up our latest consumer audio products – 2019: The Land of the Lost Technology.
The audio world is now the (even) poorer brother to the wide collection of truly cutting-edge visual formats and consumer-related products. Film has advanced digitally at a frightening pace; online streaming Behemoths (that didn’t even exist a few years ago) spend millions on new shows, employing thousands of artists and artisans in the process. Movie retail remains a massive industry and digital video consumer products, in all their forms – GoPros, UAVs etc – have taken over the planet, upping their resolutions and subjective quality every step along the way.
Everywhere you go there’s a camera on a surfboard, a drone, or in a phone.
Meanwhile audio has vinyl again (though very few know how to cut it), and ‘hi res’ MP3 formats… for the discerning consumer (thanks Apple). Headphones are back with a vengeance and public transport commutes are awash with audio labels plastered across everyone’s head.
But isn’t that summation of our plight a little simplistic? For instance, the audio industry has a bunch of global outlets now that allows everyone to upload their music in both audio and video formats, and sites like Bandcamp etc that provide everyone with a shop-front to the world, for a fee.
This is a concept that would have seemed every bit as far-fetched 20 years ago as online streaming. And while there are more people than ever trying to make their mark in the music biz, getting your music out to the world is nevertheless far easier now than it ever was. Theoretically, at least.
And there are countless other advancements at the professional end of the spectrum that are easily taken for granted or overlooked. Wireless audio, for example, has advanced in leaps and bounds in the last decade, making stage life easier – even studio environments are starting to benefit from it.
Computer software, more than any other single aspect of the audio industry, has made life far easier for designers, producers, audio engineers, collaborators, songwriters… everyone involved basically, despite what people trapped in the grip of a software malfunction might say on a chat forum.
Plug-in software, more specifically, is truly the land of science fiction, and this realm alone has altered the way most of us work more than any other single facet of the industry. So it’s not all bad, not by a long shot.
But technological changes have also had the unfortunate effect of robbing many people of their capacity to make a living in the industry, particularly those trying to sell their musical wares, and especially since younger crew started to eschew even online musical purchases in favour of streaming.
For many, that’s a scary prospect.
Video Saves The Audio Star
What does all this mean for Australian engineers, producers, musicians, bands, and solo artists, all of whom want to succeed in an industry that grows more penniless with every passing year? Well, in truth, it’s hard to say.
Every day I’m asked by my clients: “How will I sell my music?” My answer always does two things: takes up the rest of the evening, and changes every time.
Mainly I advise getting out there and gigging – a revolutionary concept – and the other obvious truism: producing great songs… but I’m also a huge advocate for videos, which I’ve mentioned in Listen Here articles in previous issues of CX.
To me, the distinction between audio and video is about as quaint – in the year 2019 – as the old analogue versus digital argument of 10 years ago. It’s a multimedia world out there folks – has been for many decades.
Most entertainment offers both without question, distinction, or bias, whether that be a gig, a hit single, a movie blockbuster, an online news bulletin or a sporting broadcast. It’s also true of every podcast, documentary, YouTube video, FaceTime chat, or university lecture.
I can’t actually think of anything that provides audio without video these days, apart from radio… and even there, all of its online promotional work is visual.
Why then do so many of us in pro audio still insist on drawing a huge line down the middle between the two senses – visual and aural – when, in the vast majority of cases, consumers listen to audio while viewing either a film-clip, a movie, a podcast, even a live concert, without giving it a second thought.
No-one in audio should question – even for one second – why they should incorporate video into their next artistic endeavour. It’s just a given, and the sooner people realise that the better off they’ll be.
Frankly, I’m still waiting for mic stands and foldback wedges with cameras incorporated into them for this exact reason (filming performances easily from up close looks cool, and should be easier to do than current technology allows). Maybe someone’s already making them. I must check.
One Bit Forward, Eight Bits Back
So it’s too simplistic to say that audio has retreated technologically while film and video has advanced. It’s more that some of our consumer formats, in particular, seem to have been caught in an eddy while the film and television industries have gone ballistic, outselling audio products 100 to 1 (a made-up figure).
The main (valid) gripe of most audio professionals these days, particularly in studios, relates back to digital consumer resolutions, and their general backwards trajectory. It’s a painful topic for many, and there have been many false starts in the race back to something resembling genuine high resolution.
But – and as hard as this is to admit – there might be an obvious reason for this malaise: audio quality was fantastic 40 years ago, and perhaps it was hard to improve upon at the consumer level, particularly from their perspective.
At the same time fashion pushed the miniaturisation of audio too hard, right when online services took hold. The result has been a world of largely headphone-based audio consumption of recorded music, where low resolutions have sufficed and small file sizes have mattered more than pristine depth perception and dynamics.
In 2019, that can afford to change. The time has surely come where we are now able to finally dispense with low res dithering and truncating of files, and provide consumers with the same sound as studio professionals enjoy in the confines of their own control rooms.
I think I’d be less concerned about dinky turntables finding a place on the shop shelves if punters could also buy my mixes undithered, at the resolution at which they were recorded.
That’s not too much to ask, is it?