This blog came from a question on my Instagram (@mosesmastering). My buddy Jeff asked a great question. He said that he's noticed that the majority of music currently has a very similar level, sonic clarity, dynamic, and sound. He mentioned that there must be more happening then everyone shooting for the same RMS level (Final level/compression). He asked, with so many people working on one project, how is it that we seem to arrive at a very similar place as far as an end product, even though there should be essentially unlimited variables causing things to be different.
First, I want to say that I agree with Jeff. There is certainly a modern sound that has risen over the last five to ten years. You can call it hyper compression or hi-fi or loudness or just "radio" or even lump everything into "pop" essentially, as all genres are fusing into pop at this point it seems like.
Things do seem to have a certain loudness, clarity, or I call it sterile sound. It's a very clean, in your face sound with lots of perceived loudness over what you can feel and a top end thats very airy, expensive sounding.. at least that's what people have labeled it as... "expensive" meaning bright and exciting. Older records were not so "bright" but were still wonderful in their own way, but that's another discussion.
I want to jump into why I think, regardless of how many variables can be at play, when making a modern song we still end up with a similar sounding result.
The number one thing I think that impacts our sound currently is the way people consume music.
The vast majority, upwards of 90% of people will listen to music via a phone speaker, laptop speaker or some sort of earbuds. These speakers cost pennies. They carry hardly any low end or low mid range information. They distort easily when music has too much low end or mid range and also distort with any sort of sibilance (think "s", "t", "ph", "shh", etc..) is left untamed. This is the current unforgivable sin. If your music distorts on one of those speakers you have failed according to a lot of people and online forums. It has become the ultimate test or standard in which engineers, producers, mixers, and mastering engineers wrestle with and measure what sounds good and what does not.
The most flattering compliment I get is, "it sounds good on an iPhone" so it must be good. While this is somewhat true, you can make music sound good on an iPhone, but in a studio environment it can sound somewhat harsh, thin, and fatiguing. There is a way to make it sound good everywhere, this is something that requires you to actually understand what you're doing from start to finish, it usually takes an army of people who know what they are doing to pull this off, and is somewhat not so important anymore if I can say that... I don't know if it's good or bad... but things are shifting in the way music is made, consumed, and valued.
A phone, laptop, and earbuds all contain a frequency response. Think of it as an eq curve or a lens in which you view something.
As more people consume music on these types of speakers that becomes the new standard for sonic quality. What we have are bedroom producers making rough demo work tapes and reviewing and tweaking off a phone, laptop, and earbuds or cheap studio monitors, to make things translate to the person they are working with. This is not a dig on this process, it's just the way it is. Then you have mixers who are trying to beat the rough or work tape, mixing towards that sonic landscape that people are already stoked on. The mixer then sends the music back to the artist or producer or A&R for review. They are so familiar with the rough that they will be comparing the current mix to that and listening to it on, you guessed it, phone, laptop, earbuds. They will say things like "I can't hear the kick on the iPhone like a Skrillex song" or "The rough felt louder and more energetic". This opens up a whole can of worms, because people are comparing a mix to a mastered commercial song that is a hit. The mix should never sound like a master. The mix should sound like a mix, but mixers, artists, producers and A&R people are so far removed from how music is actually made that we have no idea what a mix sounds like really anymore and also no idea what mastering is.... it's not an Ozone preset or LANDR (both can be useful tools or deadly weapons).
The mixer will go back and make things more compressed and loud and sterile so that things cut and translate on an iPhone, laptop, and earbuds to the point where it's probably terrible in a studio environment, but it finally sounds like a marriage between the rough and a popular EDM song that has nothing to do with the genre they are currently working in. All of this comes from pressure from the artist and the label.
People are looking for things to sound a certain way on those three speakers and so people mix and master music to sound a certain way on those speakers. With the ability to drop in a song that's a work in progress next to a commercial released song and do an a/b on an iPhone can create a panic if it sounds different. This comes from poor information and a lack of understanding on the importance of each step in making music. The speaker dictates the sound of the music. If the consumer or artist is looking for a song to sound a certain way on those speakers then the mixers and mastering engineers who want to keep their job, will begin to shape their music regardless of who works on it or the sourcing, to sound good on what the consumer will give their stamp of approval on.
It's really pretty amazing how Apple has not only changed the way the music industry consumes music but also no one talks about this very idea - Apple has literally changed the way music sounds and created a new measurement or ruler in which we measure sonic quality because of the 10 cent speakers they use in their products.
Other factors that go into why music sounds the same also begin with the engineers, producers, and mixers who are making music and referencing mastered tracks as the starting place for finding a sound. When a client says they want the drums to sound like Foo Fighters, the engineer is now referencing Foo Fighters and listening to the drums as they sit as a final product. They are not hearing the original source. So we have engineers hyping up drums and over compressing drums from the start as they feel pressure from the artist or band to make their first take sound like a radio released song. The sourcing is already compressed and more blown up from the tracking stage. Then the mixer gets it and applies the same techniques. They will reference the master track and further more compress and limit and smash things into place making the song have a certain clarity and stereo image that feels like a master. They will continue to limit the mix buss to bring up the volume so it sounds like a "master" (misunderstanding of what mastering is, bringing up the volume is easy and 1 out of 10 steps in mastering) and will continue to boost the song until the artist stops saying... "it feels a little quiet compared to XYZ song or the rough".
During this process of compression or limiting in the tracking and mix stage we can think of it like packing a suitcase. Old school packing is folding your clothes up, letting things touch each other, no real compartments or fancy shoe bag area, you have to pay attention and fold things still to get it all in, but things live together. Modern mixing and engineering, takes every item of clothing, puts it in one of those bags that then gets the air sucked out of it so it's isolated and 1/4 the size. Then place everything in the bag so they are not touching, put the shoes in its area, put the socks in their area, put pants over here, all in their own vacuum sealed bags... nothing touching anything, nothing living together.. this creates the similar sound in which we hear today over and over again. It creates clarity and space but also has a feel and sound to it.
The old school way, you would have to maybe lift up the shirt to get to the pants, or you could see the socks were tucked into the shoes.. the new school way is, I can see everything and I can't let my socks touch my shoes. I am not saying this is good or bad, it's just how we got here.
Another thing that contributes to a certain sound is when everyone uses the same thing. I had a mentor 8 years ago tell me that once plugins became the new standard everything would sound the same. He was right. If everyone is using Steven Slates everything bundle (thank you for making plugins affordable), Fab Filter eq and Limiter (how do they do it?) and Ozone mastering presets (I don't use it but, if I'm honest are pretty solid) you get music that begins to take on a shape and sound that then dictates the new standard much like we discussed with speakers. If everyone is stacking twenty of the same plugins across every channel then you begin to get a certain build up and eq curve. I know there is new technology such as the NLS and some UA stuff that is starting to capture the uniqueness of each channel and why we love analog, but even with that you're dealing with 1010101010 code, and that has its limits compared to using a console that is changing by the second. Once again, not saying this is bad or good or superior or inferior, it's just part of what has shaped the sound of modern music.
As things begin to get cheaper and more knowledge is spread via the internet, tutorials, home studio guys giving away their "top 5 ways to make your mix sound pro" people latch on to this sort of thing because they don't want to do the work (not a knock on home studios, I have one) Most people don't want to put in the time to learn the fundamentals, they just want to slap on a preset and get moving. Lots of knowledge, not a lot of wisdom. This is a major issue we see in the music industry, which is a whole other discussion as well. Not saying that's good or bad, but it's contributing to the certain sound we hear all over the place.
Then the final thing, is probably people using the same samples and virtual instruments. Regardless of how much people claim they are unique, most of them are still pulling up the same samples and sounds that are already out there. I know this because I do it and see people do it all the time in sessions.
They want to create something new until the artist says... can you play "Roses" by Chainsmokers, I want that kick... and then the snap.. and the way that synth goes woobbbb wobbble, that too.... and the producer or engineer who thought..."I am really gonna create something new today"... ends up remaking a Chainsmoker song instead of creating something unique for the artist.
This is also a whole other discussion but contributes to why everything sounds the same.
So that's my opinion on this topic. Some very broad brush strokes, but it's what I have observed first hand and over the last eight years of making music with no name artists to famous artists.
We all want to just fit in and make money and music, until someone finally has the guts to put out a new sound and then that begins the cycle all over again.
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