For years I’ve been afflicted with a maddeningly incessant itch to waste money on my home recording studio. Perhaps I use that term loosely. This so-called studio is nothing more than a converted garage in which a few recording gizmos sit along side our unused bikes, a spare cat litter box, and a stack of old magazines. So, so soothing, especially if you light candles. Nonetheless, it’s functional. For example, if you need to simulate the squirty splat of an elephant crushing a bug, say for a puppet show, I think I can help (true story).
Usage notwithstanding, when this itch becomes too overwhelming I start trolling the nerd forums for healthy debates on audio gear. They typically go something like this…
“Look, I A/B tested a Squiggle 800 to a Mumbfit Pro and I have to say the Mumbfit sounded more detailed, more accurate…. something, oh I can’t quite put my finger on it, something clearer and less brassy than the Squiggle. I played the A/B as an mp3 for my client and she agreed, the Mumbfit Pro definitely sounded ‘just that much better’. I mean, that’s what you’d expect for $2000/channel, right?”
There’s a classic Penn and Teller segment on the fallacy of bottled water that relates to these debates (watch it here). In this exposé-style piece, the pair stand outside a trendy Manhattan restaurant secretly filling water bottles from a garden hose. Simultaneously, a “water steward” inside, much like a sommelier, strolls around pitching various exotic water varieties to customers. Of course, no matter what they order, they all receive the same garden hose special. The uninformed customers, meanwhile, wax poetic about bouquet, notes, and clarity! Oh, yes, NYC water definitely possesses clarity.
One wonders how these elite gear nerds would characterize a low-end Chinese consumer gizmo squirreled away in a pretty box with a boutique label on it. Presenting the Phil Levee Digital Converter: Premium jitter-free conversion with the hallmarks of Levee’s classic consoles (never mind that he’s a work of fiction, his consoles are the thing of legend). Price it at least $1500/channel, dangle a cool blue light on the panel, and voila! The accolades will pour in — Clarity, Accuracy, Detail, Presence, Warmth! Yes, the Levee is an essential component for any decent studio.
Today the majority of music tracks will end up as low-quality mp3s blasting through the backside of a cell phone. Whether it’s the rich acoustic nuance of a cello or a splat of an unfortunate elephant crossing, the quality will be long forgotten by the time it reaches the consumer. So does any of this really matter?
I had a conversation on this topic with veteran studio engineer Andy Bradley. He said (with a sigh) that as far as the fancy digital converters go, the perceived difference between any of them is less than 1%. He also added it’s all moot because among the veterans of the recording industry, the consensus is unanimous: digital music has completely decimated audio quality, much like it has decimated the record industry itself. Sour grapes, or the sad truth? My money’s on the latter.
Incidentally, current focus of gear-lust is the Metric Halo ULN-2: