Music Production: The Importance of Sonic Quality
I’ve talked a lot about beginner topics and I was getting kind of sick of it, so I wanted to talk about something a little more subjective today.
Last quarter of 2020 I helped produce a short film that was supposed to be more of a festival-style film and do the festival run. I was also brought on as the composer and wrote a full soundtrack.
Well, a month or so into editing, I got a call from the director asking if it would be okay if he put in a different composer’s work into the film, and I said that was fine, as long as he got the proper sync licensing.
He ended up syncing 3 or 4 songs from this composer without my knowledge, and I was given the first rough cut of the film last night to review. He had cut a lot of what I had originally written and opted for the contracted composer (which is fine, btw, that’s just how the industry works), but he had still kept a few pieces of my music in the film, and it created this interesting problem:
The difference in skill level and sonic quality between the songs was very apparent. While the textures and tones were a lot darker and fit the director’s vision a little better, the sonic quality wasn’t nearly the level of the other songs in the film. And with how the structure of the story worked, it was this constant jump from high sonic quality to lower sonic quality.
Especially for an audio engineer, I found these jumps extremely distracting. One of the other producers noticed it as well and pointed it out to the director. The director kind of stuck to his guns, but that was when I knew it was a problem. If untrained ears could pick up on it, then it’s definitely a problem.
Anyways, the point of me telling you that is that you shouldn’t compromise on sound quality. Yes, there are more important things then the depth of your marimba reverb, but it’s not something that should be taken lightly. In this example, if someone convinces the director, the other composer may lose all that work in favor of something with higher sonic quality. The arrangement and composition was there, but he could lose the gig because there wasn’t enough time put into sample selection and processing.
This has become even more important in the last few years. If you watch a lot of the artists that have shifted into the spotlight in the past 5 years or so, there are a few anomalies that kind of broke through. The one that specifically comes to mind is Marshmello.
I was pretty surprised when I first heard the Marshmello stuff that was getting a lot of attention. My first impressions were… childish. The writing itself was overly simple and non-unique. The beats were cliche. I didn’t really start liking his music until 3 or 4 years in, when he started collaborating with more industry talent.
So what was all the hype about? I asked a couple of people and artists that I knew were listening to him, and I got the same answer every time.
“It just sounds good”
My knee-jerk reaction was “that’s a stupid answer. If the songwriting sucks, then it doesn’t sound good, right?”. It took me a bit to figure it out. They were talking about the physical sound quality. If you notice, all of Marshmello’s tracks are very well produced. Good depth, well-mixed, and ridiculously loud. It did sound good! Even though I thought the writing wasn’t even close to industry-standards, the production quality was remarkable. There had obviously been a lot of time poured into sample selection and creating the soundscape. And for him, it paid off.
After that, I really started to notice it a lot more on the stuff that was getting popular. Whenever I found a really popular song that I thought really sucked, I would listen to it critically on nice gear. Brilliant production quality, every time.
Kind of interesting, right? Search for yourself. Find some really popular tracks you don’t particularly like the composition of and listen to the sound themselves. What do you notice?
Will this save you from an awfully written song? Probably not, but it definitely makes a difference. From my experience, I’d definitely say that sonic quality makes a much larger difference than you think. And in the case of Marshmello, make the difference in his career (imo).
Obviously you should aim for the best of both worlds, but not everyone is equipped with those kinds of skills. If they were, you’d see a lot more Dua Lipas and Kendrick Lamars. And all the engineers with those skills are booked out by artists like Dua Lipa and Kendrick, so RIP to the rest of us.
Before anyone asks, how do you get higher quality sonics? Well, it’s actually pretty straightforward. Pick good samples. Track good performances. Use good gear. Have a good mix engineer (don’t count on them to make your sounds better, just to make them work together in a way that highlights their quality). That’s really about it, but it’s much easier said than done. Sounding expensive, unfortunately, usually is expensive. That’s part of the reason getting into the mainstream industry is so difficult.
Anyways, I hope you learned something! Do a deep dive and figure it out for yourself. Do some blind tests with your friends and see if it makes a difference. I think you’ll be surprised at how much of a difference it makes.
And as always, good luck and have fun!