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Are limits in MP3s and iPods ruining pop music?

If it seems like you are listening to music more but enjoying it less, some people in the recording industry say they know why. They blame that iPod that you can’t live without, along with all the compressed MP3 music files you’ve loaded on it.

Those who work behind-the-mic in the music industry — producers, engineers, mixers and the like — say they increasingly assume their recordings will be heard as MP3s on an iPod music player. That combination is thus becoming the “reference platform” used as a test of how a track should sound. (Movie makers make much the same complaint when they see their filmed images in low-quality digital form.)

But because both compressed music and the iPod’s relatively low-quality earbuds have many limitations, music producers fret that they are engineering music to a technical lowest common denominator. The result, many say, is music that is loud but harsh and flat, and thus not enjoyable for long periods of time.

“Right now, when you are done recording a track, the first thing the band does is to load it onto an iPod and give it a listen,” said Alan Douches, who has worked with Fleetwood Mac and others. “Years ago, we might have checked the sound of a track on a Walkman, but no one believed that was the best it could sound. Today, young artists think MP3s are a high-quality medium and the iPod is state-of-the-art sound.”

It isn’t. Producers and engineers say there are many ways they might change a track to accommodate an iPod MP3. Sometimes, the changes are for the worse.

For example, says veteran Los Angeles studio owner Skip Saylor, high frequencies that might seem splendid on a CD might not sound as good as an MP3 file and so will get taken out of the mix. “The result might make you happy on an MP3, but it wouldn’t make you happy on a CD,” he says. “Am I glad I am doing this? No. But it’s the real world and so you make adjustments.”

This shift to compressed music heard via an iPod is occurring at the same time as another music trend that bothers audiophiles: Music today is released at higher volume levels than ever before, on the assumption that louder music sells better. The process of boosting volume, though, tends to eliminate a track’s distinct highs and lows.

As a result, contemporary pop music has a characteristic sound, says veteran L.A. engineer Jack Joseph Puig, whose credits include the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. “Ten years ago, music was warmer; it was rich and thick, with more tones and more ‘real power.’ But newer records are more brittle and bright. They have what I call ‘implied power.’ It’s all done with delays and reverbs and compression to fool your brain.”

All these engineers tend to be audiophiles, the sort who would fuss over a track to make it perfect. But they’re beginning to wonder if they should bother.

“I care about quality, even though the kid on the street might like what he hears on MySpace, which is even worse than an MP3,” said Stuart Brawley, an L.A. engineer who has recorded Cher and Michael Jackson. “We try to make the best quality sound we can, but we increasingly have to be realistic about how much time we can spend doing it.”

Howard Benson, who has done work for Santana and Chris Daughtry, says members of a studio recording crew will sometimes complain after a session, “I just spent all this time getting the greatest guitar and drums solo, and it ends up as an MP3.”

Even those who complain about MP3s say they own and enjoy iPods, and appreciate how they have made music so widely available. They just wish, they say, the device wasn’t setting the technical standard for how music gets made.

Of course, not all music producers agree that MP3s and iPods are affecting music in quite so bad a way. Larry Klein, noted for his work with Joni Mitchell, said, “If something sounds really good on an average pair of speakers, it will sound great on earbuds. I can’t imagine mixing a record so that it sounds better on earbuds.”

And Clif Magness, who has recorded with Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken, says music recorded by young artists in living rooms via MP3s, while technically crude, can sometimes have an urgency and immediacy that might be missing from slick studio projects.

When CDs were first introduced, they were regarded as cold and flat, compared with vinyl. But their sound improved as engineers learned the medium, a process many hope will happen again with MP3s and portable music players.

Michael Bradford, who has produced Kid Rock, notes that as storage and bandwidth capabilities grow, music won’t need to be as compressed. Even now, some audio buffs, such as Stereophile magazine columnist Michael Fremer, insist on a best-of-both-worlds approach to digital music. He uses $500 earbuds with his iPod to listen to digital, but uncompressed, music he captures from vinyl LPs.

Still, engineers experience some nostalgia about earlier technologies. Says Saylor, “What we’ve lost with this new era of massive compression and low fidelity are the records that sounds so good that you get lost in them. “Dark Side of the Moon” — records like that just aren’t being made today.”

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