From Commentary

Billie Eilish at Pukkelpop Festival, courtesy Lars Crommelinck Photography (Creative Commons)

Billie Eilish and the myth of the homemade Grammy-winner

When Billie Eilish won best record for When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? a lot of press focused on how a record made *in a bedroom* won a Grammy.

There’s an emerging narrative that as digital technology has improved, and as the cost of basic recording equipment has fallen, anyone can make a record at home.

But it’s not quite the whole story.

Not even for Eilish herself.

Bedrooms are bangin’ for synthesizers

Let me start by saying I really like Billie Eilish. And I really like the album. It’s a beautifully original piece of work with an obvious attention to detail. She sounds great. Her brother’s production is imaginative and perfectly executed. It was a well-deserved win.

But the first caveat to the “anyone can make a record at home” narrative – using Eilish’s record as evidence – is that the album is predominantly electronic. By and large, it’s built from soft synths, samples, found sounds and vocals. And the vocals are delivered at a whisper (one of the best things about Eilish).

It’s music that suits home recording.

At this point in time, it would have made less sense for Eilish and Finneas to hire a studio to record in. It just wouldn’t make sense for this kind of music.

I’m not trying to undermine the achievement, it’s just worth bearing in mind that home recording isn’t quite the same for musicians who use real instruments, rather than noises from a computer.

When you’re moving air in a room, the mics matter. The room matters. And you make a lot of noise. The kind of noise you can’t usually get away with in a residential space.

I’m sure there’ll be many more homemade records winning Grammies in the future. But no matter how cheap the tech gets, how advanced software becomes, I bet they’ll still be predominantly electronic.

Mixed by Rob Kinelski

The second problem with the “Billie Eilish proves you can make a world-beating record at home” premise, is that it wasn’t entirely made at home.

Finneas didn’t mix the album. Rob Kinelski did.

You can mix commercial quality recordings at home. You can. People do it all the time. Andrew Scheps recently said he was giving up his mix room so he could mix in a living room.

Now you don’t need a massive mixing console and racks upon racks of outboard, mixing in a dedicated room suddenly isn’t so fundamental. And living rooms are full of frequency damping soft furnishings. I’ve been in treated rooms with worse acoustics.

But that doesn’t mean you should.

Finneas is a talented producer but he recognised that either his mixing skills weren’t up to it, his setup wasn’t up to it, or simply that there’s value in another pair of ears. Especially in electronic music, where it can be difficult to maintain perspective when you’ve already slaved over each sound with the same tools as you use in mixing.

And Kinelski is no slouch. His credits include Common, Nas and Vince Staples. And although he works on a computer – with the same tools available to anyone at home – he still has a dedicated mix room.

Mastered by John Greenham

Neither did Finneas master it. John Greenham mastered it. For which he won a technical Grammy himself.

Greenham is a similarly dyed-in-the-wool professional with credits for, among others, Ice Cube. His rack includes top of the line pieces like the elysia alpha compressor – a snip at £8,479 – and the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor; available for a mere £7,800.

Again, it is perfectly possible to master a record to commercial standard entirely with software. Sometimes, it’s even desirable. But would something mastered at home with plug-ins alone win a technical Grammy? Probably not.

Those expensive boxes still do something. I master solely with software every now and then, but by and large, I get more out of running it through my analogue chain – even compared to very good emulations.

And in mastering, the room really counts. It is technically possible to master in less-than-favourable circumstances, but you have to really know what you’re doing.

Technology is a tool

The point is, just because the enormous leaps in digital music technology over the past few years have made it technically possible to make a record entirely at home, that doesn’t mean that it’s desirable, or that it’s the future of recording.

And Eilish’s record is not the standard-bearer for home recording it’s being made out to be.

Yes, recording at home makes sense for electronic music. But as When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? demonstrates, there is a still a need for professional skills. The tools of mixing and mastering may be easily available, but the skills still require years – decades, even – of study and practice. And there will always be value in a second, and third pair of ears.

The proof is the result. One of the things I admire about Billie Eilish’s album is how it sounds.

In a time when treble rules the playlists, when I first listened to it, I was immediately struck by how much low end it had, while still retaining a laudable clarity.

It’s an incredible technical achievement, as well as a musical one. And to me, it makes more of a case for taking records out of the bedroom – even when they were recorded in one – than it does for home recording.

High Fidelity Sound

HD Audio – myths, facts and Tidal

Beginning with Neil Young’s Pono system, the last couple of years have seen a few attempts to sell ‘HD Audio’ to consumers. Usually, technical specs on what ‘HD’ actually means are pretty hard to come by. Instead, these products are typically accompanied by a press release boasting that it ‘sounds just like the master tapes!’

I call snake oil. Here’s why.

Selling a hi-fi in the 21st century

Hi-fis haven’t got much better since the ’70s. Quality comes cheaper as components become cheaper to manufacture. So you can buy better for less. That’s about it. Why? Amplifiers and speakers are pretty simple pieces of electronic kit, bound by physical laws. There’s not really a lot else you can do.

As listening habits have shifted from the living room hi-fi to laptop speakers, earbuds and worse, manufacturers have hit upon two things:

  1. They need to sell hi-fis as a premium product to older consumers with disposable income
  2. This demographic already loves the HD video their blu-ray players gives them

HD is a recognisable tag from video. And many blu-ray home cinema systems already talk about HD audio – correctly, as blu-rays typically contain lossless audio, as opposed to the 192kbps stream usually found on a DVD.

So not HD as such. There was no great leap forward in digital audio quality. It’s just that what the guys in the post-production suites were listening to could now fit on a disc alongside the video rather than being heavily data compressed. Not-Shit-D rather than HD.

Better than CD!

There are two ways in which audio manufacturers are trying to sell high definition audio to consumers. The first is sample rates higher than CD quality, the second is in thinly veiled re-packaging of higher quality DACs (digital to analogue converters). The former is snake oil, the latter is welcome.

Let’s dive into sampling theory for a second. CD is at 44.1kHz, 16 bit. That means there are 44,100 audio ‘slices’, each containing 16 bits of information on a CD. Given this frequency, that means CD quality audio could technically reproduce a tone at 44.1kHz as loud as 0dB and as quiet as -96dB.

The way audio is read from a CD actually means it can reproduce half that frequency (look up Nyquist curves and enter the world of esoteric digital mathematics). Which is fine because the human ear can only hear up to 20kHz at best. This drops off with ageing. I’m 30 and can hear up to 18-19kHz which is great for my age.

All higher sample rates – 96kHz say – are doing is reproducing higher frequency information that we can’t hear. That means pumping out audio that’s putting more strain on your amplifier etc. for no reason. It might sound different to you but what you’re responding to is distortion further down the spectrum caused by the unnecessary frequencies at the top.

It’s worth working at higher rates (as I do) because certain processes – particularly non-linear dynamics processing like compression – works better at higher sample rates. But for listening? Nonsense.

As for 24 bit? Possibly. Again, all it means is that the dynamic range extends to -144dB instead of -96dB and no one can hear a signal that quiet. But it does remove the need for quite such heavy handed dithering, and not all dithering algorithms are equal. So there is potentially benefit in listening to material that hasn’t been dithered to 16 bit.

Digital-to-Analogue-Conversion for ‘norms’

Higher quality DACs really do make a difference. My Benchmark DAC-1 cost me £900, and you don’t spend that money for nothing. But it’s a very nerdy thing to buy for a hi-fi; you’d have to be a serious audiophile to even think about it.

A friend of mine brought round his Pono player (‘just like the master tapes!’) I listened to it. Could hear how the transients were sharper and the top end smoother than say, listening directly from the output of my 1980s CD player. Then we played the same song going through my mid-level Arcam DAC. The Arcam won. But by being better at the same thing.

Pono, and other systems like it, are very cagey about what they’re actually selling. I’m convinced they’re packaging higher quality DACs in prettier, non-nerd friendly packaging. I’ve no evidence for this, but given the physical limits of human hearing, can’t see any reason why they would be doing anything else. And that’s fine by me.

Part of the reason people prefer the sound of vinyl is because it doesn’t go through digital to analogue conversion. It doesn’t have to. So it’s not muddied by cheap electronics. When people wax lyrical about how ‘solid’ and ‘real’ vinyl sounds – they’re describing the same effect a high quality DAC has on lossless digital sources.

Tidal – ‘high fidelity’ streaming

Which brings me to Tidal. As clumsy and embarrassing as the star-studded relaunch was, there is something there. I’m an early adopter of Tidal. Why? Because it’s ‘high fidelity’.

What do they mean by ‘high fidelity’? Lossless. Pure and simple. It’s CD quality FLACs in streaming form. They’re not selling snake oil, they’re selling the real deal. Ignore all the guff about ‘curated content’, paying artists more royalties (this is also nonsense, but that’s for another post) and how the software is still a bit shonky at this early stage, and what you get is Spotify without the horrible, lossy audio.

Tidal will probably get washed away [sic] by all the negative press its received, but it’s paving a way forward. Or rather, back to what we had.

What’s real HD audio? A CD quality audio played through a good DAC. Been the same since the ’80s.