A friend slipped me a copy of her upcoming album recently. I liked her songs as well as her singing. The arrangements on the album showed that some thought had been put into making each song feel unique. But the longer I listened the more I started to notice that someone had gone crazy with compression. I could hear it tugging at the vocals at the beginning of a line, and pumping away on the drum tracks. I mentioned this to someone who'd heard the music and they said, "You hear those sort of things. Normal people don't."
In Joe Boyd's book White Bicycles, in reference to the sound at a concert he was attending he notes, "Only when the sonic image is right can I relax and enjoy the music." While we all know there is no such thing as "wrong" or "right" when it comes to sound/ music/recording, we also know what we like.
I was listening to demos and a previous album from an artist whom I'm producing soon. Even while listening to the album I would hear stuff and go, "Oh man. I wouldn't do that. Turn the reverb down. Why aren't there vocal harmonies here?" I want to make the best record I can for this person, and of course we'll discuss what they want and expect when we get in the studio, but a lot of my choices come down to my own personal taste.
When I listen to someone's CD, I try to turn off some of my critical faculties regarding audio and listen for songs, performances, unique sounds, emotions and all the wonderful things music listening can provide. But in many cases I'll hear things that bug me.
When I'm producing a record I sometimes think of it as removing the things that pull the listener out of the listening experience. Think of a vocal take: You know that little smack/click sound that someone's mouth can make right before they are about to sing? It's a totally natural part of singing, yet when amplified through a mic it can also sound like an electrical "pop," and that makes the listener think they're hearing a glitch from the recording process. I can't imagine pulling the listener further away than what that could do — no longer are they hearing the singer delivering a message to the listener. Instead they're thinking, "Who fucked up this recording?" To another producer possibly these sounds infer a type of realism, adding some "you are there" and are giving the listener the feeling that a live performance was taking place. I can totally understand that, I just have my own responses to what I hear.
You are making and recording music. Most likely you have your own taste when it comes to what you want to create and how it sounds. This is what we all bring to the table. I don't know how many times an interviewee has told me that their job while producing an album is to accent the elements they like and hide the parts they don't like. They are hired for their taste and for the decisions they have made on previous projects. They have created an album that other people appreciated and enjoyed.
Next time I'm mucking around with our cheap surround home theater system in the middle of a movie and driving my girlfriend nuts, or at a show glaring at the sound person, I'll try to remember that this might be my "problem," but that it's also led to the career that I have now. And I'll be thankful.