THE DEFINITION OF
IS STILL EVOLVING
By Sage Kim
Sci-fi writer Robert A . Heinlein once wrote ,“ One man ’ s magic is another man ’ s engineering .” This applies to the jobs , not just engineering . In whatever field you work , being a professional / expert at something means you demystify a certain concept , which might look like an unbreakable code to people outside the field . Audio work is not an exception . One common goal of all audio people is to make audio signals “ sound good .” Even when they distort or degrade them , it is ultimately to make something sound good in a specific context .
So , what is a “ good sound ”? Though it is impossible to pin down the hard checklist for it , audio people must be analytic in a way to figure out the elements and characteristics that comprise good sound . To some extent , there are obvious factors that should be routinely included . Most of the jobs should reference other contemporary works that most modern listeners are familiar with and would expect to sound in line with . As a mastering engineer active in the 2020s , I also spend a lot of time checking the boxes of criteria of what is considered “ good sound ” in modern standards in terms of the level , dynamics , frequency balance , stereo image , etc .
However , that standard or the interpretation of good sound is not something that can be carved in stone . It constantly evolves over time as technology and culture change , just like many other concepts whose meanings change with new findings . As a former biologist , I find the evolution of “ good sound ” is similar to the history of many important scientific concepts . For example , though the term “ gene ” seems to have had obvious and stable definition , it has changed in many ways , even recently , and it might keep changing in the future . The term “ gene ” used to indicate more of a special characteristic than material before the age of molecular
biology , then it almost became synonymous with “ DNA ,” and now it incorporates the dynamic aspects such as gene regulation . While scientists would have no choice but to start their research based on past findings , they should always keep the fundamental view in mind to challenge the current definitions of concepts they are dealing with . That is how you make room for progress . Everything evolves with new findings , and we don ’ t yet see any endpoint of evolution on this planet .
It is no different when working to create “ good sound ” or “ good music .” There is always room for debate or doubt in something you create and how to deal with it plays a critical role in shaping the future journey . Throughout the history of music , there were many instances where new styles of music were bashed and criticized . For example , electronic music was considered less authentic and even offensive to many when it was first introduced . Even now , there are still many people with this preconception . The definition of good sound can also be greatly affected by one ’ s perspective on musical “ authenticity .” Is a cold and mechanical feeling always bad ? Is natural live-like sound somewhat superior to the sound purely synthesized in a small bedroom studio ? Not really if they fit the soundscape you want to create . Is hi-fi good and lo-fi bad ? It can be in some cases , but it also can be the reverse .
I think going back to the fundamental definition of the core concept is one of the best practices for anything , including audio work . The way we recognize and describe good sound or good anything is sometimes confined by the past trend of values and vocabularies . As a result , we often don ’ t venture into areas outside of our own reality , which should be incorporated in art as well . And when our frames of thought are limited , so too are our end results .
The practice is also important for recognizing the uniqueness of individual projects . When someone creates something , there is always something new that didn ’ t exist on this planet before . Though it is not always big enough to change the paradigm , even the slightest hint of novelty and individuality contributes to the whole game of civilization . Just like evolution is power-driven by genetic variations .
Therefore , I think balancing between taking advantage of the past knowledge and pushing the envelope into unknown territory is the rule of thumb for creating anything . It means learning from the past with some dose of methodological doubt . To borrow Isaac Newton ’ s expression , “ Seeing further by standing on the shoulders of giants ” is the mechanism of the evolution of our civilization . Human evolution is not over , and so neither is the evolution of everything we create . From the perspective of a former biologist and current audio professional , that is my theory of everything .
Sage Kim is a mastering engineer at Lacquer Channel Mastering in Toronto . She is also serving on the Production & Engineering Advisory Committee of Women in Music Canada .
PROFESSIONAL SOUND 9