The Great MP3 Compromise: Credits Where Credits Are Due

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Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.

For the average music listener, mp3s are a compromise. Sound quality is traded for portability. For the extremely nerdy -- more specifically, those involved in the recording and production of music -- the iPod revolution stings. As album art shrinks to the size of a Twitter avatar, the technical credits contained within a CD or record disappear. This has not exactly put record producers, engineers and master-ers on the street begging for change, but none of them are happy about being disassociated from their work.

When discussing anything to do with the culture of music recording, a line is always drawn between the people behind the studio glass and "normal people." This is not elitism, because the priorities of normal people are, well, remarkably more normal. Normal people care about how good a song is. Recording people care about this too, but also have to care about gain staging, headroom, compression ratios, digital clipping, phase relationships and other things that no human should have to consider.

Most of these people do not get paid what they are worth -- especially if you consider their equivalents in the television and film industries. The tradeoff for years has been the liner note credits. If a musician likes the way a CD sounds, s/he will likely open up the booklet and see who is responsible. This is the best form of promotion for a recording nerd, and one great album can lead to numerous new clients. The information is now available online, but this requires some digging and the closest thing to a regulated source of information is the always reliable Wikipedia.

Album credits matter less to normal people, but it can be fun to connect the dots between different records (i.e., "Woah, I didn't realize the dude from Apples In Stereo recorded Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over the Sea!"). Before I knew what mastering was, I knew there was a mastering engineer named Alan Douches. After I knew how to properly pronounce this name, I still say it in a way that turns him into a complete sentence. Yet, when you listen to Strange Mercy by St. Vincent on your iPod or iTunes, Steve Jobs gets more credit than album producer John Congleton.

The simplest solution involves embedding this information into mp3 files. If you "Get info" on a track in iTunes, a menu appears with information about the composer, album artist, track number on the album and so on. It seems like a no-brainer to add a field for "technical credits" or something cooler sounding that I can't think of right now. After all, iTunes is constantly asking if you want to update to the newest software, so this could be incorporated into an upgrade. And because I don't have the faintest idea how that would work, it seems easy enough, right?

If a change occurs, it will do little to nothing for the billions of files laying dormant on hard drives and dark gray voids of the Internet. The most significant way for a shift in this status quo is for normal people to care and not just the reclusive recording geeks. The people who listen to music on their iPods probably do not care about impedance matching or AD conversion or stereo imaging or other things that matter to the technically minded people who make their favorite songs happen. But anybody can relate to the need for credit when credit is due.

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2 comments
JamesMadison
JamesMadison topcommenter

Do the engineers at Ford get credit listings for their creative designs? Does the plastic surgeon get credit on your favorite actress recent movie? Why? Because 99.44% people do not care. the sound engineer's mother cares. Anyone else? Really? Just because Bil VornDick mixed Ralph Stanley's CD set, do I rush out to but some rap CD he mixed? No, that makes no sense.


Those that really need to know and would bring them business, have simple ways of finding out who did the mix, producing, or whatever. The rest of the world does not know, and does not need to know.

If you were a real audiophile, we would not be talking MP3 credits. No real sound engineer would want that to be known as his work. There are much better formats. Ditch that el cheapo MP3 player and get something of quality.

robschlette
robschlette

Good topic!

In the case of MP3, the onus is on application developers to display the relevant ID3 frames (a.k.a. tags). ID3 frames are the standardized meta-data fields made available in the MP3 standard. There are currently dozens of standardized fields, including "Involved people list" and "Musician credits list". However, if the MP3 isn't encoded by a mastering engineer the odds are slim that these fields are populated.

AAC/MP4 and FLAC files all use different conventions for storing and displaying metadata, so using an online recording credits database is a much more realistic solution. Such a  database would still need standardized fields in apps, but it wouldn't have to directly rely on the audio files for the credits information.

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