Just Listen: Elliot Scheiner

Eliot ScheinerElliot Scheiner is a record producer and engineer. He did his audio apprenticeship, in effect, with Phil Ramone back in the ’60s. He has subsequently worked with numerous musicians, including Steely Dan, Van Morrison, Beck, and Bruce Hornsby.

I had the opportunity to speak with him about various things audio. (He thinks, for example, that black vinyl is the best medium for listening: “We hear analog, not digital.” He acknowledges the ubiquity of iPods, cringes at the compression rate, and is hopeful that there will be continued developments that will provide music files that don’t leave out as much information as the current approach; he cites work that’s being done at the Fraunhofer Institute, where MP3 was developed, that would provide more robust audio experience.)

“So,” I asked, “what’s your sense of the state of the music industry?”

“It’s fucked.”

In Scheiner’s view, it is the result of, essentially, one thing: Greed. Greed on the part of the music companies that began to rip off customers in earnest when CDs emerged, charging a usurious surcharge for music on that format despite the fact that it cost less to produce the discs than packaging it on black vinyl or cassette. Second, greed on the part of listeners who started pirating the music, leaving the artists without getting any money for their work. “That hurt musicians more than the labels. The music companies can always figure out ways to cheat the artists to survive.”

Another change that has led to the current situation emerged in the late ’80s when, Scheiner says, music company execs and A&R people started involving themselves in the production of music. Scheiner recalls that he’d be asked to provide them with the tape recorded at the end of a week, and they would then say things like “I don’t like that part” or “This needs more bass here.” It wasn’t, he explains, that they were necessarily interested in making the music more commercial; rather, they simply wanted to be able to say that they were responsible for a recording. “They didn’t know anything,” Scheiner insists.

Scheiner is one of the founding members of the METAlliance, which is dedicated to promoting high levels of audio engineering, both as regards recording and listening. He points out that the proliferation of digital recording has resulted in a more-than decimation of recording studios. A problem, he thinks, is that the quality of the music suffers, so if the music truly matters, then those creating music need to understand the differences. “I’m involved with a group of guys trying to educate the public on the alternative to MP3 files.” He acknowledges that there is certainly a place for iPod-based music. If you’re running. Or want to have 1,000 songs in your car. “So be it. Everyone is OK with that concept. But there is better sound than MP3 files.” He suggests that if someone is skeptical that they simply take a recorded CD, put it in a computer’s drive, and they switch back and forth between it and the same music in MP3 format.

Some bands think that if they give their music away for free, they’ll make it up on the touring and merch and the like. Scheiner doesn’t think this is likely; he says that he’s aware of just two bands that have turned that trick: the Grateful Dead and Phish, and that to some of the fans of the latter are fans of the former and so there is a predisposition among the collective to support those musicians. Scheiner does think that the future of the industry will be based on digital distribution of music. Unless or until the improved downloading platform comes to the fore, this will mean subpar audio. Yet Scheiner is pleased that there are labels that are putting music on vinyl today, so all is not digitally sampled.

If the issue is simply convenience and portability, that’s one thing. But if it is truly hearing an artist’s work, for Scheiner, that’s something else entirely.

9 thoughts on “Just Listen: Elliot Scheiner”

  1. Part of the problem is that the music consuming public has been dumbed down, aurally speaking.

    People want to hear music, often as background noise, as they go about their lives (in the car, jogging, at work, etc.) but how often does anybody take the time to sit in front of a good stereo or put on headphones and dedicate 45 minutes strictly to listening to a record? Most don’t, so the demand for the subtleties and nuances that make the vinyl listening experience superior to MP3 or CD have been sort of engineered out of existence as the business of distributing music has been tailored by market forces to the demands of a society on-the-go and otherwise distracted. It’s sort of like the difference between a really good burger that you cook on your grill and a Big Mac; you prefer the freshly grilled burger, but you can drive through McDonald’s and have that Big Mac RIGHT NOW!

    There are modern music recording software applications that allow a recordist to emulate all manner of analog components of the recording process, from mic’s to preamps to compressors, as well as the instruments themselves. Might we someday see “vinyl modeling” added to final mixes (if someone hasn’t done that already)?

  2. I’m sure someone said similar to the above 50 years ago because kids wanted to walk around listening to Elvis on transistor radios and not sit at home contemplating Brubeck on fancy Hi-Fis

  3. As someone who enjoys and appreciates the flavor of both McDonalds and home-grilled burgers, I love my iPod even while I continually attempt to upgrade my home system to higher fidelity. I like both. But even with my mp3s, I create them at very high quality (EAC/LAME –V0, etc.)

    To Newton’s point, the difference is that 50 years ago the people recording, mastering, and manufacturing the music were attempting to create the highest quality technologically possible. Even though the kids with their cheap radios didn’t appreciate it, the SOURCE at least was high fidelity.

    People prefer convenience over quality. That’s why cassette tapes ruled the early 80s. Oh well.

    But as broadband becomes more ubiquitous and hard drives become cheaper, maybe lossless encoding formats will become more accepted… We’ll see.

    Hopefully, there will always be a market for audiophiles.

  4. thanks for that article/interview. elliot makes a lot of fine points. i respect this man a lot. he recently did the new mixes/remastering of sorts for r.e.m.’s warner albums.

    he was repsonisble for the dvd+a portion and the sound is fucking fantatisc. monster is a whole new album. i really repsect this guy and love his work. a highly informative and enlightening read. thanks again.

  5. To elaborate on Newton’s and Jake’s points:

    The transistor radio of the 1950’s was perhaps the iPod of its time and, thus, the seeds of the demand for convenient music was born.

    There has almost always been a sort of pooh-poohing in our society of people who make extra investments in high-quality stereo systems. Often, such people are simply derided as egotistical or, if they’re men, making up for something else that they don’t have… It escapes a lot of people (who have probably never owned decent systems) that for those who simlpy care about music, there is a huge difference between systems that are designed to be convenient and those that are designed to deliver a better listening experience.

    Jake raises a good point. While today’s audiophile laments the loss of the high-fidelity ananlog systems, newer technologies are marching forward. Today’s digital recording technology has far exceeded the long-time resolution standards set by the CD format, and the technology, both in the studio and in the home, only promises to improve.

  6. One of the things that he told me was that when working with Steely Dan on a recording, they wanted to record it digitally and he wanted to put it on tape. So he recorded it both ways, then played it back for Becker and Fagen. And they opted for the analog.

    Perhaps a fundamental issue here is not so much about being music snobs as much as it is about what the artist is trying to accomplish. Presumably, Leonardo would be happy that people can see the Mona Lisa on their computer screen, but isn’t the actual paint-on-canvas the better experience? Aren’t musicians really trying to provide a richness of audio experience–as rich as they can make it, even if we’re listening to it through 89-cent transducers in our ears?

  7. Don’t think that mastering technicians weren’t playing to tiny speakers in a lot of those old recordings. There’s always going to be a market for anything that has the potential to make money. I can’t see audio quality going by the wayside just because most of us can’t smoke out and wear $200 headphones at work.

  8. To be fair about Elliott Scheiner’s Steely Dan comment, he recorded them in the dawn of the digital recording age, in 1979, if I recall. Digital recording has come a long way since. And I’m not an apologist for digital recording; there’s a place for both.

    As heartbreaking as it is for me to witness the slow death of the CD, I probably wouldn’t be so heartbroken about its demise if the higher-res download formats were a bit more ubiquitous. The fact that we’re just not there yet in terms of sound quality is what’s bustin’ me up.

    And Elliott Scheiner is one of the giants of the industry; I have high respect for his work. Thanks for posting this!

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