A Plea for Sonic Sanity for Artists on YouTube

YouTube is a great place for singers to become known and for well-known singers to share with their fans and to experiment without the incurring the costs of a full studio and engineer while getting feedback on something new. For a number of artists, even fairly well-known artists, however, that gives them an excuse to put out stuff that, from a recording point of view, is mediocre or even lousy. I guess the thinking is it’s better to engage fans more frequently even if the acoustic qualities of the recording are questionable. Stop it – please. This has nothing to do with one’s ability to sing or play, it’s simply all about lousy sound. I’m going to pick on a singer I believe sings beautifully; there is no question in my mind whether her voice produces lovely, dulcet sounds. I’ll use her as an example of giving to bad sound. It makes it a little easier to pick her since she no longer falls into this bad habit.

When an artist puts out lousy recordings, it can be frustrating because you may really want to hear the song but can’t. It may be their only take on the song and you’ll never know how great that rendition might be. Also, you made some, albeit minor, effort to find and hear them and came away disappointed. Both of these suggest that you may be a little less reluctant to listen to them again or bother to look them up. There are some artists who have trained me well in that regard. One of my favorite singers is Kina Grannis. I’ve followed her since before her Stairwells debut and loved her most recent Elements record. If the initial picture of one of her YouTube videos doesn’t look studio produced, I just flat out refuse to listen to it (at least up to about a year ago). While a couple have sounded OK, more often than not, listening to them is painful. Obviously, given my appreciation of Ms. Grannis’ vocal talent, it isn’t her voice, but the recording.

Let me walk through some of the challenges. For an example, of a video with so-so lighting and poor acoustics from the corners, in a hallway with stairs leading to lots of bounces in her cover of “Back to December” (Taylor Swift).  Another example of overly-bright and bouncy sound with echoes due to playing directly in front of a wall with a picture with a glass front (yikes) is her cover of “Where I Stood” (Missy Higgins). It can get worse but this is pretty horrific. Now for some comparison here’s her lovely rendition of “Safe and Sound” (Taylor Swift/Civil Wars); it’s a bit bright and bouncy but much more palatable. Now listen to the same cover within a decent acoustic setting.

It doesn’t take a studio or thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment to get solid sound. A reasonable mike (for example Blue Microphone’s Yeti USB Microphone which goes for around – $110), a little acoustic dampening of the room (throw pillows and curtains can help a ton) and being fairly close to the mike all make a huge difference. I’m not asking for sonic bliss (although I’ll take some of that if you’re offering), just sonic sanity.  Throw in some video/sound software such as TechSmith’s Camtasia Studio ($300) and Audacity (free) and you’re good to go.

So I encourage artists to avoid poor sound even when they want to through a quick one out on YouTube. A little effort will create a video worth listening to and might just create one more raving fan. For those artists who are already established, just don’t – give us the good stuff.