I’m talking about the ongoing war between subjectivists and objectivists – And I’m here to demand that you never, ever pick one side or another. Instead: pick both.
First, a little background: Just who are these people?
Subjectivists, at their best, are those who believe that process and individual experience are of primary importance in the studio; That the value of subtle choices between tools cannot be boiled away by the reductionist overreaches of science, and perhaps most importantly, that what seems best on paper is not always what sounds best on the ear.
Objectivists, in their best moments, are pragmatic, clear-eyed realists who are interested in evidence rather than anecdotes or testimonials. They are concerned with what’s essential, what’s provable, and what can be shown to get results. They believe – correctly in fact – that everything that we can hear can be measured. And they’re interested in that measurement and evidence, not because they don’t value art or the energy people put into it, but precisely because they do.
If both these outlooks sound more or less equally appealing, then I’m glad to hear it. Like most dichotomies, the subjectivist-objectivist dichotomy is a false one. There’s no good reason I can think of to force yourself into choosing between solid knowledge and personal preference. Yet at times, there’s no end to the enmity between the camps anyway.
But I suppose all the arguing makes some sense. We audio obsessives can be a persnickety breed, especially when we’re allowed to get together on the interwebs before letting off steam.
At our worst, the subjectivists among us can be a bunch of audiophile cranks and kooks who are superstitious about our sound, buying up bags of magic beans for our hi-fi systems and obsessing over the directionality of cables. And our objectivist sides are no better, sometimes turning us into grating know-it-alls – poindexters and party-poopers who are so busy studying the forest that we can’t stop to appreciate the charm of any given tree.
Tell a die-hard subjectivist the basic truth that simple 16-bit CDs in fact have higher fidelity than tape or vinyl in every way that can be measured, and he may look at you like you’re lying. Tell a die-hard objectivist that you prefer the sound of tape or vinyl anyway, and he may cock his head like you didn’t hear him just then about the whole “fidelity” thing.
Demonstrate to an ardent subjectivist that he might not be able to hear the difference between two similar sources, and he’ll likely tell you the test is rigged. Tell an objectivist that his newer, cleaner, cheaper, quieter alternative isn’t floating your boat and it can come across as a personal affront from a backward-looking curmudgeon.
But all that this level of mistrust does is to stoke people’s insecurities, when they should instead be borrowing from the best of each other’s perspectives.
An objectivist can tell you that the room you record and mix in matters a lot. We can test it and measure it and show that any improvement there, up to a point, will have a greater impact on the quality of your recordings than a purchase of any high-end piece of boutique audio gear. We can play you blind clips of a fancy microphone in an untreated garage and a cheap mic in well-balanced room, and leave you certain that your resources are best devoted to the things that make the measurable difference.
But a subjectivist can remind you that the relationships we have with our tools can go beyond mere measurement, and that sometimes the story that a piece of equipment tells is just as important as the sound it can be shown to make. There are times when design, heritage or tradition can inspire confidence, and confidence is essential to artistic expression. Without it, there is no music worth hearing.
An objectivist can tell you what tool is the most neutral, which one is more colored, by how much, and in what capacity. But only a subjectivist can tell you which one is worth using. A subjectivist, for his part, can tell you what tools he likes the sound of. But only an objectivist can really find out why – and figure out how to reproduce it.
We all have both extremes inside of us, and we’re well served to recognize it. When we don’t, we make mistakes.
In 1965, CBS bought the Fender musical instrument company. After a time, they redesigned some of the line, in part to cut costs. But also because “objective” engineers saw easy ways to improve circuits in ways they thought might make sense: they could figure out ways to make guitar amps provide a cleaner tone at a louder volume. But what looks better on paper doesn’t always sound better at the ear. The CBS-era revisions of Fender’s classic amps are still worth less to this day. Take away familiar and euphonic sounding distortion and people may notice. Not all of them will like it.
Throughout the ages, subjectivists have gotten things wrong as well. They’ve fallen for all sorts of tricks: the silly notion that freezing or applying green sharpie to a CD can improve its sound. A full list of disproved notions is too long and too embarrassing to list here, but the most important thing to remember is that when they get it wrong, they really do hear a difference. It’s just that the difference exists inside the mind, rather than out in the air or inside the ear. When you put too much weight and credibility onto your internal experience, it can lead to unsupportable lapses in judgment.
Comfort, workflow, inspiration, sonic coloration – all of these things are essential in design, particularly in an age in which we quickly find ourselves up against a point of diminishing returns when it comes to raw audio quality and transparency.
To this day, every truly meaningful advance in sound technology has come when objective measurement and subjective preference meet. And that tradition continues at every truly successful audio company today – both inside the box and out.
Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based audio engineer, college professor, and journalist. He records and mixes all over NYC, masters at JLM, teaches at CUNY, is a regular contributor to SonicScoop, and edits the music magazine Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.