A Great Question: Why Do All Records Sound the Same?

This is an old article–from 2008, actually–but it still contains some interesting truths about the ugly business of making music.

There was once a little-watched video on Maroon 5’s YouTube channel (now deleted, but visible here and here) which documents the tortuous, tedious process of crafting an instantly-forgettable mainstream radio hit.

It’s fourteen minutes of elegantly dishevelled chaps sitting in leather sofas, playing $15,000 vintage guitars next to $200,000 studio consoles, staring at notepads and endlessly discussing how little they like the track (called “Makes Me Wonder”), and how it doesn’t have a chorus. Even edited down, the tedium is mind-boggling as they play the same lame riff over and over and over again. At one point, singer Adam Levine says: “I’m sick of trying to engineer songs to be hits.” But that’s exactly what he proceeds to do.

The final version of “Makes Me Wonder” came in three versions: Album, Clean (with the word ‘fuck’ removed from the chorus) and Super Clean (with ‘fuck’ removed more thoroughly, and ‘God’ removed from the second verse). It was a spectacular hit, number one in Panama, Croatia, Cyprus, South Korea and Hungary and many larger countries. Why? Because it was played on the radio over and over and over again.

When you turn on the radio, you might think music all sounds the same these days, then wonder if you’re just getting old. But you’re right, it does all sound the same. Every element of the recording process, from the first takes to the final tweaks, has been evolved with one simple aim: control. And that control often lies in the hands of a record company desperate to get their song on the radio. So they’ll encourage a controlled recording environment (slow, high-tech and using malleable digital effects).

Every finished track is then coated in a thick layer of audio polish before being market-tested and dispatched to a radio station, where further layers of polish are applied until the original recording is barely visible. That’s how you make a mainstream radio hit, and that’s what record labels want.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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