Interview: Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda Talks Digital Audio Fidelity and Recording in Analog

Last week we talked about The Distortion of Sound, the new documentary concerning the gradual decline in audio quality that plagues the music current music industry. If you haven’t watched it yet (it’s free, incidentally) you really owe it to yourself to take the half an hour, and to share with a less-tech-savvy friend. For those of you who can’t stream a video right now, the gist is this: music fans are getting deprived of the ability to hear the full quality of the music they’re downloading, streaming, and YouTube-ing. Initially, the desire for convenience of carrying a small device necessitated the severe compression of music files, but as tech has advanced beyond that point, the quality of the music we’re hearing hasn’t. In fact, since the CD, the clarity and authenticity or recordings has largely decreased. Buy the best headphones, speakers, you name it, and they’re all worthless if the audio you’re playing isn’t high quality. Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park is a vocalist, songwriter, guitarist and keyboardist, as well as producer, and was one of the many members of the music and recording industry who participated in The Distortion of Sound. I sat down with him before the documentary premiere to talk about the state of the music industry, how he listens to music, and what it was like to record an album analog.

Tech^2’s Lauren Dragan: Okay, I have to ask, since we’re talking about the various methods of experiencing music, how do you tend to listen to music?

Mike Shinoda: When I’m just listening to music and enjoying? Well, if I’m looking for something new, I tend to stream it. If I’m listening to something that’s a favorite, it will be from my library or from vinyl.

LD: Ah! So you do have vinyl!

MS: Yeah, I have a turntable in my living room and in the studio. And you know, occasionally, I’ll throw that on. But to be honest, the vast majority of my listening is through streaming services, and lots of them...I don’t have a favorite really at this point. Part of that is because I like to look for music and I like to find new stuff, and if I’m in the mood to find it a certain way, I’ll go that that app or website.

LD: I was actually going to ask you about your thoughts on streaming services and how they compensate artists. What are your thoughts on the payment of artists within the streaming structure?

MS: If you’re an artist, and you don’t say that you wish you could make more money streaming then... that’s kinda stupid. I mean, why wouldn’t you want it better? But the point is, I believe in streaming. I think streaming, just from a fan perspective, as a music listener, is the most exciting way to find new music and to share it. And so, as it applies to the documentary, it’s a moment of truth in terms of compression, and the quality of audio that streaming services offer. I learned from working with Harman on our Infinity portable speaker. [Interviewer’s note: the speaker he’s referring to, the Infinity One, is due to be released in August] We talked a lot about compression and audio quality, and I think that we’re at a moment right now where people have the opportunity to affect change in not only the music industry, but the technology industry. And whether we’re talking about hardware or software, both are guilty of overlooking audio quality because it’s not high on their list [of priorities]. [Manufacturers] want to make a great phone, and they make a great phone. But at the same time, you might choose one phone over another phone because you want to take higher quality pictures. You wouldn’t stand for a phone that has a camera that takes shots that are low-res with .jpeg artifacts all over them. And yet, why would you do that with your audio? People are beginning to realize: the bandwidth is there, the technology is there; they just need to say, “I’m gonna choose this phone over that phone because it has better audio.” The same is true for music services: if service A has better quality over service B, then absolutely, I would choose that.

LD: Makes sense. Let’s hope that changes soon! In the meantime, does knowing that your music is going to be compressed heavily play into any part of how you mix your albums for release? Do you take that into consideration when you bounce down?

MS: You can’t because different services compress differently. So a Spotify compression isn’t the same as a Pandora, or YouTube, or an mp3. So all of these things are different, and there isn’t one solution that would alleviate the problem in all of those cases. We just have to make the best high fidelity recording that we can and then cross our fingers and hope that people get to hear it that way. Because it’s up to you! If you choose to listen to a song off the speaker on the bottom of your iPhone...which is, by the way, really common to do! We say, “Oh, have you heard that song?” and you hand me your phone and you pull it up and play it...and that’s how we first hear a song! Thankfully, that’s not how we listen to it each time. But the hope is, you go, “oh that’s cool” and then go have the experience listening to it in a higher fidelity. But some people, maybe they get used to hearing [music] in that F grade fidelity, and then they get an mp3 which is like, say, a C. And that’s all they hear, over and over again, and get used to it.

LD: And yet, better quality doesn’t always mean more expensive!

MS: Yes! Hearing better fidelity music isn’t something that has to be cost prohibitive. For mainstream music fans, younger fans, they’re listening on YouTube. And what I’m offering here is free advice: choose to turn the high def on, and the resolution up. Some people just pull [the song] up and they don’t realize that’s an option.

LD: So do you think it’s just an education issue? That it’s on us, as audio fans, people in the music industry, or the audio technology industry to better explain to others what it is they’re missing and why they deserve more?

MS: I think it is. And you’re right. You could spend a few dollars more, and get something nicer that will really sound much better. But it can be tricky, because some stuff that purports to be great audio, and, by the way, has a price tag that would indicate that it’s great, really isn’t.

LD: Yeah… I know what you mean. There’s so much out there, it’s hard to wade through all of the noise. It’s like that, in a way, for new artists trying to make a name for themselves. The post-record-label-world is better than ever in terms of accessibility to potential fans, but now there’s just a glut of people posting all kinds of music all the time. Do you have any advice for a new artist on how to get noticed?

MS: Maybe this isn’t exactly what you’re asking, but as far as how do you get through to people? You gotta have songs. Even if nobody’s listening. Even if you don’t have a label, or a producer, or any of that; if you work on writing great songs, you’ll get through. That’s your best foundation. And approaching it like a student. Go into the process of writing and recording thinking, “what can I learn?” Our most recent album, [The Hunting Party] is an entirely different place to be in the evolution of an artist, and we’ve been trying to learn how to be better with every album for over a decade: still at this point. This was our first album to be self-produced, our first to rely heavily on analog tape, and our highest resolution recordings: we recorded this at the highest resolution that our DAW would allow with the amount of tracks we had. So you can understand, it took us twelve months to make it. Twelve months working on the smallest detail. And then we’re having this conversation about people listening on their sh**ty iPhone speakers and it’s pretty frustrating!

LD: I can only imagine! You spend all day excruciating over how one hi-hat hit sounds and then…

MS: Oh my god, imagine, you’ve got eighty tracks of audio and in the beginning of the mix you might be moving things up by 5dB, 10dB, putting tracks through various effects, and then at the end of the mix, we’re literally moving volumes by fractions of decibels. One dB is a unit of audio that you can hear, but a fraction… we know that we can’t really hear it, and yet we know that we can feel it in the context of the whole song. And we’ll move things .4dB, .6dB, and then listen to the song again, and then undo it, and compare to figure out which one was better. We do this over, and over, and over.

So the amount of attention of detail when we’re doing this is really high, and it’s really unfortunate that a lot of it gets lost [in streaming and .mp3-type compression]. But I will say, when we’re mixing I will do a pass when I just listen in headphones, or I do a pass in the car… multiple passes in the car, actually. I do a pass when we listen in laptop speakers, and crappy speakers, and in mono on what we call the “alarm clock speaker” just to know how it’s going to sound in all these different environments. And maybe it informs in something about the shape of the song.

Lastly, now that that’s all done: It’s a heavy rock record. It is our maybe our loudest and heaviest that we’ve made. And we knew that when we created it, it was something that we felt passionately about but it was probably a little bit less commercially viable; in that it wasn’t going to get on radio stations the way some of our other stuff has. And we felt passionately about it because we felt that it was a kind of music that, in our own music library, we felt was underserved. I want to listen to this kind of music right now, and there isn’t a lot of great heavy rock music being made. And it’s something I knew that I could make.

LD: I admit, I’ve been waiting for Rage Against The Machine to make a comeback. Or a new version of them to step up.

MS: Tom [Morello of Rage Against The Machine] is on the album! So, to bring it back to the beginning of your question: How to cut through the noise? Well, the old metric for the success of an album was how many spins you got on the radio, where are you on the Billboard chart? And we knew with the new album, going into it, that this wasn’t going to be a [heavily radio played song] and we were okay with that because it’s no longer about cutting through the noise in the old-school mentality. What matters right now is the connection with the fans: how close is your relationship. It’s about the quality of relationship with fans rather than quantity. And as a result, our social media has been bananas, our reviews have been fantastic, and our concerts tickets are selling out. So, yeah, we’re not on the radio, and yeah, we didn’t have a Billboard number one, but those things don’t matter as much anymore. [Interviewers note: The Hunting party, came out at number 3 on Billboard, so still, not too shabby.]

LD: And yet, it’s a blessing and a curse, because anyone can release music now, and anyone can release music now. It’s like saying you have a blog: it could be you talk about kittens and what you had for breakfast, or you know, you could write for The Huffington Post. There’s such a huge amount of media available and such a range of quality, craftsmanship, and art. How does a musician stand a chance?

MS: There are ways. At the end of the day I think artists are trying to do what they love to do, essentially, in quotes “for a living,” just to be able to pay the bills and continue to do that and nothing else. Really, the goal is to quit your job and just be a musician. And, more and more artists are finding more and more interesting ways to be that. For us, our live show is where it’s at. Our tours are a place where we focus a lot of our energy and we sustain our band financially through the touring. Many other artists I know, their focus isn’t touring: it’s merchandise. And other people I know their focus isn’t merchandise, it’s licensing deals or placements in movies, TV, whatever, and they make great money for that. They all get to be a musician for a living. So yeah, some may lament that the industry is so fragmented, but I think it’s great.

LD: I need to back up a second to ask: you recorded this album analog! Was that challenging? What made you decide to do it?

MS: There are so many reasons to do this specific album analog. First, it’s a rock album. Number two, all my reference points for the things I was excited about listening to were analog... Wait, let me start from the beginning. Here’s what happened: So, I did some demos, they were in a more alt-inde-style and I listened to them back one day. I realized they would all probably do well with radio and all that. But as I listened to them I said, “This is totally boring. There is no energy, no passion in it, and I don’t like it. What I wanna listen to right now is... this.” So I started to go looking for what this is...and I realized that there was so little of it out there. And when I started thinking about all my reference points in terms of what I wanted, not the exact sound, but the ethos of it; they were all older albums. It was albums by bands like Fugazi, At The Drive In, Refused, and Helmet, even some more obscure hardcore albums. A lot, if not all of those albums were recorded on tape. So I realized there was a sloppiness and an approach to that recording style. You could really hear the band in the room and that guided the process. I’m our band’s internal producer. On all of our other albums we had a producer, but I always worked as our band’s internal producer and guided the process on the day to day. Rick Rubin would show up, sometimes, every two or three weeks. I’m in there every day. This album is self produced; we didn’t choose to go with anybody else because we knew what it had to be. We made the adjustments to the way we were tracking it because those things had to be there to ride that line between that grimy analog approach and the fidelity that we wanted when we were capturing all [these songs].

LD: So, you recorded on tape and then... what? Did you dump it down to digital to track and mix it? Or…

MS: We did tape for some of the tracking, and what that did was: number one, made it a little sloppier, number two gave it a sound, and three, it forced us to slow down in our process. If you’re recording on digital, our drummer could play for five hours! And you could just let [the recording] go. Then you could pick out later like, oh, this sliver and that sliver are good and put it together. But if you’re running tape? You’ve got a finite amount of minutes till the tape runs out, oh and by the way, if you decide you did a take but there was one spot that could be better, you have to decide whether or not to punch in. Because you can’t undo. It’s either punch in, or fly over to another part of the tape and track it again. Then we took all the tape and put that into the computer. Once we were making that decision, I realized, well, how high can we jack up the fidelity of the actual digital recording so we can preserve as much information as possible that was on the tape? The sound of the tape has to be retained. So we literally doubled our fidelity on the computer side, on the digital side, so that we could capture as much of the tape sound as possible.

LD: That must have taken forever to render.

MS: Yeah, you get into issues like needing more hard drives. And you also have to have the best, the right room to record in, and even the right analog equipment because all those tape companies are out of business now. So you have to look to find the right stuff.

LD: So, okay, you spent twelve months on every detail of your album. If you could magically choose a way for your fans to experience it: headphones, speakers, in the car… live show aside, how would you want them to hear it?

MS: I’m not of the mind to dictate to anybody how they should do it. Me personally, my favorite places to listen to someone else’s music is in headphones, and in my car. Both places [the equipment] I’m using is excellent, but I suppose, if I had a complaint? It’s back to the streaming that isn’t the fidelity that I’d like. But without the infrastructure available, I don’t want to spend five minutes sitting around downloading a song, or have the music break up when I’m driving. But I think that’s the reason that this is the moment to be talking about this. The bandwidth is at a point where this does not have to be a problem. You can have high fidelity streaming and none of this is going to be a problem.

[He’s right. There are already a few companies looking to make good on that proof of concept, most notably Neil Young’s PonoMusic, who recently selected Omnifone’s MusicStation to power its ultra-high resolution digital audio service, which is set to debut before the end of the year. If it lives up to expectations, maybe we can all stream The Hunting Party and hear the gritty intensity of a year of analog recording, just the way Mike hoped we would.]