John Panza (Hiram-Maxim-drums)
SPB: Has the change to more headphone listening changed how you listen to music or mix it?
Panza: Last night I witnessed – because “saw” is inadequate – Swans perform here in Cleveland. The band’s reputation for relentless, brutal, euphoric, and cilia-killing live shows is legendary. But my intro to Swans came via headphones. Back in the late 1990s, a friend slipped me a CD version of Swans Are Dead and told me to listen to it. I initially tried to listen on my primitive brand name boom box, but the system just didn’t seem to do the music justice. It was tinny, thin, dare I say weak. So I listened on headphones and was understandably blown away. Headphones equal immersion. They re-created the immersive experience needed to appreciate the true nature of Swans live. If not in my car (which has eight excellent speakers and a great amplifier), I listen to most music through headphones.
I own three pairs of headphones and a really nice pair of earbuds. The brutal immediacy of sound is something I long for, appreciate, enjoy. But as a musician who regularly records I know that most folks listen in their car, on their mobile devices, or on their home stereo systems. Not ideal, but reality.
A few years before I was introduced to Swans, I stepped foot in a recording studio for the first time. My first band went in to record four tracks, four little punk songs. Upbeat, trashy, ill-prepared, great fun. The studio was a basement affair but a high quality basement affair. I am friends with the engineer to this day. He has grown and upgraded and become the primary source for mastering for many nationally-known bands and musicians.
When he rewound the tape and played us the mix downs, he said something I will never forget. Pulling white and red wires out of the huge, thousand-dollar monitors we were using for the initial recording and mixing, he pulled out a ratty, shitty, stained boom box. He plugged in the cords and said, “Everything sounds good through expensive speakers, but nobody is gonna hear your stuff through those speakers again. This is what they are gonna use.” He ran the tunes through the boom box and they sounded great. It occurred to me that when he was mixing the tracks through the expensive monitors he was actually preparing them for the inadequacies of that boom box. I learned a lot in that moment about what musicians want people to hear and what they do (sometimes) hear.
And he was right. I never listened to the tracks again through anything other than shitty speakers, be it on my own boom box or in my car. And the songs sounded great no matter where they were played.
So flash forward 18 years or so, and I see my students and friends listening through bright red and yellow and green over-the-ear headphones. (I’ll leave the brand name out here, but you all know which ones I am talking about). And they cruise the hallways and sidewalks and sit on the train or the bus or workout at the gym, all the while listening to songs that have been mastered with headphones as the standard. Subtle beeps and buzzes and crackles and pops (all intentional) have been mixed into the final tracks because there is a mutual understanding between the engineers and producers and musicians and listening public that headphones will more than likely be the preferred choice of listeners to much contemporary music.
I’m okay with that. Studio time is about creating tracks that can be enjoyed in any format. Of course I’d prefer listeners not allow their taste or distaste for a song to be determined by small, worthless computer speakers… or by four mediocre speakers in their sub-compact car. Ideally they will take that music and move it to a system that is designed for immersive enjoyment. Music can be background noise for some, but I’d like to think that it should be the foreground whenever possible.