Years ago in a Chicago studio, I witnessed a heated argument between two musicians debating whether cables made a difference in sound quality.
Musician #1 claimed that wire is wire, so musician #2 was a sucker for buying different cables to try them all out, and that any difference he heard was just a combination of the placebo effect with bias confirmation. Musician #2 shot back that musician #1 had clearly played too many gigs without hearing protection if he couldn’t hear the difference. They went back and forth, and finally, I had to say something.
I went up to them and asked, “Musician #1, you play keyboards, right? And musician #2, you play guitar, right?”
They were dumbfounded. How could I have possibly known that?
Easy. Cables don’t really make much of an audible difference with keyboards, but they certainly can with passive pickups and high-impedance tube amps.
Or another favorite, from a comment made during a seminar: “I can prove DAWs sound different because I imported rendered WAV files into two different DAWs, set the mixer fader levels and panpots exactly the same on both of them, and they definitely sounded different. So I did a null test, and that proved they were different.”
I asked whether the two DAWs defaulted to the same pan law. “The same what?”
THE RIGHT TO BE RIGHT
Many people are heavily invested in being “right” when it comes to their opinions about gear. But, as the cable and DAW incidents underscore, “right” is often situational. Look up any discussion on the web about any piece of gear, and you’ll see all kinds of different opinions. So who’s right? After all, the gear itself isn’t shapeshifting to act differently for different people.
There are massive discussions—okay, arguments—on the web about which is the best DAW, with members of DAW Tribe #1 locked in a struggle to feel superior over the members of DAW Tribe #2. If there truly were a best DAW, then it would be the only DAW that existed—because no one would buy the inferior DAWs. All those other companies would go out of business.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who cares? What matters is how gear affects the art.
I recently read a forum thread about which amp sim’s virtual cabs were the best match for the amp sim’s virtual mics, and people had strong opinions—but, very few of them mentioned the artistic reasons for their opinion. Maybe using a particular combination worked well for their heavy metal recordings…or maybe they wanted the guitar to recede into the background to support a vocalist. Context, and emotional perspective, are the deciding factors.
Sometimes, emotional responses are even more valid than intellectual ones. Some people will pay massive amounts of money for an original, authentic, German tube mic and look down with pity on the plebians who can afford only modern-day reproductions—without realizing the reproduction may technically be better because its diaphragm hadn’t deteriorated over the decades from improper storage.
Then again, maybe the deteriorated diaphragm actually does sound better. Or maybe it doesn’t, but the owner’s intellectual response assumes the more expensive mic must be better—even if the emotional response says otherwise.
INSIDE THE BRAIN
There’s precedent for this. In a 2007 experiment (co-authored by Hilke Plassmann, Baab Shiv, Antonio Rangel and John O’Doherty), subjects did a wine-tasting while sitting in an fMRI scanner. This kind of scanner measures blood flow in the brain and detects which part of the brain responds to stimuli. Some bottles contained the same wine but were priced differently, and perhaps not surprisingly, the test subjects preferred the “costlier” wines.
But the “aha” moment came when looking at the brain’s pre-frontal cortex (it focuses attention, plans, predicts consequences and manages emotions), which is what responded to price. The implication is that what we think about something can take precedence over what we feel. This can happen with anything involving a subjective response.
In our industry, it would be interesting to test a group of people evaluating a compressor plug-in. One would have a beautiful, skeuomorphic rendering of a classic vintage compressor. The other would use the same software, but have ugly sliders and an interface that looked somewhat like a microwave oven. Anyone want to bet on which one would be perceived as “better”?
RIGHT BACK WHERE WE STARTED
Let’s loop back to the beginning. The musicians arguing about cables were basing their opinions on what they felt, not something like the cables’ packaging or price. As a result, each came to the correct conclusion for their particular application. This is also why experienced engineers advise against “mixing with your eyes”—the intellect is not as good a judge of sound as your emotions.
All of this implies a specific way of looking at whose opinion is “right” or “wrong.” The most valuable opinion about gear is one that’s formed by combining emotions and intellect, while keeping the eye on the prize—the art that’s created with the gear.
Ultimately, people care a lot less about your opinions than about the art those opinions produce.