Music for crappy speakers
It’s the very naive producer who works only on optimum systems.
There’s a moment in Once, one of my favorite movies of recent years, in which the leads, played by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, stuff themselves into their recording engineer’s tiny car so they can hear how their freshly mixed debut album sounds on the worst speakers imaginable. It’s a cute scene, and it contains a germ of good advice. A while back, the record producer Bill Moriarty made a case on his blog for mixing records on “crap speakers,” rather than high-end studio monitors, to more closely replicate the experience of a listener playing the album at home. The original post seems to have disappeared, but a long quote is available here, including my favorite part:
All that low end in the guitar? It’s useless in the small speakers. It’s just taking up frequencies the bass or drums or organs or tenor instruments can occupy. You have to be ruthless in cutting away useless frequencies so the record is loud and jumps out of all speakers. Make the record sound outstanding on little crap speakers since that’s where most people will hear it. I’ve found when I do this it still sounds great on the fancy speakers.
At first, this advice may not seem to be applicable to writers, since the words on the page don’t change from one format to another. Like me, you may prefer that readers experience your book on the physical page, rather than on Kindle or squeezed onto a tiny cell phone screen, but there’s no real loss of information. But if there’s an equivalent for the speaker—which turns an electrical audio signal into sound—in the reading process, it’s the reader’s brain, which transforms words into actions and images. And even if you ignore the natural variations between readers, there’s no question that people are going to be encountering your story in many different states of mind. Some will be reading it closely and attentively, although this may only be your copy editor; others will be looking at it critically, with an eye for flaws; many will be distracted, tired, or simply looking for escape; and nearly all will be giving it something less than their full attention, both because there are so many other available distractions and because close attention is something a book earns.
This only means you need to be mindful of how your book will read under less than perfect circumstances. Many novels, including mine, are designed to be read straight through, which is something you rarely, if ever, get in practice: readers pick books up and put them down, often in the middle of a chapter or sequence you’ve carefully constructed to read as a whole, and days or weeks may pass between one page and the next. And just because you’ve introduced a key plot point on page 50 doesn’t mean the reader will remember anything about it when it reappears on page 200. In particular, I’ve learned from hard experience to keep the characters as clear as possible. If a novel has a large cast, I try to give each character a distinctive name, often beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, and I’ll unobtrusively drop in a reminder of who this person is whenever he or she has spent a long time offstage. Not every writer follows this rule—George R.R. Martin, for one, takes pride in trampling on it—but I see it as a small courtesy for a reader who may not be reading the story with as much attentiveness as I’d like.
But this doesn’t mean that every novel should be pitched at the level of a reader who is glancing at the book between sips of sangria at the beach, any more than an album designed to play well enough on a squeakbox from Radio Shack can’t also sound great on the top of the line from Bose. It’s more about optimizing the frequencies that all readers will hear. The best books—like the best stories of every kind—work on more than one level at once: ideally, there’s a thread of story that will draw in even the most distractible reader while deeper registers of meaning are available for those who want to discover them. Nabokov constructs Lolita like a thriller; Jonathan Franzen knows that his novels have to compete with multiple other forms of distraction, and he structures them accordingly; and Shakespeare, above all others, understood the value of plot and suspense as a vehicle for the most agonized intellectual explorations. For those with the patience to hear them, the subtler frequencies are there, but even on the most distracted of mental speakers, the underlying music ought to come through.