I was at Run for Cover this past weekend (well, it was a few weeks ago now) - it's an annual benefit concert of local DC bands covering pop bands from the days of yore. This year featured In Ex Sexy, Tron Petty, and some bands whose names I can't remember who covered C & C Music Factory (complete with non-ironic shirtlessness) and a great version of "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by somebody. Total fun - because how could it not be? - and done without camp, which is what makes the night so great to watch.
My friend was commenting on the sound and I found myself explaining that pop/Top 40 music, as a whole, sounds different because of how it's mixed, how the music from the 80s sounds different because "current" sounded different at the time (which explains why things from that era sound "dated" now), how the soundguy was probably used to mixing current indie rock bands and this explained the burying of the keyboards and the general noisiness of the sound. (Of course, the guys also gets props because he was mixing eight different bands in a row and it's not easy satisfying that many musicians.)
I learned how to record and mix sound in college. It's not a skill I use much these days but whenever I hear something like Run for Cover, I'm reminded of the power of the sound engineer. When I saw the Silversun Pickups a few months ago, the show was meh and not particularly memorable except for the songs at the beginning and end of the show when the the wall of sound dropped away. The wall-of-sound approach certainly has a place but it obscures the song and can make music sound the same if the songs aren't well-written or interesting. Anyway, Silversun Pickups sounded good in places because the soundman (and yes, they're almost always male) threw his aural spotlight on different instruments and balanced those sounds against each other in perfect tension - and without the wall of sound - you could actually hear that harmony.
A sound engineer can't improve a song, but he/she has an unprecedented ability to shape a song by choosing where and how to focus the listener's attention and shaping (or not) the sounds of each instrument. Even listening to the results from contests like Radiohead's for Reckoner shows the basics of what you can do with that sort of control over a song. (I didn't listen to them all but this was my favorite of the ones I heard.) For those interested in what it used to be like with high-stakes razor blades and tape, check out Geoff Emerick's book on engineering The Beatles. Speaking of The Beatles, if you ever want to play "Where's Waldo" with music, The Beatles are great because you can listen to those songs on headphones a hundred times and still hear something new that you haven't heard before.
As I said, I did this work for a while so I have a personal interest but I also like to throw my own spotlight on this hidden artform where I can.