Why doesn’t it sound (in here) like it sounds out there?

In the space of a little more than two years, I entered the record business as an assistant engineer, was promoted to senior (and chief) engineer, and got to experiment to my heart’s desire.  How fortunate I was, as a music and audio enthusiast in my early 20’s, to be chief engineer at a professional recording studio with access to all the gear and the musical instruments.  Every day presented new opportunities to experiment, to test ideas, to listen, to learn.

Determined to find out all I could about every aspect of record making, I spent every free moment in the studio, trying every microphone, every piece of outboard gear and continued to read everything I could get my hands on regarding the subject of audio.  The studio had contracted an independent vinyl mastering engineer to do some cutting and I spent a few weekends watching him, asking questions and learning the basic operation of the cutting lathe and getting the signal from the master tape onto a fresh lacquer disk.

The combination of the day-to-day experience in the studio and all the reading I was doing engendered a growing awareness that what I’d previously thought of as the world of audio was in fact two different worlds.  The audiophile journals I’d been reading and the best of the audiophile gear, suggested that recordings could be made and played back with the aim of recreating the sound of real musicians, playing real instruments in real spaces.  My early experiences in the control room, when I was surprised to find what we heard from the monitors was not at all like what I heard out in the room with the musicians, suggested the idea of sounding real was not a frequent consideration in the pro audio world.  This was reinforced by the other journals I read regularly – the ones oriented toward recording professionals.  The articles and reviews discussed all sorts of recording and mixing ideas but I never saw mention of the idea of emulating what occurred in the presence of the microphones.  Perhaps this was taken for granted but with the preponderance of studios I visited or read about taking a similar approach, how could anyone who walked between a studio and control room take this to be the case?

Granted, not all art is representational or literal.  In the world of recording, sometimes the goal is to create something that does not occur in reality.  Many artists seek new sounds, unlike what actually emanates from their instruments.  From their efforts, we’ve been taken to new sonic landscapes and heard sounds that we’d not have heard any other way.  Wonderful and magical as many of them are, they were made to sound like “records”.  I was also interested in records that sound like performances.  Two different approaches, each with its own rewards.

Regardless of the approach, in many ways, I came to see monitoring as the most important tool in the studio.  After all, if the engineer can’t hear what they are doing, the best they can do is attempt to blindly steer in the desired direction but the results are effectively left to happenstance.  It occurred to me that adjusting sound while referencing typical studio monitoring is like mixing paint colors while wearing sunglasses.  Over the years, a few folks have claimed to be able to hear “around” the monitors but the audible evidence always tells a different story.

It was years later when, looking back, I understood the many reasons for the discrepancies between the sound in the control room and the sound in the studio.  Starting with the monitoring, the large speakers combined a relatively slow woofer to deliver the bass, with a relatively fast tweeter to deliver the treble.  The speed characteristics alone would leave a big discontinuity where the bass and treble were crossed over.  Listening to an instrument with a range reproduced by both drivers made that instrument sound like two different instruments, both altered significantly by the coloration of the individual drivers and by the discontinuity between them.  Designed for high intelligibility at extreme volume levels, at a distance of ¼ mile (0.4 kilometers), these speakers might be tough to beat but they were less successful when sitting in the same room and trying to make decisions about the sound of a recording.

In addition, the speakers were placed above the control room window through which we saw the players in the studio.  Being near the junction of two room boundaries (front wall and ceiling) and not far from a third boundary (the corner on each side) meant the speakers were very efficiently exciting every resonance the control room had.  The room itself then became a giant speaker cabinet, with its own resonances superimposed on the sound coming directly from the speakers.  The bass pitch and timing in the room was not the same bass pitch and timing in the recording.  We heard both simultaneously.

The small speakers, used as an alternative reference, were placed atop the meter bridge of the console.  The result of such placement is a reflection from the top surface of the console, arriving at the engineer’s ears just far enough in time behind the direct sound from the speakers to create a filtering effect when the direct sound and the reflection met at the engineer’s ears.  The result is a dip in the midrange (in English, a diminution of “presence”) at the prime listening position in the control room, from which the engineer made decisions about the sound.  This will make the engineer think there is a need to increase the middle frequencies in the recording – they will boost the midrange to fill in the presence.  Since the apparent lack of midrange is an artifact of speaker placement, the engineer is responding to the monitoring and not to the recording itself, which has no midrange dip.  The recording will now have a midrange peak and will sound “bright” and perhaps harsh when heard on a more honest monitoring setup.

The large speakers, placed where they were placed and combined with their excitation of the room’s resonances, made the bass seem too slow, out of tune and out of control.  The small speakers, placed where they were placed, made the recording appear to be lacking midrange.  By using frequency equalization (EQ) to “compensate”, the engineer would be led to diminish the bass and to add midrange.  No wonder the finished records sounded thin and bright at home.  No wonder I came to see monitoring as the studio’s most important tool.