Can you hear what you’re doing? (Part 1)

If there’s one thing the advent of digital audio has accomplished, it is what I call the democratization of record making.  Unlike the days when musicians needed to interest a large company in order to get a record made, today many have small studios of their own and with the help of the Internet, self-release their music to the world.

While the technology and the means have certainly become much more widely available than they used to be, the information on how to use the technology has not proliferated to anything like the same degree.  There are plenty of magazines, both print and Web-based and several Internet fora where recording enthusiasts gather and these provide “how to” instructions. What is missing however, is the reasoning behind the how: the why.

So the new studio owner buys the hardware and software they read about and proceeds to turn the knobs, real and virtual, and then wonders what went wrong.  Not in every single case of course but from what I’ve heard over the years, the ones who are truly pleased are the exceptions.  Perhaps they sought something that did not sound like a true representation of themselves and their instrument(s).  Nothing wrong with that.  What is “good” or “better” or “best” depends entirely upon precisely what one seeks.

For those who seek to make recordings that sound less like recordings and more like musical performances (real or imagined), the standard recipes won’t work.  They are designed to achieve certain types of sound.  They are not designed to “get out of the way”.  (I use that phrase often lately when discussing audio gear or setups or recordings that I’ve found particularly involving. To my mind, they work because they “get out of the way” and allow the listener better access to the music.)

This blog entry will be the first in a series written with the hope of helping musicians and other recordists who are interested, like myself, in studio setups and recordings that get out of the way.  The series will not necessarily be consecutive in terms of publication (there may be other topics interspersed along the way) but the goal will be to raise some issues not raised elsewhere.  If these provide food for thought and perhaps inspiration for trying something different, I’ll consider them successful.  For those that don’t make records or don’t play instruments but who comprise the audience, the listeners, I hope there is something here of interest for you as well.

Above all, my recommendation is to not simply take my word for what you can expect to hear, since I can only report on how sounds strike my ears.  I encourage all to listen for themselves and draw their own conclusions.  Remember that asking any three audio folks a question will result in at least four different answers (five of which may well be wrong).  Only listening for yourself will tell you how something sounds to you.

In some earlier entries in this blog, I’ve mentioned something I’ve called “The Questions”.  To quote from one of those entries, “These are questions that need to be asked if one is ever to arrive at answers.  They are the questions I’d never seen mentioned in any of the books on recording I’d ever read or in any of the magazines.  They are the questions I was never taught to ask when I was an assistant engineer, the questions that students in today’s “audio engineering” schools never encounter.”

Let’s start our exploration by asking the first question I always ask about any studio: “Can you hear what you’re doing?”  This can be rephrased to accommodate listening setups as well as recording setups: “Can you hear past the system, all the way to the recording itself?”  Seems like an obvious question – at least it should be – but the fact is, in my experience, monitoring is all too often the weak link in most studios I’ve visited.  Since every decision regarding the sound at every step in the process of record making is based on what the monitors tell us, if you can’t hear past the monitoring all the way to the recording, if you can’t hear what you’re doing, you can’t determine how your recording is going to sound.  You can’t make it sound the way you want it to because you don’t know how it sounds.

Many studios have different sets of monitors and these all have very different presentations.  (This is discussed in the entry called Why doesn’t it sound (in here), like it sounds out there?)  Folks will often take a reference out of the studio to “see how it sounds” on some other system or even in the car(!).  Each provides its own view, like lenses with different tints or like prisms but more often than not, none simply gets out of the way.  From the blog entry cited above: “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.”

Certain types of systems will always apply certain types of colorations to how the recording is presented.  That will not change.  A system that gets out of the way, allowing access to the recording itself, removes any questions about what has been captured and how well (or not) it has been captured.  A recording that sounds right on such a system will sound its best on the greatest number of other systems.

Does that mean that everyone needs to buy a certain type of speaker and all will be well?  That would be nice but unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.  Monitoring is more than the speakers.  It is the room in which one listens.  It is where in the room the speakers are located.  And where in the room the listening position is located.  And where just about everything else in the room is too.  The good news is that by paying attention to all these things, just about any speaker can be helped to get just a little more out of the way.  While the basic character, the basic potential of a given speaker design won’t be changed, in most instances, whatever that potential is can be a lot more fully realized.

This is a big subject and there is much to be said.  This time out, we’ll just start with a few ideas to experiment with.  To start, let’s talk about acoustics. To keep it simple, we’ll break the subject into two areas: bass acoustics and treble acoustics.  Every enclosed space, meaning every listening room, every studio and control room that isn’t outdoors, will have resonant modes.  These are frequencies in the bass where the room tends to “sing”.  When the speakers present content with these frequencies (or their harmonics), the room will tend to “hold onto” these parts of the sound, even after they have stopped in the input signal.  In addition to causing these frequencies to linger too long, filling what should be quieter parts of the signal, some of these resonances will cause certain frequencies to be disproportionately louder (or softer) than they are in the input signal.

While proper acoustic treatments can make important differences in the sound (and will be covered in a future entry in this series), the starting point will determine their effectiveness.  If the goal is to get the monitoring out of the way, a key part of this is getting the room itself out of the way.  Better to minimize any excitation of room resonances from the start.  Placement of the monitors plays a big part here.  As we approach a room boundary, resonant excitation increases.  As we approach places where boundaries meet, such as corners, excitation increases further.  In most studios, we find the listening position behind the console (i.e., mixing board) and the console placed toward the front of the room.  This common placement tends to put the monitors in positions that are very good at stimulating room resonances.  Moving the monitors away from boundaries results in less interference from the room.  I have often said “Every foot from the wall adds $1000 to the sound.”

In terms of acoustics, bass issues manifest themselves in the room’s resonant modes.  In the treble, it is reflections that cause acoustic issues.  The most harmful are called “early reflections” because they arrive at the listening position just after the arrival of the direct sound from the loudspeakers.  These slightly delayed sounds will alter instrumental timbres and smear stereo imaging, in effect, defocusing the audio “picture”.  Here again, proper acoustic treatment of early reflections can make significant differences in the perceived sound but here too, placement is the first step in ensuring the system and room get out of the way to the greatest degree.

Early reflections can occur from room boundaries and from objects in the room, especially from objects between the monitors and the listening position.  Consider the large reflective surface that is the console in most studios.  It is common to see loudspeakers placed atop the meter bridge of the console.  Sounds bouncing off the console reach the engineer’s ears just slightly behind the direct sound from the speakers.  The reflected sound combines with the direct sound and at these distances, one of the results will be a dip in the midrange (a weakening of sounds in the “presence region”).  In an effort to remedy this, the engineer tends to reach for the equalization controls to boost the level of midrange frequencies and “restore” the missing presence.  The problem is, the “remedy” is being applied to a recording that isn’t missing anything.  Because the monitoring has not gotten out of the way and is instead providing false information, something that is not contained in the recording but is in fact an artifact of the monitoring setup, the engineer is being misled and a recording that doesn’t need a thing is being arbitrarily brightened.  Played on a system that doesn’t suffer from the same reflections, the recording now has an artificial, hardened “edge”.

With all the above in mind, we’ve started to answer the questions “Can the room affect what I hear from the speakers?” and “Can where I place the speakers and what I place near them affect what I hear from the speakers?”  If monitoring is the crucial aspect of setting up a studio, where to start?  My experience has been that it is best to start with a clean slate.  For any studio or listening space, rather than fill the space and see what’s left for the monitoring, I find it best to start with the monitors themselves and place everything else afterward.  I’ve already mentioned staying well away from room boundaries.  In the middle of the last century, engineer Peter Walker determined that room excitation can be minimized by placing the monitors near 1/3 points along the room’s diagonals.  In other words, as a start, find the points that divide the room’s length and the room’s width in three.  Placing the monitors near these points will excite the room the least.  I have had good success in several rooms and studios by leaving 1/3 the room’s width between the speakers and 1/3 the room’s length behind them.  (For more on this subject, see Setting up your monitoring environment.)

For now, before placing other items in the room, set the listening position at a point just slightly farther from a line drawn between the speakers, than the center of each speaker is from the center of the other speaker.  In other words, if the center of the left speaker is for example, 72 inches (~1.8 meters) from the center of the right speaker, place the listening position so that your head is slightly further than this distance from either one of the speakers, say perhaps, 80 inches (~2 meters).  Aim the speakers at a point just behind the listening position.

To those not familiar with such a setup, having speakers near the 1/3 points can seem like the speakers are “in the middle of the room”.  But listen to how much easier it is to hear past the speakers, to the recording itself.  Now you hear the bass contained in the recording and not the sympathetic, out of tune “woof” of room resonance.  The sound becomes freed from the confines of the speakers and has a depth dimension (if the recording contains this — more on the subject in a future entry).  The sense of the speakers getting out of the way is increased as the speakers themselves become less obvious sources of the sound.  The part of the room behind the speakers simply comes alive with the stereo “soundstage”, as determined by the recording itself.

Having a monitoring setup like this doesn’t just increase how much you can hear from the recording.  It changes how you go about making recordings.  Now you can hear what you’re doing.