They Are Here Or You Are There – part 2

They Are Here or You Are There? – Part Two

Sooo we are stuck with having to be sonically transported to the place where the recording was made / “You Are There”. This presents a whole different list of psychoacoustic problems. First off there is a vast difference between recording a symphony in a concert hall, and, say, a jazz trio in a club. The concert hall is huge compare to the club. Reflections from the concert hall will be slow compared to the jazz club because of the time it takes for the sound to reflect (we call this “Ambience”) from the large hall. We have to rely on the skill of the recording engineer to select the best microphones and place them in such a way that they will pick up a convincing balance of direct sound and ambience. He really is the most important component!

OK. For now let’s pretend we have the amplifier power and speakers to handle the dynamics of both. How do we handle the problem of our reflected sound in our listening room? Won’t this additional “return” confuse our ears and make the sound seem unnatural? Or do we have to haul our system outside where there are no walls or ceilings?

Hold on. There is good news kids. If we listen in a reasonably small area, several things happen. We find ourselves relatively close to the speakers. In this “near field” environment, the ratio between the direct sound from the speakers to the reflected sound from the room is quite low. Your ears will not be aware of the small amounts of “room” acoustics choosing instead to “believe” the much louder near field energy. And with it comes the ambience which has been recorded from the concert hall along with the direct sound from the instruments. “You Are There”. More good news: There are things you can do to your listening room to improve things further.

Next time: “The Second Most Important Component”

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They Are Here Or You Are There – part 1

They Are Here or You Are There? – Part One

OK just to review: The holy of holies of audiophillia is to create a sound field in the home that is indistinguishable from what you would hear were you listening to the original performance. Sounds simple enough. For now we are going to ignore any of the other possibilities such as creating a sound field that is completely believable but never really existed either in the studio or concert hall.

The guy (or woman) behind the glass in the recording studio has almost all the control over what you hear in your home. True, we can make a lot of changes to the recording in the home, and in fact do whether we want to or not. But once the music is in the can, most of the things that the recording engineer has decided to do, can’t be undone.

The first decision he has to (or should) make is whether to make the artists sound as if they are in the space of a concert hall, or actually in your relatively tiny listening room. Will they be here or will you be there? How in the world is that accomplished?

To answer that question we need to take a trip to Africa about a half million years ago. Your great great great (etc) grandpa is out in the savannah looking for a meal. He is not alone. There is also this big hungry cat with sharp teeth and claws about to make grandpa his lunch. The cat moves through the bushes making a rustling sound. Instantly grandpa freezes in his tracks, turns, and runs for his life for safety. He was able to save himself because he had developed some pretty sophisticated natural listening technology and signal processing. And lucky for us, we are the recipients of this evolutionary prize ability without having to contend with saber tooth tigers.

Our hearing enables us to precisely and almost instantly identify arrival time and volume differences between the sound detected by our two ears. And the processing power of our brains instinctively (remember the big cat) determine location and distance to the origin of the sound.

Now if the man behind the glass is an engineer worth his salt, he knows all this. And he also knows how to place his microphones and select his recording environment to create your (the listener’s) point of view.

If he wanted to bring the performers into your listening space, he would need to go back to Africa and put them outdoors where the their music will arrive at the microphones directly from the performers without them picking up any sound being reflected off of concert hall walls or ceilings. That way, when it is played back, what you here is the performers modified only by the walls and ceiling (and floor) of your listening room. They would be here.

Problem is that it’s hard to record outside with wind and aircraft and wildlife all adding their voices. And it’s impractical to record in an anechoic room (one where all the surfaces absorb sound instead of reflecting it). And unless all the reflected sound is eliminated, your ears and brain know there is something unnatural going on. This is because they would be hearing two different sonic time arrivals, one from the hall acoustics at some distance, and a much closer set of arrivals from the acoustics of your small room. And no matter what kind of fancy processing you choose, the sonic damage has been done.

To be continued…

Down In The Noise

Down in the Noise

So what does that mean “Down in the Noise”? Several possibilities. The literal definition is an attribute which is so small that it is masked by background noise. We will talk about background noise and dynamic range later. For now I want to use it in a more figurative sense. Namely some (usually unwanted) attribute or characteristic of our reproduced sound that in practice makes no difference to achieving the goal of completely realistic reproduction. It could be distortion, or lack of smooth frequency response, or even digital artifacts. But none of these are deal breakers. They can easily be down in the noise.

OK. Hold on. I can hear you all now saying” I thought you said achieving perfect accuracy in reproducing the original sound field was required.“ Well it is a nice idea but for all practical purposes it is unfeasible. The guy behind the glass has other priorities. And no matter what you spend on your system (or room acoustics) you will never achieve a perfect copy of the original. It’s a good thing we all have a brain (no comedians please). Because in reality all you need to do is to fool your brain into believing the sound field is authentic. More on this later too. Still with me?

The Most Important Component -part 2

The Most Important Component – Part 2

So what should the engineer do if he wants to produce the most realistic lifelike faithful copy of the performer(s)? Depends. First of all, he must decide whether he is going to bring you into the concert hall or put the performer(s) in your living room. And he will also need to decide if he wants you to listen with loudspeakers or headphones. In theory he could specify all the characteristics of your audio system to deliver the most accurate sound field to your ears (actually it’s your brain but we’ll get to that later). That would be one hell of a recording. We all know that doesn’t happen.

So what’s the point? The point is you can spend as much money as you want on your audio system (and we will visit this topic later as well!) but unless the guy behind the glass has the same goal as you do, you may find that you have wasted a lot of time and money.

Now that’s not to say that you can’t enjoy a recording of your favorite artist if the engineer doesn’t care about accuracy as much as “creating a sound”. But the good news is that much of this is “Down in the Noise”…

The Most Important Component -part 1

If I were to ask you which component in your audio system is most responsible for the accuracy of your reproduced music, what would you say? I bet most of you would say your speakers. Or maybe your amplifier? Turntable pick up?

Nope. It’s kind of a trick question. The most important component is the guy behind the glass. The recording engineer has all the control. He decides where to put the microphones, what microphones to use, how many to use, how to process the sound of each, how to adjust the tonal balance, how to treat the dynamics, how to mix them down into a two track product.

And he may well have a different goal than you or I. His job is to capture an artist’s sound and produce a product that will sell and make money. That often is completely different from making a recording which, when played in the home on a well designed audio system, accurately produces the illusion that you are there in the studio or they are here in the room.

He must produce a product that the largest number of consumers will like. And that means it must “sound good” on the widest possible type of playback systems. Anything from smart phones, to boom boxes, to minivans, to portable “record players”. And of course, it must sound good on the radio. Audiophiles are often left in the dust.

For example:

To be continued…