Ear Yee! Ear Yee!
Hear all about it! This is a fine weekend to work on your home sound system, isn’t it?
We are going through a modest upgrade to the home studio here at UrbanSurvival in order to get back into podcasting with gear that sounds (slightly) better than run-of-the-mill podcasts.
In the process, you might enjoy a walk-through of several audio/sound concepts that may immeasurably increase your enjoyment of the “hi-fi” experience.
Easy: “A Person who enjoys hearing ultra-clean sound in an acoustically appropriate setting at levels enabling full enjoyment of what the Artist, Producer, and Label wanted to present.”
Here are our top giveaways that Reveal Non-Audiophiles:
Too much bass.
People love bass. It comes produced into a lot of hip-hop and urban. But, too much bass is a very bad thing. Because the more bass you like, the more attention to detail is required in your system. Above all, you want a system which will cleanly reproduce exactly what the Label released. Not just something that will set off seismographs two counties over!
A lot of people have good stereo amplifiers driving a couple of good quality speakers and they believe that’s a good system. And, it may well be.
However, if you have a complex system – not some company’s idea of what they then will sell and think sound right for a particular price point – then at a minimum you will bi-amp. And what we’re wiring up now is tri-amped speakers.
The reason – even with a woofer-mid-tweeter “in the box” – is that when an amplifier is pushing out a fair bit of power, on peaks all the power will be going to whichever speaker is involved.
Say there’s this Van Halen riff you love. When the woofer is maxed out, the lower mids can falter. Or, the sparkle in the guitar’s upper harmonics will sound “flat.” Just not “there.”
If your source is wired to drive three amps, then no one range runs out of power. It’s a much more dynamic sound when dialed in.
What is speaker phasing? Simply: When you connect a battery (like a D cell, right?) and have the grills off, do the speakers push the same direction?
If they do – and your amp wiring is not crossed! – the speakers are said to be in phase. With some practice, like on this test page over at AudioCheck.net, you can do some blind test listening and see how good your ears are. It’s humbling for newbies. Takes practice to keep sharp, too.
Too Loud or Too Quiet.
An audiophile will generally like to listen to music at around 90-100 dB level. But it’s a trade-off. Playing tracks louder will get you more definition – no question. But, over time (try on 20 years in radio on-air studios “rocking out”) and your ears will get some “mileage on them.”
The first way this comes through is in attenuation of senior’s upper frequency hearing. Thing is, if it helps you hear the music like you “remember” it, jack that treble up and rock with it.
Idiotic EQ Settings
Let me tell you some “old school” technique here. Back in 1966, age 16, I got my first class commercial radio ticket. That was the key to being a transmitter engineer age 16 and $10 bucks an hour. Minimum wage back then was $1.25 an hour so 8-times Minimum Wage would be like $58 an hour today. And while still in high school – reading meters every half-hour as required at directional radio stations. (It was also called ‘babysitting’ the DJ’s who had third class licenses.) Min Wage bumped to $1.40 the following year, still imagine a making $51.25 while still in high school….
So one night, my boss, Lloyd Jones, picks me up at the house (11:30 at night) and we drive half an hour out to the KYAC (“The Soul of the City”) transmitter site in Kirkland, Wa. Turn on the transmitter and get ready to do an “audio proof of performance.” Experimental period started at midnight. Walt Jameson, a long-time PNW P.E. was there too. We were early members of the Seattle SBE chapter.
For the next 5-hours we twiddled and fiddled and got the RCA audio console and the venerable Collins 21-M to “play” to the FCC rules of the time. Flat audio response (from the console) out to the modulation monitor + or – 2db from 20 Hz up to 7.5 KHz. As a practical matter, AM transmitters only need to be ‘flat’ to over 5 KHz. The better the high-end frequency response, the wider the signal became. And 10 KHz wide was the regulatory objective.
More highs in the audio sounded great, but adjacent channel interference, blah blah.. FM would some along with Stereo going mainstream shortly thereafter.
Don’t quote me on this, but I think the Rules now (Section 73.44) call for down 25 dB at 10.2 KHz.
“How does this relate to ‘idiotic EQ?”
Just coming to that: You’ll notice that what we were doing (back in the day) was working our butts off to get to linearity. Basically from bottom end of bass up to 10 KHz. Oh, it was glorious. I’d adjust the audio generator, Lloyd would work his magic on the console (going through all the channels, individually) and Walt (before he earned his P.E. as I recall, but been years) putting it on graph paper and doing the pencil work.
Noise had to be -45 dB through the system and dead flatt (as close as we could get it) + or – 2 dB. Remarkably, it worked. One audio channel had a couple of dried up caps and was failing, but we soldering in new ones and it was golden.
If you’re adding much more than 10 dB with a graphic equalizer, or even less parametric, then you may have unrecognized linearity issues with your system.
How to Do a “Studio Proof”
There are two main approaches. One way is the “engineering” approach. This involves a very good quality audio generator, an AC voltmeter (at your speakers) and (with more wiring) a distortion analyzer.
“Great…how much for those?”
Ummm…not much change back from a $400 bill on eBay. Maybe $140 for something in software…but that brings its own set of problems. And no, we’re NOT going to mess with telling you how to wire up a distortion analyzer test. AYFKM?
If you want, though, you can shop for a distortion analyzer on eBay over here.
There Is An Easier Way!
We are all over-easy (and we’re not ‘egging you on!’). The alternative which will get you equally good results for home use would be a laptop and what’s called a reference microphone.
The first thing you will need is a) a signal generator or b) click over to the AudioCheck.net Test page here.
Second step is to decide what you’re going to use as “linearity check points.” Flat EQ settings or switched completely out, right?
We’ll want a few checks for bass response, some mids, highs, and tweets. So your test plan (depending on speakers and cross-over frequencies if known) might looks something like this:
- 30 Hz _____
- 250 Hz_____
- 400 Hz_____
- 750 Hz_____
- 1000 Hz_____
- 2 KHz _____
- 3.5 KHz_____
- 5 KHz_____
- 7.5 KHz_____
- 10 KHz_____
- 12 KHz_____
- 15 KHz_____
- 18 KHz_____
- 20 KHz_____
If – when you actually run your test – you get some “sketchy results” add additional frequencies between the troubling ones. It can help zero in on the problem. Like people, you’ll find “bulges” in unexpected places!
“What am I Measuring On?”
Right. Remember that laptop we said you’d need? That’s where you will be running audio input measuring software. Any old digital audio workstation (DAW) package will work – including Audacity.
The trick shot here is getting the least-cost mic for what you want to get done. So from the cheap – and scaling up – the choices include:
- What we use ($36-bucks) Behringer ECM8000 Ultra-Linear Measurement Condenser Studio Microphone,Silver.
- What upscale people might spend on, not realizing the average human can only hear pretty gross audio differences (6 dB!!!). Even trained ears are seldom better than 3 dB (when young and no pharmaceuticals in sight!). In which case $70 bucks for a Dayton Audio EMM-6 Electret Measurement Microphone,Silver.
- If your home studio doesn’t have a multichannel desk (like an Alesis or Presonus mixer) how about something straight to USB? Like a miniDSP UMIK-1 USB Measurement Calibrated Microphone for $94 bucks?
Or, when Ure is hard-of-thinking and just wants to reset the graphic EQ to dead flat, you can get an idea with a cheap audio level meter. Something good like a $56 buck VLIKE LCD Digital Audio Decibel Meter Sound Level Meter Noise Level Meter Sound Monitor dB Meter Noise Measurement Measuring 30 dB to 130 dB MAX Data Hold Function A/C Mode.
These little meters are great – because you can find standing wave nodes in a room (where not to listen) – and you can protect your ears by looking at the sound pressure levels (SPL’s) which you will want to keep under 100 dB, except maybe for that riff you love. 110 dB – but only very short periods. For longer listening 85 dB is better. Ears get damaged over time from concert-and-club backed abuses.
But, in a pinch you can set mids and such with an $18 (yes, you read that right $18 bucks) BAFX Products – Decibel Meter/Sound Pressure Level Reader (SPL) / 30-130dBA Range.
Still Flat Sounding?
Don’t grab for the EQ settings yet. There are more pieces of gear to consider:
One piece of gear we’ve really enjoyed is called a BBE 882i Sonic Maximizerand it will set you back about $150. But what MAY make it worthwhile is that it doesn’t EQ. It actually adds some additional high frequency harmonics.
I just picked up a seriously old-school Aurel Exciter Type C MODEL 103 and I can hardly wait to compare that with the BBE unit when Shipagedon gets it here….
This naturally leads to a long discussion about the Fletcher-Munson Curve and how your ear’s response can then be modeled, too – and that – in turn – can be used to “inform” your EQ settings. But don’t get stupid about it because when you get over 100 dB SPL’s (sound pressure levels) hearing problems can crop up quickly as mentioned. High volume, shorter time spent listening (TSL).
Oh, should mention the older you get, the more you will find there are higher lower thresholds. Elaine’s is down around a 35-40 dB SPL. In a super quiet room out here, that’s about all the quieter life is, say the meters – so no big. I can drop into the mid 20’s (used to be high teens) but that’s only when “following a very weak Morse code signal” on the ham gear. Mostly nowadays I lose tracking down in the 25-30 dB zone.
Ears – like any other body part – need to be used. Listen to songs and focus on one instrument per listening. Audio is in the details and learning to listen to the high-hats, or bass, or vocal, or backing….all the art form.
When we’re seeing both how LOUD and how CLEAN the system sounds (I mentioned the Van Halen riff for a reason, lol) I wear foam ear plugs. Elaine goes to the gym.
If someone claims to be an old-school audiophile, ask them if they know what sel-synch is. Then, ask them to explain it. If they can’t, then sorry, rip up their old-school card.
OLD School Audio
If you find all this audiophile stuff interesting, here’s a snip of an email exchange with a long-time reader, source, and seasoned citizen who was an extreme video & audio jock for a living.
We were talking about the Tanberrg DA-20A 10″ reel to reel analog recorder I bought off him recently. He had told me his plans for the unit which sadly didn’t come to pass, this time around. Think you’ll enjoy the story. Much insight into sound, video, and how the magic works:
“I’m in North Carolina, as you know. Lots of people around here play.
Lots of them are also kinda old-fashioned “acoustic” people, not fond of Hi-Tek stuff in their music. A lot of them probably still honor vinyl records, too. Many see digital capture, editing, and media delivery in an all digital universe somehow fails to capture, “the ineffable patina of Reality” that linear and acoustic Mystic Sound provides.
As I said once, I think tape hiss, at an acceptable level, is somehow effectively transparent to the mind’s perception of the music. Dolby kills that transparency. CD sample rate artifacts don’t help, and slew rates are distorted and de-emphasized by the whole digital domain process.
As a registered, card-carrying, Golden Eared human, I know what they mean. On some recordings, in the pauses, it is said one can “hear the air” in the concert hall. “Room Tone,” movie people call it. It’s a Real Thing. (My guess is, that you know well exactly what I’m going on about.)
Some of this is hokum and bullshit, but there is an underlying reality to it.
Hence, The Dream.
I’m probably too old, too burned out, too broke, and too low on energy now, but The Dream was to create a recording label and production house for the beginners and old hands that were good — excellent, maybe — but never had been able to herd all the cats to “make a CD.” The best nascent musicians are rarely the best technicians and business people.
(Do you know the work of the late Eva Cassidy?) (Listen to attachment.)
She’s sort of the model. Unappreciated in her time. Deserved better.
As a Practical Fact, downloads and CDs are ‘Good Enough” quality for the vast majority of folks for distribution. Vinyl is just not a contender in the cruel, impatient, and frantic paced world of today. Whether it’s “better” or not is mooted by Practical Reality.
So, the cachet was to be, — All Linear Recording and Production, and release in CD, acoustics dominant, “Unheard Of Music.” That’s the label and company name. It’s also the most basic marketing positioning.
Promote via print ads, website, and sell via website market basket. (No jobber distribution.)
It would have been heavy on Country and Folk. Maybe some Jazz.
That was to be my retirement occupation. Putter, doing the things I enjoy most, make a few bucks, and help Good Talent get Discovered.
I have given up this whole enchilada now. My time is past, and there are other fish to grill.
The Lord wants you to have this machine. It can’t be stopped.
It’ll get there, if that is so.”
And it has, and IS. So with it in hand, and some discrete amps to wire in, it’s time to resume the Peoplenomics podcasts, shortly. So we can spend a little more time “going to the heart through the ears.”
Though through the eyes, works, too.
I was very moved by my friend’s notes. A response in kind – with his notes in arrows and bold – will get you deeper into the archaic ideas of a Linear Sound School or Studio:
G: “OMG – you are preaching to the converted.
I remember in 2004 being all over the Burbank and LA areas looking at studios when I was relocating the Sound Master Recording Engineer school from its old digs on Magnolia Blvd. in Burbank’s studio district to – what turned out to be a beautiful ground-up build 15,000 sf in Alhambra…
But there’s a sense when you “clap out a room” – and you just sort of “know the spot where the “sound is right.” There’s one to four areas in most rooms where the sound is “perfect.” Hard to explain where that “sweet spot” is, though. Clapping-out a room (listening for the echo of the clap – seeking that ideal room ambience…yeah…)
—> I well know this procedure.
When we decided to change a deck that I had built into a modest recording studio (10X20) the idea of a “small project studio” was exactly what was in my head.
—> In Viddy-O world, these were known as Boutique Studios. We were one with some few bigger capabilities.
Bought some initial gear for it, including an analog board that had a firewire out. The firewire bit the dust – and the company stopped supporting the gear – but I have held onto that board because it (for some accident of design) had some of the best pre’s in it I’ve ever heard.
Speaking of desks…One of the things I hated about the move of Sound Master was seeing the new generation of boards coming up. SSL and others own the field now. Great gear? Oh yeah. But old-school Linear? Not so much. But in the Sound Master main room was a 32-channel Quad Eight. Going from memory, one of the big name musicians of back when bought it. Might have been one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers band…lived in Arizona is about all I can remember. ZZ? Been a while.
Bi-amped stacked Crown power amps on playback and the low end was filled out with old Goodman 12” woofs. These had a lot of history to them. Goodman made speakers in the UK that were designed to protect granaries from pests like mice and such. You see Goodman’s come up on eBay now and then – a slightly mismatched pair in good shape caught my eye the other day – starting bit was $500.
–> I have a pair of very old Jensen 4311s in my living room. Leftover from the Good Old Days. Pretty damn good.
I think the technology has changed how we produce music – and certainly closer to your end of the viewfinder, I think subscriber Hank out in Hawaii could weigh in on this – the same can be said for film (as in Kodachrome) and other “analog video” – But when “perfect video capture” came along it somehow lessened the “art.”
–> When everybody’s Uncle Bud got an 8mm viddy-o camera from the local department store, and when these guys began to satisfy the low end and the cheap end of corporate and commercial — I knew The End of my way of life was at hand. Quality died, and most folks couldn’t actually see the loss.
I’m sure you saw it filming: The old-timers knew how to light a scene – any scene – in the field and do it somewhere between “well” and “inspired.”
–> Best single Wise Quote I ever heard about photography came from Ansel Adams, who said, “Photography is much more about light than it is about things.”
That was the magic back in Panaflex days. The lighting was the magic and a certain graininess or “look” to the film…why, it couldn’t be beat.
–> Film grain “dances” in motion picture film. This moving dance means that any particular clutch of grains will completely change 24 times a second, and like viewing a house while driving by its tall picket fence, the Mind interprets the Meaning of the material behind the dancing grain. (Or electronic shot noise.) I believe this Mind’s interpretive effect is why tape hiss seems transparent to the music.
Well, the same thing has happened to the music. Everyone is over-EQ’ing, too damn much compression…art’s been taken to the wall for a smoke. And if the vocal is a little hot, there’s a tendency to compress a whole mix, rather than the one offending track that needed to be adjusted.
–> Eva Cassidy’s early work is crude, and technologically simple, but her later tracks were “studio produced” and became soupy and inflated to no good effect.
The result is good – and don’t misunderstand the technical magic we can throw in with VST’s and such is amazing. And I am a HUGE FAN or samples done at the extreme genius level by what seems to be maybe the third other person on earth to get this – Gary Garritan who’s “World instruments” is superb…as is his Abby Road Piano sampling. GPO and more.
Maybe it’s not in the recording so much as it’s in the producers. I can hear a piece of music and oftentimes figure whether the track was mastered in Nashville or L.A. – there’s almost a regionalism to how things come out. Producers, like fish, run in schools.
–> Commercial producers kill the soul of nascent music for profit. Crass, arbitrary, and cynical. And they’re very good at it.
Could it be that…Maybe we have put too much emphasis on the post-production processes?
The “artists” of today are “one take wonders” mainly. Two short stories to illustrate the point. Well, make that three short stories.
Back when I was at Encore (I forget if it’s in Burbank or Glendale) but Everlast and his engineer were working on a new album. It was an absolute pleasure to watch. They were craftsmen working at their trade. And the result shows – and it’s very much in that groove Leonard Cohen nails in “First We Take Manhattan.”
–> I love the Jennifer Warnes viddy-o of that song. (YooToob.) She and Cohen had a “thing.”
But – other times and other places – the “one take wonders” would be on mic. They would so a so-so (or, honestly, a sub par take) and that was it. A producer (more like ego enablers) would say “We can fix that in post…”
—> “Shoot it right, and save a LOT of money in post…” (Me.)
The result? An over-produced mish-mash of highly compressed and over EQ’ed sounds.
—> See “Wall Of Sound” by That Guy.
I wonder how many “producers” these days even know what room ambient is and how to adjust the “presence” effects when mic’ing an artist?
Our Studio out here is still DVM (Drums, Voices, Magic) but here’s where we ran into a problem.
Elaine and I were going to buy an old RV and set it up as the “guest quarters.” (Because we would be able to dual-use it as a bug-out rig). And we were going to advertise just a bit and give people looking for a basic 8 to 16 track project studio a place they could come for a good time, steaks on the BBQ, and lay down great tracks.
Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?
—> I would think in any small market (like here) one quickly runs out of the Truly Talented But Undiscovered rather soon. Nice dream, though… Make ’em stay in a hotel 5 miles away. Some psychic relief and separation while Giving Birth is a Good Thing. Everybody is annoying after five days or so in close and continuous quarters. Everybody needs some periodic decompression time.
Except for one thing: We ran out of people. Pandemic. An “aw shit” of Life.
In other words, while we have a lot of really neat stuff here, most of the “artists” would rob us blind in a heartbeat. People today are incredibly self-centered. And think they know it all.
–> I’ve had better luck over a career-span. Some bastards and inflated egos, but far more very decent folks.
I remember doing voiceovers (which I made a very decent side income on) – and with a good producer I sometimes had to do 10 or 12 takes on a single line to get exactly the “right read.”
—> Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, and finally overcame the hangover.
It was tough… I’m sure you’ve seen the movie “In a World…” and the Youtube video of Orson Wells going around and around with a dumb-ass producer (here if you haven’t: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ol5RpDEzLzY.)
Another classic producer-artist event was William Shatner’s experience with a producer who “knew more than the talent.” (Which you can hear over here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMV1bwXyi54 ).
—> Heard both. Great Classics in my former business orbit. Widely shared. I’ll counter with Casey Kasem’s “dead dog” rant. Arthur Godfrey had a good one, too.
We’ve kicked around this “shortage of talent” problem – one take wonders and such – and asked “How do we find people who are really interested in their craft?
When I ask someone (like an aspiring artist) “How many hours a day do you practice?” And they tell me – “I practiced for an hour last week…” I know they’re not wholly immersed in the objective of a great performance which is the basis of great music.
—> Q: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
A: “________________________” (One word: thrice repeated.)
[Practice for those who’ve never tried it…]
Besides: Who would respond to an ad like this?
“Small project studio in East Texas Piney Woods looking for honest musicians to record. No (recent-10 year) criminal history, no hard drugs, no drunks. We seek visionaries who want to capture a great vibe. If interested, contact Drums, Voices, Magic at…..”
–> We never cared about people’s private lives & sins. As long as they didn’t bring the cops down on us, and were honest in their craft, we could collaborate. One reason why separation each day for relief in long projects is vital.
I doubt we’d get any response. Scammers, crackheads, and thieves anymore…
But that’s OK – the studio is where those time machine experiments are still pending. And you know – this whole discussion of “linear reality capture” is damn useful grist on that front.
—> I think retro production workflow and technology is poised to become a popular (and short) fad. Not quite there yet, but coming very close aboard. Vacuum tubes. Open reel tape. Razor editing. Even vinyl release.
[Related to the Retroculture piece on Peoplenomics this week, too, if you haven’t completely nodded out by now…]
—> Workin’ on it. Need to make Dirac Transceiver coffee cups and T-shirts for food. (Some obsolete secrets all I got left. Gotta monetize them while there’s still time.) If only I could say all the Really Good ones….)
I need to go tri-amp the mains in the audio playroom and get back to modeling the sounds that generate dimensional warps.
Write when you make more than just money,