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November 2022
Vol. 22, No. 2
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Randi's Jingle Ball

Zen of Recording

Critical Ear Theory

by Sven-Erik SeaholmOctober, 2022

I’ve got a car. A 2018 Toyota Corolla XLE, in the beautifully indefinable color of aquamarine. Obviously, I really like this automobile. It was the first “new” car I ever purchased and I made sure the driving experience to work and back (somebody has to pay for it) would be a pleasurable one.

A big part of that was making sure it had a great sound system. Yes, I love music. Hell, we all do, that’s why we’re here now, right?

Of course, but no…this is different: this is actually the mobile wing of my professional recording studio.

Every mix, master, tweak, and crazy idea that “just might work…” has since been thoroughly auditioned in the comfy, climate controlled confines of this Listening Experience Simulator.

I’ve heard that this is/is not recommended, an argument that I think is just a big ol’ bag of garbage and I can show you why.

Let’s take the example of an experienced engineer at a fine commercial recording facility. He or she is constantly listening to and evaluating recordings, making literally thousands of tiny, reflexive decisions based upon what they’re hearing through the control room monitors. This is where my point sharpens a bit: what that engineer is hearing may not be in fact a perfect reproduction of the audio they’re evaluating. In my experience, it is far more often the case that they are familiar enough with the idiosyncrasies of the room’s effect on various frequencies that they can hear past those resonances and other imperfections. This enables them to make a fairly educated guess as to how to hear “around” those inherent flaws.

Yes, there are unspoiled, hermetically sealed laboratories of sound that exist around the globe, airless chambers that are not designed for musical purposes, but mathematical ones. Math is perfect (the square root of Pi notwithstanding), but imperfection is where the music actually lives.

Examples? You’re recording a vocal and the singer suddenly leans in close to the mic, heightening the “proximity effect,” a frequency bump in the lower mid-range that can muddy the vocal if left unchecked or impart a certain intimacy if processed just right…both are technically artifacts, mistakes. It’s all in how you use it.

Guitar amps are an extreme example (especially vintage ones), so they may prove the most illustrative. To this day, many amplifier manufacturers still rely on a design from the early 1940s, which included a speaker from an early public address system. I can assure you, this is not at the apex of audio fidelity. It’s basically a recipe for turning your guitar into a giant telephone, but way louder! Seriously though, a wholly sublime art of making and presenting music is based around this cartoonishly imperfect design.

Try to imagine that you’ve created an amplifier that perfectly reproduces every possible frequency in the audio spectrum. An excellent mathematical accomplishment, but I’m certain that this would actually be torturous to listen to, because we don’t all hear those frequencies equally, either.

Each of us processes incoming audio information with our own unique sonic signature, our own presets. It’s as if there’s a little soundman inside each of us, dynamically adjusting the faders, zeroing in on certain frequencies, or narrowing the “Q” of our filters.

Some of this processing is attenuation or the turning down of certain sounds. Remember the day after that last really loud concert you attended? Everything sounded a little bit lower in volume and the highs and the upper-midrange frequencies particularly were a lot warmer and fuzzier, right? This is your body’s way of protecting itself from potential harm. Your little soundman is pulling the volumes down, until he can safely reconstruct the eq curve that best fits you.

Now damage, that’s a different beast. That’s when the faders get broken and keep on fading…

In summary, I guess I mean to say that things can be “perfectly imperfect” and the only thing that we can all strive for in the playback of our music across so many systems and devices and is a general consensus from all who listen.

Trust your ears, then doubt them.

Repeat until your changes are different, but not better.

Sven-Erik Seaholm is a singer, songwriter and record producer. His new album, Oxford, Comma, drops on November 16. www.SvenSounds.com

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