Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Most Important Live Sound Principle

As audio engineers, most of us have a long history of passionate enjoyment and pursuit of great sounds; a fat singing lead guitar tone, or a nice chewy Rhodes, maybe a beautiful transparent sheen on cymbals.  It's easy for us to get focused on specific tonal treatments, or tasty effect applications, and of course there's nothing wrong with that. However, in live sound, during a performance, every second counts, and there are no retakes for you as the house engineer. 

Think about the audience. Most of them will never consciously appreciate the tonal subtleties that we as audio engineers often salivate over. As long as the overall tonal balance is even in the ballpark, 98% of the audience won't even think about it. However, even the most casual listener can easily recognize a volume balance that is off, especially when it comes to lead vocals. In other words, 2% of perceived tonal improvement is not worth a perceived 20% degradation of the overall mix.

What does this mean for us? Never lose sight of the overall mix volume balance between elements, especially the lead vocals. How do we make sure of that? What's necessary is the ability to shift focus CONSTANTLY! Never take more than a few seconds to work on a subtle sound element that you would like to improve; once you've burned those seconds, immediately return to reconfirming overall balance and blend. Force yourself to keep shifting; confirm the mix, check that crackle you thought you heard on the guitar, confirm the mix, pull the backing vocals a tad, check the mix, whoops! time to push the solo after the bridge, check the mix, wow that floor tom sounds papery-check if the drummer knocked the mic out of position, check the mix; you get the picture. If you keep this pattern, your live mixes will come across MUCH better than if you lose focus on the overall in order to spend 30 continuous seconds tweaking the drum verb.  



Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Your Ears' Natural Compression

You may not be aware that your ears (along with your brain) have a built in compressor. When the volume is high, your ears "go into" compression mode. Understanding little things like this about the incredible mechanism of sound perception gives a creative engineer ideas about how to use them to our advantage, and this is a good example. Monitoring loudly feels good (especially if you're working with talented musicians!), but if it's loud enough for your ears to go into compression, you're not hearing the actual volume balance of the mix, because that natural compression effect is "flattening" your perceived mix. So whenever you're doing a mix session, make sure to occasionally turn the volume way down. Any elements that are too soft or too loud will tend to become immediately perceptible.


Checking Pitch? Turn it down!

You're in the studio, listening to a track or mix. You're arguing with yourself as to whether that instrument or vocal is just a bit out of tune. If you're monitoring at a pretty loud volume, the solution is simple; turn it down!

This is not widely known, but here's the deal: your perception of pitch can be affected by volume. At high volume levels, your ears/brain will sometimes perceive a slightly out of tune pitch as being in tune. As a result, turning down the volume will help you get a better sense as to whether the performance in question is in tune or not.

You can test this yourself by playing back two test tones that are about an octave apart (i.e. the higher pitch double the frequency of the lower pitch). If you set them so they are just a little out of tune, you will be able to hear that clearly at a moderate volume. However, if you turn up the volume significantly, it will sound as though the pitch corrects itself.

By the way, there's an interesting corollary to this. Have you ever been to a concert, experienced it live, and then been surprised by how bad the recording of the same concert sounded when you heard it later? While a number of factors can be involved, this "volume fixes pitch" perception is almost certainly involved!


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Welcome Aboard!

Over the years, I've been privileged to spend a lot of time behind mixing consoles, speakers, DAWs, and even tape machines (yes, I am that old!) I've also had the chance to pick up a lot of little insights and tricks from others. In that spirit, this blog is being created; a way to pass along some of what I've learned, and point you to other related resources that may be of interest.

Please be aware there are LOTS of great resources for learning about the typical basics of audio engineering. I won't be trying to replace those, and in fact, I am providing access to some of those resources as well. However, my contribution is in the form of some lesser known approaches and insights that any engineer will be able to use. Here's hoping you find them useful!


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