Hear What's Around You
After reading Gino Robair's editorial in the July '08 issue (see “First Take”), I just wanted to thank him for bringing up a subject that is often overlooked. I own an iPod, but it more often than not stays in my project studio. My wife doesn't understand how I can sit waiting for our flight to arrive and not have some form of iPod or cell phone to entertain me. What she's missing is what I'm listening to — the delicate patter of snow on the panoramic windows. The whimper of a small child wishing to get out of her stroller. The fade-in and fade-out of the sinks running as the bathroom door opens and closes.
This kind of situational awareness aids in all aspects of recording and production. Listening to an environment enables an engineer to understand stereo and 5.1 panning. It allows a sound designer to more intimately acquaint himself with what the audience will react to in a movie. It frees one from being trapped in recorded music, so the ears are refreshed.
There is another aspect to listening that I'd like to touch on: listening to what you've already been listening to. If you're a live-sound engineer, go to a concert and just listen and enjoy. If you're a recording engineer, go to a tracking session and just watch and listen. I'm a drummer as well as a studio and live-sound producer, so I have the unique advantage of being able to hear the “back” of a mix: the way the speakers echo off the walls, the way the drum kit sounds sitting behind it rather than standing in front of it. These sound observations and many more are essential to the way I record and create music. Every time I sit back and listen, I'm learning.
Before you spend hours in front of the TV watching instructional DVDs in an effort to create amazing soundscapes, try listening to an amazing soundscape. Like an ocean cresting at full tide. Listen to the seagulls above and to the left of you. The center-channel presence of the crashing waves. The distortion of the relentless breeze in your ears. The flapping of a kite behind and to the left of your position. There are sounds all around.
Every second, we are listening in 360 [degrees]. How can this translate to your stereo or 5.1 mix? How could this affect your miking positions?
JOSH CONTI, VIA EMAIL
MASTERING A TOUCHY SUBJECT
Thank you for your article “Production Values: Keeping It Dynamic” (see the July 2008 issue) on mastering engineer Bob Katz. I cannot tell you the number of projects I have encountered that have been robbed of their character during mastering. Music should be alive and dynamic. We should hear it like the giggle of a baby and the roar of a lion. They are not the same and they should not be squashed together to sound the same, especially for the purpose of making the average volume louder. If the listener wants it louder, “They make a knob for that.”
The clients I work with — newcomers and indie artists — are especially vulnerable to this problem. The process is typically new to them, and they don't understand the purpose of mastering to begin with. They rarely have the ear or the tenacity to reject overcompression. Their projects suffer as a result.
So I say to the new and the experienced, the garage band and the studio exec: insist that your mastering studio balance your music without asphyxiating it.
RICHARD F. SAMS
Mike Levine's interview with mastering engineer Bob Katz was an eye-opener. Regarding the loudness wars on CD, I was in Bob's camp for the longest time until the interview forced me to reconsider the reality of most listening spaces. The loudness wars are actually born from the pervasive use of compact technology, where it's now possible to listen in hi-fi literally anywhere. I was buying his argument all the way until his dynamics chart (see Fig. 4 on p. 42) listed the cinema as a typical listening space. How about at work, or at poolside with kids screaming?
The CD loudness wars weren't created by peak-normalize ability, but by stuff like my MP3 player and the resulting need to have the music cut through the clutter. Sure, it sucks if you're mixing pop music all day long in a perfect room where the dynamic range would be wasted. I feel for Bob and his cadre of enlightened clients, but his reality is way different from mine.
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