Thursday, June 19, 2008

Which sound is correct?

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Hello to all of the good people out there that enjoy this blog, and making music!
I am in the mood for Blogs.....Great idea for a tune, eh? Well, at least if it is heard correctly! What does that mean? Let's talk about the sound of sound, as it comes to our ears in each step of the writing process.

"What?" That was the only thing my brother could say as he found out how much studio reference monitors cost. "What gives, they are just speakers, right?" He went on to say. He was correct, but not completely correct.

The studio monitors (and the studio headphones) that we use to listen to our music, as it is in the writing/editing phase, are rather different than the regular speakers that we find in our home entertainment systems and in our automobiles. The studio monitors give us an exact replication of the different levels of frequencies that the instrument that we have recorded has. Basically what that means is that if we record a bass and a drum into a recording device, than it should sound the exact same, as it comes out of our studio monitors when we play it back. The high frequencies of the cymbals as well as the low frequencies of the bass should both be represented and present in our monitors and our headphones that we use to record and mix music down.
If the monitors in your studio do not give the exact same values for the sound that you have recorded, than it will simply not be heard by our ears, even if it is recorded on the machine that you use.

What this means is that we might add an EQ to help bring out the cymbals, or maybe some sort of effect to bring out the bass guitar, so it all sounds better through our monitors. These tweaks will ruin the tracks that you are working on, since the tweaks were not needed to begin with. The fact that your monitors could not project the frequencies that were recorded, made you work at trying to bring them out. That un-needed adjustment can ruin the perfect recording that you have, but just simply can't hear through your monitors.

This is why some of our songs sound great at the home studio level, but as we bounce the songs down to a master stereo track, then save them as different file types, and then listen to it in your car or your home stereo, it sounds like it is has way too much bass, or it is all treble. Each time we advance from one set of monitors to another set along the way, disaster is lurking!

How do we avoid this sort of trouble? There is plenty that we can do, and lots we should do! Here are some ideas and some different things that you can do to assure yourself that what you hear in the studio is what you will hear in the car.

First of all, try to get a decent pair of studio monitors. The best types of monitors are relatively "flat" when it comes to frequency response. This means that the monitors do not add or take away "sound" like extra bass or treble. Instead, they are "flat".

Makers of such monitors work very hard to achieve this "perfectly" flat response. They use new and better materials, they may choose to port their enclosures, they use several different amps in each enclosure, or they use a "passive system". Passive means they are not amplified by the way. There is an endless list of tricks that they use, all for our pleasure.

Some monitors ship with a microphone type of "thingy" with them. This acts as a type of speaker that tunes the monitors themselves, to your studio space. They send along a CD that contains white noise and the different frequencies that your room, and music will produce. Then you can adjust these monitors to the room that they are in, using the CD of noise that comes with them. I like to call these "tuned" monitors, but I have heard a few different terms for them. This can "dial in" the monitors for the room that they are in, which will assure you of the best frequency response, and in turn, make your music sound better.

Manufactures make all types of room diffusers in order to eliminate any unwanted reflections of the sound. This bouncing of sound in a room can actually cancel out some frequencies. Even though these frequencies are coming out of your monitors, you will not be able to hear them very well. These diffusers can consist of many different units such as corner pieces and wall hanging pieces. Lately, they are making are making these wall and corner diffusers that look very much like art, and they are very nice to look upon. They also work very well at canceling out the unwanted bouncing and echoes that can ruin a recording as well as a good monitoring sound.

You can find headphones that do all of this stuff too. They come in all types of types, like open back, closed back, noise canceling, and the list goes on and on. My advice to you is to find a good flat pair that match your monitors. The most important times that I use headphones is when I am recording a vocal, guitar, or whatever, and I don't want the recorded tracks to "bleed" into the mics I am using. Also, the most critical time that I use them is during a mix down. This is a critical step, so I need a great representation of the music that is recorded, that I am mastering. Any extra bass or treble that gets by the headphones will make it to the master. The same is true for any lack of frequency that manages to get by due to the added tone, or "charactor" of my headphones.

Another point to keep in mind is that you need to know your monitoring system. As time goes by you will know which monitor in your chain, may add a little treble or bass. You should know that which pair of headphones adds a little bass, and you will need to look out for that. Using a couple of different monitors during a mix down is a great idea to ensure a good mix. You don't need a ton of cash however, to accomplish this.

Your headphones and your monitors are actually two separate sources, so use them! Play your mix through one pair, and then the other, and then split the difference, so to speak.

The final test in the chain should be a stereo that you know very well. My car stereo has a decent sound. More importantly I do not have any EQ's in the chain, or it is simply the CD player and the speakers. I like to play a professional CD (purchased at a local record shop) to dial in a good sound. Then, I pop in my new mix, and compare it to the professionally mixed CD that I purchased. This will let you know exactly how your mix is eq'd. This will tell you where your monitors are weak, and where they are brilliant! If the mix sounds good in the studio, and good in your car, than you are right on track for a great "flat" monitoring system!

Please know that I am not talking about volume. I do not mean that the bass or the cymbals are louder in the mix, but rather their frequencies are more or less present in the mix. An instruments presence in a mix can be missplaced due to a poor monitor as well, but we are talking about the overall sound and tone of a recording.

Well, once again thank you very, very much for reading this blog. I am trying to keep rather common problem areas in the discussion with each new entry. I hope that I may some day be able to help someone out! Let me know how I am doing. If there is an area that you would love to see more information on, let me know! Keep playing, and I will be back soon!

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