HD-AUDIO — 23 June 2014

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There are a lot to things that can be done to alter the ones and zeros of a digital file. We’re not quite at the point where a satellite image taken from 100 miles above the earth can be “enhanced” to the point where a face recognition program can instantly identify the person in the photograph like in the movies but the power of DSP is none-the-less astounding. The power to “enhance” audio fidelity is certainly within the power of complex algorithms and computer processors. But what things to we want to do to the sound?

In the past, every preamplifier had at least two basic analog “tone controls”. You could turn up or down the bass and treble with the twist of a knob. If you had an upgraded unit, you got a control for the midrange as well. Adjustments to the tonal color of your system were made based on your room, your speakers, the quality of the recording and your personal preferences. You want a big fat, bottom heavy sound…presto, all you did was crank up the bass knob. Never mind that this might go against the actual intended sound of the artist or the mastering engineer. We were given the license to modify the “absolute” sound to our liking…and we still can. But should we?

I received an email the other day from a reader expressing his point of view on equalization, the fancy word for timbral adjustments. He considers a track sacrosanct when it comes from the record or download store. We shouldn’t mess with it at all. If the sound that you hear is lacking then it’s your system and not the recording that is to blame. There is some merit to this way of thinking. There are preamps that lack tone controls and force you to experience the straight signal all the way through your speakers.

This approach works in my room but probably fails in many home systems. My mixing console has a wide variety of signal processors. I’m not limited to simple tone controls. I can adjust individual frequencies, use complex filters, change bandwidth and even do some very tricky processing using sideband triggers. Recording and mixing with the new generation of tools and the digital recreations of older analog plug ins has made a huge impact on the sound of recorded music. But it doesn’t mean that you should be handed a similar set of tools even if you know how to use them.

The fancy processors are part of the creative process and not intended for consumer use. The only EQ that you should be working with is the kind that is used to adjust and “flatten” any acoustic problems you have in your listening space. Your speakers are NOT the end of the signal chain. The size, shape and reflectivity of your environment are also critical to the ultimate fidelity of your system. Equalizers are required to optimize situations where a space has too much low end or excessive reverberation.

So the reader was right. Get your room sounding great and then sit back and enjoy the music as the mastering engineer delivered it.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(6) Readers Comments

  1. Holy Crap, Mark! I couldn’t disagree more. I realize that some may consider the music we purchase as sacrosanct, but once I purchase it, it is mine to enjoy however I want. {Not talking about the copying of the music here, only referring to the use of tone controls.} If I think song, or an album is lacking bass, or is too hot in the treble then I see absolutely no problem with me adjusting it. Saying I can’t do otherwise is like saying I can’t add salt to my food at the table because to do so goes against what the chef intended. Me personally, I listen all my standard CDs with the Dolby Pro Logic II switched on. The tunes may have been recorded in stereo, but that does NOT mean that I have to listen to them that way. Sorry, but that’s the way I see it.

    • Of course, you are free to modify the sound of any piece of audio as you like. But if you have a reference system AND you want to experience my recordings as I intend them…you should turn off all of the additional signal processing stuff. I am aware that some people add additional reverb to my tracks because the feel they are too dry…it’s their call.

  2. Sorry (actually I’m not really), but I don’t think I agree with this entirely, unless we are talking strictly about listening to well engineered recordings? I run a pretty darn decent system, sure it wont measure up to your studio, but it’s well set up, measures fairly flat down to 20Hz, quick decay times etc. Sure there’s still the minor standing wave bump or null, and a little high-energy reflection further up… but you get the gist, it’s a well setup system FOR MY ROOM and a real pleasure to listen to. However, some recordings are just pathetic!, and I do like to turn up the bass-tone control a few dB or perhaps dial up/down the treble a tad. This makes the music sound half decent and enjoyable to listen to. Sure it doesn’t sound anywhere near as good as a good recording running flat, but it is an improvement listening to a recording with no bottom end where there should be… And when I say ‘should be’, take Metallica as a well known example. I used to love these guys back in high-school years, but listening to them on a good system is a huge disappointment (genre tastes aside) …Surely Lars’s kick drum is not meant to sound like someone hitting a cardboard box with a chop-stick? Kick-drums for that type of music SHOULD punch me in the gut, like it would if you heard them live. Sadly that’s just not there in the recording… so I dial up the bass a bit, to try and eek out some energy… it’s a poor compromise , but a necessary one I feel.
    In short, it doesn’t matter how accurate your system plays into your ears… some recordings need a serious kick in the butt 🙂

    Shane

    • I agree there’s plenty of commercial recordings and even audiophile stuff that needs or benefits from some tweaking. I’m really talking about my stuff or others that are actually reference quality.

  3. I’d like to chime in as well on the topic of tone control and sound modification in principle. Just as previous commenters have mentioned, the ability to make adjustments, for various reasons really, is fundamental, crucial, for many of us music enthusiasts.
    The example of being able to salt food to taste, as well as how absurd it would be to be prevented from it by the cook/chef, is apt indeed; bravo.
    I believe it is of great benefit to be *able* to reproduce music as the engineer and/or artist intended. In the best of worlds, every music listener would have, or have access to audio equipment of sufficient quality to reproduce music at this qualitative level. Alas, many do not. However, I believe the musical experience *the listener* intends, is what motivates audiophiles and music enthusiasts around the world, to a much greater degree, in virtually every way, as opposed to any given engineer’s intention.
    And there are some good reasons for this,
    As we know, everyone’s taste in music is subjective. The qualitative nature of the sound we prefer is also to one degree or another subjective as well (although I suspect not as variable as some might assert). Even the small differences we all have in the size and shape of our ears causes us to hear differently from each other. So flat tone control/eq settings with their associated merits, could never, and will never, sound equally good, equally right, equally appropriate to everyone.
    And to many, *how good the music sounds* is the most important thing there is, bar none, in the audio universe. Not the philosophy of most direct signal path in equipment. not the intentions of engineers they’ve never met.
    But further, we may want to take the notion of “as the engineer intended” with a grain of salt.
    For example, if we were to hypothetically-somehow have a single music performance, perfectly replicated in every way, and have this, actually singular content, independently recorded and mastered in the best studios in London, LA, and New York, with the best mastering engineers in each location, I believe each studio would produce a different sounding final recording. There would be many reasons for this including: different mics, different wiring, different boards, different studio monitors, as well as different room dimensions and characteristics, and different choices and preferences between the mixing engineers, and different preferences between the mastering engineers.
    So each engineer, would intend, and produce, a different result from his/her peer/s.
    So the resulting finished album which becomes available to consumers, may depend largely, on things like the relationship the artist/s has..and has developed with the studio and engineer/s.
    It may also be due to the area-the state or country in which the artist/s live. Maybe the availability of of the particular studio/s; the cost differential between studios…and other variables.
    So intended sound, is a very difficult and complex thing. And it is therefore very difficult to be highly confident an album is indeed what is intended. These variables directly determine the sound music will have. I doubt there is perfect control of each of these, such that an engineer can claim the result is his or her intention, not a shared result intention and the variables.
    Here is an important and illustrative question: which is the intended sound, the original album, or the remastered album released 15 years later?
    They can and usually do sound, *very* different!

    Anthony

    • No argument from me on your points. There aren’t many system out there that have the right sound and using tone controls can sometimes benefit a track or album. But the ideal case is that every album and every track would have great fidelity and we wouldn’t have to muck around with things. This was clearly demonstrated at the DEG event in NYC the other evening. I strung 9 of my tunes together in a quickset sequence. The timbral characteristics were the same for ALL of the tracks because they were ALL recorded in the same venue, mixed without any processing and left unmastered. However, attendees that had the chance to listen from the beginning of the sessions would have heard fidelity from different eras, different engineers and different approaches. Maybe they could have been tweaked differently than mine and sounded better…who knows?

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