Dr. AIX's POSTS TECH TALK — 26 October 2014

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I received the following comment from a regular reader and frequent commenter about the idea of auditioning a particular track on a great playback system. To quote Craig, “Again, the whole studio-bred idea of ‘How will it translate?’ is total bunk. Recordings that sound great on a revealing and honest high-end stereo will sound good on anything, and I’m reasonably bright, but no Mensa club member. Why can’t the recording folks figure this out too?” His comment got me thinking about the idea of a particular sound “translating from one room or monitor system to another”. What Craig describes as bunk is actually a very important aspect of getting consistently good sound in a variety of rooms.

The term “translate” is probably not as familiar to audiophiles as it is to professional in the world of film mixing. In its simplest form it asks whether a particular playback environment produces the same sonic experience in a different playback environment. And I include the entire playback environment in my description not just the DACs, the amplifiers, room EQ, and speakers. This means the acoustics of the room, the surfaces, and dimensions.

As a studio owner that has a room certified by the THX people as meeting a minimum standard for mixing films, the question of how the sound of mixes done in my room translate to other post production mixing rooms or more importantly to the Directors Guild screening room is not an insignificant question. I need to know that film mixes completed in my room will not require a lot of additional tweaking when played back in a bigger space or public theater. I was quite pleased when one of my regular clients…a very busy independent film mixer…reported that mixes he produced in my room “translated very well to the rooms at Todd AO and the Directors Guild room. This means that producers and mixes can count on my “sound” being accurate beyond the four walls of my studio.

But what does this mean for music mixes? Well…it’s a lot tougher because there is no THX standardization for music playback systems. Maybe there should be. Professional recording studios and mastering rooms are purpose built to deliver the sound that clients/artists want and need from a playback system. If you’re going to mix Hip Hop or urban records, you wouldn’t choose Abbey Road but you might consider Paramount Studios. Classical projects work great in my room but heavy rock music would benefit from the PMCs in the Astound Sound studio. The “artistic” aspect of the ultimate sound is not nearly as well defined as it is in film mixing…and we suffer for it.

The guy that is building the new room in my building has purchased a pair of “ATC SCM100ASL Pro350W 3-way, 12.4″ Active Midfield/Farfield Monitor with Active Filtering, Wide Dispersion, Overload Protection, and Balanced XLR Input (pair). Professionals choose the ATC SCM100ASL active monitors for their unparalleled accuracy, overall quality, and exceptional performance.” They list for $19,000 and that doesn’t include the power amplifiers. The studio down the hall has PMC monitors and I use B&W 801 Matrix IIIs powered by Bryston 9B and 4B amps. The sound is excellent in each of the different rooms…but the sound is not identical. Which one is right? Which one is the best?

The thought that a single “revealing and honest high-end stereo” will deliver the right or best experience for every type of music misses the point. There is no ideal for music…it’s whatever someone thinks it should be. I visit enough sites that rave about DSD as the “best” sounding format to understand that people want what they want…in spite of the facts pointing out the excessive noise, lack of tools etc. Recording studios and mastering facilities are capable of outputting great quality sound…but they don’t always manage it for a variety of reasons.

We should acknowledge that the final mastered version as played back through profession studio monitors is what the artist approved. It may not be the sound that we want…but it is what they want us to have. If you have a set of Wilson Alexandria speakers it may sound different but not necessary better.

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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.

(17) Readers Comments

  1. “They list for $19,000 and that doesn’t include the power amplifiers. ”

    These ATC speakers are active and would not require power amplifiers. One good reason for going active. I’m seriously considering active at the moment with these speakers: http://unityaudioproducts.co.uk/boulder2.php

    Its essential at the studio you possess the best speakers possible to reveal detail along with associated equipment. In my book ported speakers are problematic. These ATC’s are ported. In saying that finding quality sealed monitors is not easy.

    Robert

    • Robert…thanks for pointing that out to me. I should have figured as much. My current favorite speakers are the JBL Studio Reference M2…I heard them a gain at the AES playing my stuff in stereo. Very detailed, accurate and musical.

  2. i really enjoy the Steven Wilson surround “remixes” of Yes and Jethro Tull. What are your thoughts?

    • I’ve not hear the Jethro Tull…but I like the Yes album very much.

    • Yes is the group with whom J. J. Jeczalik had worked ?

  3. Today’s comments are the essence of audiophiles’ folly. Let me preface my comments by saying I would rather have low end components in a properly treated room than high end in a poor room. There’s more to the end mechanics to say “well the FR is +/- 3 dB full range”. Properly clad rooms need exhaustive attenuation to tame the nusance waves, only then can we stop complaining about detailed voice especially at lower SPLs. Recording venue compromises rear their ugly heads, in a good playback environment. That said, music will never be truly “neutral”. It still floors me when we can peek into a commentator’s listening/auditioning room, whether home or at RMAF. and allow any creedance to reviews. By and large, noise gets in the way, and unfounded biases prevail in the rags or on the street. It’s mostly a waste of time. Not kicking tires here, just marveling at all the $effort to make an “outhouse” sound good inside. Now, back to provenance and the virtues of DSD/PCM playback.

  4. A few days back I walked out the door and my new neighbor was sitting in his screened Florida room practicing a few tunes on his electric guitar. As happen many times in my life and an occasion that either JGH or Paul Klispch used to like to point out, my ears perked up and INSTANTLY I knew someone was playing live music.
    I’ve been an audiophile for 40+ years, have owned high end equipment, lived in Chicago for 60 years and went to many high end shows at the hotels downtown, and frequented many dealers of the best high end equipment ever built.
    NEVER once have I been fooled by a “Live or Memorex” experience.
    To me the answer to which system sounds better is easy, which sounds closest to live.
    The real question remains why after 100 years of progress in audio design is why can we still not even come close to fooling anyone in a live vs recorded test of even the simplest setup. A single guitar played threw a cheap amp with a single mono 12″ speaker is instantly recognizable as a live performance. But I’ve heard $300,000.00 systems playing in a hotel room and as I walked down the hall I knew immediately it was recorded music.
    Solve that question and we’ll have finally made some real progress in audio.
    I say this with the highest respect for you Mark and the other professionals in the recording industy.

  5. Linear LTC2389-18 records sound with 2.5 MHz sampling frequency & ~16.5 bits while having headroom (usually necessary) till its 18-bit limit potential audio depth which actually imports that at -40°C outdoors or even lower signal-to-noise ratio could be quite easily increased right up to 18 bits real resolution. Then, all this implies 18 bits Minifloat, very deep Noise-Shaping, and finally little dither {subtractive, by the way} thanks to just that relatively extreme frequency. . .

    I myself shall create the World’s Best Studio Monitors with Carbyne Fibre Woofer, Graphene Ribbon Tweeter & TacT Audio T-2 Pure Digital Amplifier with Single-Electron Transistors ! ! !

    Mind Upsampling is always making a recording {audio or video, unimportant} LIVE (you are unable to hear it by your own, as appeared) due to Timing Transients being Filtrated !

    But solely Decimal Recordings can possess The Phenomenal Accuracy ! ! !

    • Hello? You might be listening a little too close to the record cleaning fluid.

      • * The higher sampling frequency the more alive sounds music, so ~15 PHz possible today should be enough for music to sound indistinguishable from its live performance.

        * Decimal recording is perfectly devoid of quantization/truncation error .

        * At -273.15°C dynamic range might have achieved the treasured 467 dB .

        P.S. Just two questions:

        1) Is ESS Technology ES9102 analog-to-digital converter used in your own studio ?

        2) Do you consider that ATC’s loud speakers do not feature genuine carbon woofers ?

  6. Sal wrote: “To me the answer to which system sounds better is easy, which sounds closest to live.”

    My philosophy entirely.

    Mark wrote: “The “artistic” aspect of the ultimate sound is not nearly as well defined as it is in film mixing…and we suffer for it.””

    But how would the “utimate sound” be standardised, how would you know what you were creating conformed to these standards?

    • I’ll write a post about this…but the method would be the same as we currently do for film releases.

  7. You make the point that, “Professional recording studios and mastering rooms are purpose built to deliver the sound that clients/artists want and need from a playback system.”

    My nonprofessional, music fan experience with my home playback system corroborates your point. I listen to a lot of Billboard Top 100 rock ‘n roll oldies from the 1950s-1980s ripped from my CD’s. I’m guessing a lot of this music was created expecting it to be played back on modest systems and car radios and, if it sounded good on the radio, then that was good enough.

    Love the oldies, but this is certainly not the best recorded music ever made. To help compensate for the generally edgy sound, I chose home speakers described in reviews as “romantic” sounding and a good tube amp. This combo is forgiving of the sound and makes this genre of music more enjoyable especially at louder levels.

    Phil C

  8. Mark, wow, taking a gentle swipe w/my name attached; we must be tight now. You have a tendency to take remarks out of context. First of all, I used the word “honest” to describe the type of high-end audio system. This means exactly what it says. For example, I would describe the ATC speakers as honest. Older B&W 801’s? No way, very slow bottom end and very hard to place. But it is 100% possible to put together an honest playback system from audiophile-grade components that may well reveal more than the typical big honking monitors found in studios. Just looking at the length of the signal paths in studio vs. home infers this could be true.

    Yeah and Herb Alpert still uses those ancient Altec coaxials; that’s like a mechanic who has the feel of a worm wrench. Why don’t you also reveal the basis for what I’m saying; my own personal experience, and apparently my contention about translating is also agreed upon by more than just I.

    If you want to listen on average car systems, or sit around a Jambox making mixing decisions, I would call that a complete waste of professional time and energy. Are you not confident that you could assemble a playback system that was truthful enough to serve as your baseline by which to make decisions ? The problem with “whatever you like is good” is that the guy w/ the Fisher rack system thinks he has a good stereo; I wouldn’t care how my recording sounded on that.

    Maybe just for fun you might try my thesis out.
    Locate what you feel is a very accurate home playback system set up properly in a good room, using your own recordings as evaluation tools, then go ahead and record something keeping in mind that all final decisions and judgements will be made on the basic of playback on only this one system. Make a test disc that sounds great on that system then, and take it around. If your playback system was all at once tonally true, dynamically and spatially capable, that recording will sound fine everywhere it goes. If not, then you have screwed up somewhere.
    I’d send you my discs but it appears you have gotten a bit personal about this unfortunately. My experience is different than yours, and that’s all my comments are based on; 48 years of experience out of my 62. Best, Craig

    • The sound of given playback system is very dependent on the type of speakers and the acoustics of the room. The B&Ws in my room deliver a very high-end sound which has been tuned by Bob Hodas and meets the sound expectations that I demand. Jack Vad, the engineer for the SFO and a close friend, called the sound in my studio among the best he had ever heard and Andrew Quint of TAS wrote that he had never heard anything sound so realistic. I take those as meaning that the sound is very, very good in my room. I and the others don’t experience “slow bottom” or imaging that’s “hard to place”…quite the contrary. That may be the reason that Abbey Road has used them for decades.

      I do look forward to the M2 JBL reference speakers…especially with regards to ultrasonics.

      I have a first rate system that I use to make music mixing/mastering decisions and I know that the results are “truthful” and accurate. When the products that I release make it into your system or others, the fidelity is going to reflect the quality of your system…and hopefully be similar to the room where the mixes were made.

      The point I was trying to make is that having a reference system for mixing and mastering is the end of my responsibility. It would be great if there were standards to make sure everyone gets the same quality…but there aren’t. I know that my room and system measures correctly and sounds amazing. I don’t have validate my recordings on any other system. The recording are reference quality. If a problem exists in another playback environment, adjustments must be made to tune that room and system.

      • With Upsampling all my music sounds as if it were performed nearly live and no room correction is needed .

      • Yes, we must operate from a reference basis, and I’m sure your studio sounds wonderful. I can only relate my own experiences, and will reiterate that CBS records built an “audiophile grade” listening facility using high-end home gear specifically to deal with the common studio realities I mentioned.

        I’ve been to Abbey Road Studio; they use several different monitors there.801’s are used more for classical and acoustic material there. I will stand on my statement re “translating” because my recordings have sounded great on any system. Again, only coming from my experiences.

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