Dr. AIX's POSTS — 31 March 2015

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As a recording engineer and music producer, I’m often confronted with the question, what is the ultimate expression of my craft? Is the goal to capture and recreate the sound experienced at a live concert through a set of headphones, a high-end stereo system, or finely tuned automobile playback system? Or maybe the ideal is to recognize the timbral accuracy of a human voice, piano, or French horn? Many have offered their thoughts on this question and I don’t think one response is more correct than another.

I read Paul McGowan’s thoughts about this in a response this morning on his daily blog site. He answered, “My definition of sound is simple: how real does it sound in the room? How close to what my own memory is of live music, or recorded music sounding live. Human voice is an easy one for me and most people because of our familiarity with it. I use that to judge if it’s better, worse or indifferent.”

His definition is quite common but in actuality it doesn’t hold for the vast majority of commercial recordings released by record labels or independents. The record making process is as varied as the styles of music in the world. One size doesn’t fit all. I can tell you that the vast majority of all recordings released don’t strive for sonic reality…for voices or instruments.

Let’s start by thinking about the sound of a live music event. Unless you attend an acoustic performance of a jazz or classical ensemble, the sound that you hear has been amplified. The microphones or direct feeds from the band are routed through a mixing console, blended, balanced, and output to an array of speakers.

I happened to be in the bar of the Doubletree Hotel in Grand Junction, Colorado last Friday evening as part of a large family gathering. They had a very talented singer/songwriter providing entertainment for a few hours. He alternately accompanied himself on the piano and guitar and had the support of an acoustic bass player. The accompaniment was not amplified but his voice was. Is this the sound that an audio engineers would want to capture and recreate? Would I use a simple stereo pair of microphones and record the live balance as presented? Or maybe it would be better to place microphones in front of the acoustic bass, inside the piano, and immediately in front of the singer? Maybe a binaural head setup at the front table would be best?

These are the choices that engineers make all the time and none of them will accurately recreate the sound of that singer and those instruments as I experienced it in the bar. But amplification of a live ensemble is required to balance levels among performers. The vocalist will almost always be miked, processed, and amplified. The processes routinely involve, compression, EQ, de-essing, and of course, amplitude gain.

And how about the spatial distribution of the amplified sounds? The vocalist is going to come from the speakers not the physical position of the artist. The guy at the bar had a single speaker column near his position. It worked pretty well to convey his location but I can remember hearing Bruce Hornsby not too long ago and his voice was completely disembodied by the sound system. I might as well have been sitting in my media room playing a recording.

Personally, I’m not interested in recreating the sense of a live concert. If you want to experience magic of a live performance…attend a live performance. As far as recordings to, I want to hear wonderful productions that reflect the skill and experience of the producer and engineer and of course, the artist. If it just happens to sound close to live sound…well then OK fine.

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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.

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