Establishing Your Listening Baseline

The FREE tracks on this site, and by extension all of the tracks that I’ve recorded and released, are either “above average” or capable of completely blowing you away. How is possible that the very same tracks that shook someone’s audio world are pedestrian to another? The answer is context. What preconceptions and expectations do you have before you hit the play button on your music system?

It’s been some years now but a customer once wrote to tell me that he had to wait about 30 minutes after he finished listening to a typical commercial pop/rock track before playing one of my recordings. As he described it, the “sound world” was just so foreign and different than anything he had heard before that he had to “let his ears clear out” before listening to an AIX Records track. His comments got right to the point of my intentions…to offer recordings made in an entirely unique way. I’ve talked about this before but my idea was to capture an entire ensemble in a single session, use lots of stereo pairs, real room reverberation, no overdubs, no dynamic compression, no equalization and put the microphones up real close to the musicians/instruments. Then mix the native tracks to a couple of 5.1 surround mixes as well as a stereo. The tracks speak for themselves. You might like them or you might not.

But they are obviously saying different things to different people. The comments from yesterday’s post show the dichotomy that can happen.

The first and very positive review came from a person that was able to shift his “listening barometer” fairly quickly and tune into the sound of the tracks. His preconceptions dissipated as he continued listening and before too long he was engaged with the new sound vocabulary that I delivered. The openness, the lack of compression, the closeness of the sound, the dynamic range and all of the other parameters of music making were assimilated and…as it turns out…attractive to him.

The other gentleman when questioned for additional insights into his evaluation wrote the following:

“As a frequent visitor to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (lucky me!) I am familiar with its atmosphere and the sound of a symphony orchestra. There are two halls in the Concertgebouw: a large one (for the orchestra) and a small one (relatively speaking) for smaller groups and ensembles. In the small one, the listening distance for the audience is far less than in the large one and this has its effect on the sound. So to re-create the sound of the large hall, “close miking” does not really work well in my view (or should I say “hearing”) because the sound is not as perceived in the large hall. Which is why I am pleased with the recordings of the Concertgebouworchestra itself, which are indeed recorded at larger distances, and so come closer to the sound as heard in the hall itself. I also find the way the atmosphere and acoustics of the hall are captured very pleasing. As an example, I often play the third movement of Shostakovich Symphony no. 15, conducted by Bernhard Haitink (RCO 22003) to demonstrate this.”

Here’s where the preconceptions and expectations can get in the way of a great listening experience. This man is a regular concertgoer…and to one of the best orchestras in the world in one of the best auditoriums in the world. He truly is fortunate. His sonic “mind set’ is for the sound he gets when listening as a member of an audience of many. It comes down to simple distance and ambience.

I might love to visit the Frank Gehry designed Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles to hear a concert but my expectations are very different than when I sit in my 5.1 surround studio and playback the Pines of Rome or Beethoven’s 6th Symphony. In the latter case, I’m an audience of one. If I choose to hear the 5.1 “Stage’ perspective mix on one of my discs, I’m quite literally on the conductor’s podium. Even the present case of the stereo tracks, contain the distance cues that minimize the contributions of the room to the overall sound. It was not intention to deliver a concert experience! No wonder he thought they were “just above average”.

The man from Holland expects AND wants me to produce a “documentary” audio recording. His ideal recording would place him back in the hall…to in his words, “re-create the sound of the large hall”. Others have told me that the job of recording engineer is to recreate the acoustic reality of a live concert. That’s a perfectly valid argument but it just doesn’t hold sway with me. I want more.

An analogy might be the emergence of film as an art in and of itself. Do you really want to watch a movie that is simply a camera pointed at a stage production? Producers and engineers need to be creative in the way that they capture and deliver an entertainment experience.

That’s what happened in the second review of the tracks. The gentleman wasn’t able to adjust to the new sonic vocabulary of my tracks. Perhaps I should include a primer on how to listen to music recorded in this way…but isn’t that what I do every day in these posts? BTW I don’t believe he’s a reader.


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 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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