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.