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.