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 The Secrets of Good Sound of Music



First of all, let's try to answer the question: "What is a good sound? What is it?" What makes the sound of some recording define as "good", "transparent", "punchy", "sounding great"? Why certain recordings passed to history's pantheon of fame? Was it only about the great performance and composition or was there something else to it?

Is a good sound all about clear presentation of all the instruments and vocals? Is it like the clearer and louder the better? Well, most obviously it is not. 

The definition of good sound, set over the last 50 years in the history of home listening Hi-Fi is derived in the following way: "... Great sound is a thrilling listening experience, in which all the instruments and vocals form a certain artistic unity. All the instruments and voices are perfectly audible, but they are working together and are perceived as one whole thing, not just the sum of parts or individual parts. The appropriate balance is maintained between the bass, the middle and the treble, and top class stereo and 3 dimensional panorama is captured in a manner which promotes obtaining additional space in the stereo listening. But in the same time all the sounds are glued together making an impression, that each part can not exist without the others. The sound is warm, full, natural, giving a great listening experience even at a very high volume levels ...". It will never tire the ears. Of course, the quality of each sound recording can be fully assessed only when listening through superior equipment, that is, when we play it back through a great player, a sonically excellent amplifier and outstanding speakers. But listening to music has such a property that even with relatively weak audio equipment the difference between well-produced recordings and weak, average recordings will always be easily recognized.

The great sound of music is something hard to explain but easy to spot- it just thrills, grabs attention and makes you feel the music with all your body and soul.

It is just.... great!

Let's try to look at various factors affecting the quality of the final sound of music recordings.

 

Hardware or software?

Recording music from the beginning of the music industry was carried out with use of analog equipment, the digital devices were not present then even in wildest dreams. There were no computers, no software to process and edit music, both recorders and gear transforming the sound worked wholly in the analogue technology, based on different fluctuations and changes in the frequency of electric currents and magnetic induction phenomenon. For example, the recording equipment used for tracking in studios were reel-to-reel tape recorders using  the features of magnetic tape to record sound, and it's ability to store music in form of magnetic field variations.

This way the sound cod be stored on the magnetic tape and then played back. Each tape machine contained the so-called magnetic head, which was a small device with electromagnetic coils used to read the sound from the tape passing over this head. This formed the electromagnetic induction and small currents in machine's electronics from read changes in the magnetic tape media. All the sound processing equipment was based on various characteristics of electric current, and its fluctuating changes reflecting changes in the frequency of sound waves. The signal it this form was passed to the amplifier, which changed it to much stronger electrical impulses, which were passed then to speakers. The speakers exchanged the electrical energy into the movement of speaker coils. The speaker coils moved the air creating the sound waves in it, which could be heard by human ears as the sound of music or speech.

Around the year 2000 and even earlier, the digital recording technology came to recording studio for good. It is entirely different from the analog one and is reflecting any changes in the sound wave by means of the strings of ones and zeros, the so called digital words. The advantages of digital technology of recording is that such a recording is devoid of such negative artifacts as glitches, tape and electronics noise, aging and stretching tape with it's gradual degradation, etc. Similarly, equipment for processing digital audio, such as compressors, equalizers, reverberation units and other devices have much less noise of own components, it will not age as the tubes or capacitors, is more reliable and more stable in operation. Another very important advantage is that you can save a lot of settings in electronic memory slots of such equipment and recall them on demand in the form of "presets". the analog equipment could not be reset to exactly same settings once the knobs and sliders were moved.
Does this mean that the digital equipment is clearly better than analog? Does it produce better sound and what it is better to use - the "digital" or "analog"?
We have many yes' and no's over here. Here we will try to describe the most important features of both of these techniques and we will challenge one against the other.
 

The analog is a traditional recording technology used in the music industry from the very beginning of its existence. Throughout all those years it has influenced very much indeed the way we perceive the recorded music, with giving it a specific sound, and has become a kind of "standard", likeable and admired by the producers all over the world. Digital technology is something relatively new, in its pure form it completely different from analog, but it offers more opportunities for editing, the ease of handling and far greater ease of use with almost no rewinding time, and also it offers drastic reduction in costs of tape and maintenance needed with the tape machines. It is accessible to anyone who wishes to engage in music production. These are clear advantages, which probably decided that digital technology increasingly is displacing analog.

But what about the sound? Today, there are still many producers and sound engineers who prefer the analog tape to digital technology. It is true, that the pure digital sound without any devices changing it's character sounds much worse than analog. But that digital character can be changed by use various analog devices in the sound paths, or the sophisticated software applications that emulate the sound of widely recognized analog classics of the past. Therefore, achieving the great sound out of digital recorders is possible and lies in hands of knowledgeable engineer. And working in digital domain is cheaper and faster.

One of the most important ways of changing the digital sound is equalizing it.     


Secrets of equalization-What is it and what benefits gives the equalization ?

Proper equalization of tracks making up the mix of a song is just as important as the choice of palette of colors used by the painter when painting the picture. A true masters never painted in a way that put too much contrasts in his work, the sometimes deliberately used the somewhat fuzzy contours, soft lines, dark shades of light or weak colors. The sound of the song should be sculptured and shaded similarly. Not necessarily all which is very strongly contrasted, is very clear and loud is good - most often, the human ears are more likely to assimilate sounds, which are complementary to each other in spectral and dynamic sense than those that are competing against each other, measured only in the largest volume and very broad band. The secret of perfect sound recording lies in making all the tracks to complement each other and form a one, coherent picture. The greatly recorded and produced music is always perceived as a unity bounded together. One of the most powerful tools to sculpture the tracks is equalizer.


Equalizer is a device used to select certain frequencies in the spectrum of sound recording or just live sound during concerts and strengthening or weakening those frequencies, depending on current needs. It is an indispensable tool for mixing a song or correction of errors in the tonal balance during mastering. Thanks to skillful use the equalizer can make the badly sounding instruments in the mix becoming full of details, we can highlight the best elements of the recording and bring them to the first plan and set a good tonal balance so the recording starts sounding as a whole, and not just short-conglomerate of different sounds, where everything is very clear, very equal and very .... boring. the good sounding music should always make us wanting to turn up the volume. The music that sounds bad does not give us that urge. 

Equalizer was discovered by the phone companies which started to use it in order to compensate for extremely unequal bandwidth transfer of the telephone lines. The certain frequencies were lost during transmission on the telephone long distance. Soon, however, the sound engineers in recording studios understood that by using this device they can achieve a lot better sound when recording music or of a human voice.

There are many types of equalizers, both tube and transistor (solid state) type, but for several years they also appeared  in the form of computer programs, which are the so-called VST, DX and RTAS plug-ins, which can be used in host audio-midi sequencers such as Logic Audio, Pro Tools, Cakewalk or Cubase, where they can be freely combined in the whole chain of effects.
The advantage of the program equalizers is that they are devoid of noise inherent in analog technology and are resistant to wear and aging components. All the settings can be easily stored and recalled as presets.

From the other hand, their analog counterparts, while being susceptible to breakage and more cumbersome to use, are often characterized by some own, unique and very musical sound, which automatically makes the music material more pleasing and easier to mix. There was a lot of equipment built on tubes and in fact, the tubes have something very finesse to their sound giving the effect of warmth and fullness and  the material recorded with their use sounds better. The software, such as the T-racks and Waves Ren EQ or Vintage EQ try to emulate that behavior and bring it to the digital world.   
When skillfully used they can give a very pleasing effects that is pretty close to analog sound. 

Another advantage of plug-ins is the ability to save settings for each track, or the instrument and easily recall it as well as to exchange "presets" between individual engineers via the Internet. For some time they have found a permanent place in the best and most expensive studios around the world, often displacing analog hardware devices. Which technology is  clearly better? Is the hardware, analog equipment really indispensable? There is the ongoing debate about that between the professionals, but the mere fact that such a discussion takes place means that the software is already an extremely serious competitor for the best hardware devices. A few years ago serious sound engineers of great reputation  only shook their heads over the software and would never replace their acquired for serious money hardware of famed and legendary brands, such as the Pullman, Fairchld or Manley. Today, many of them openly admit that their hardware devices are currently in the studio closets collecting dust.
Both types of technology, and both approaches to the music production have their hard supporters. A clear answer on which approach is better or not is not possible. The most important here  is a human factor. The ear and experience of the person using these devices. The true fact is "a main device" in mastering is ... producer with all his emotional and artistic sensitivity, the luggage of experience and othe skill of listening to music, which  he has acquired throughout his life. Both software and hardware devices are capable of achieving excellent results in the production of music ... provided that they are operated by suitable person.
 

Is a very widespread view that the equalizer only affects the tonal range of sound, and nothing more. Nothing more mistaken - equalizers are powerful dynamics processors, we can shape the dynamics of the recording to a very large extent and specifically for certain parts of the band. We should be thinking about equalizers as the dynamics processors, but acting differently to audio compressors.


A typical equalizer can be built in 2 kinds - the parametric and graphic. The parametric equalizer can be adjusted, in general, by knob, through which we can determine the frequency, and then weaken or strengthen it using another knob. We can have a few of such pairs of knobs in parametric equalizer. Graphic equalizer is slightly different, it has one permanent frequency for each, but it has more regulators usually built as sliders, which makes it able to graphically present the curve of correction in graphical manner. and it usually has many bands (sliders) of correction.

Very often we hear the question, what frequency is best suited for bass, for a guitar solo, a vocal or for some other instrument. How to set the equalizer in order to improve the sound of the piano or sax? Many websites of music producers and even manufacturers of the equipment give a kind of "rules" on a permanent basis, the optimal settings for equalization of individual tracks. We are surprised that such solutions are proposed by the renowned and corporate deliverers, which of course should not take place, because such settings are simply not existing.
They do not really exist because the nature of a recorded sound depends on too many factors such as the type of microphone, and the track for which the instrument was recorded (what role in the mix it is to play), the instruments differ much from each other not only in the construction and transducers, but for example in the types of used amplifiers and ambience.


Art of mixing the music is like the art of mixing paint for a picture, it is all about skilful operating the contrasts, the tracks do not have to sound equally strong or clear, sometimes it is very desirable to make one sounding duller to cause another one shine better, for example a bright piano and smooth guitar (or vice versa). So we can say with certainty that there are no optimal, fixed equalizer settings for different tracks in the mix as an initial optimization of their frequency spectrum. However, you can specify a certain characteristic frequency, which occur in the range of individual instruments, which may prove helpful for less experienced mixers just for the start. These figures are typical of the standard-sounding instruments and voices, recorded with a good condenser microphone thorough a decent preamp or mixing desk. We insist, that those figures can vary considerably when used in mixes.

Frequencies are classified into 3 ranges, but regardless of these 3 bands, there is still a general bass and treble frequency for all the instruments. Those we will give you at the bottom of the table. These ranges are:
 

-Base frequency range, which focuses on the most energy in the instrument and which is the main basis of the instrument's tonal character
-Distinguish frequency range, which results in drastic change in the sound timbre  of the instrument
-Presence frequency range, which decides on the resolution of the track in the mix, adding it will highlight the instrument in the mix, turning it down will cause smoothness in sound


Here are frequencies for different instruments:

Track

Base Frequency  [Hz]

Distinguish Frequency[Hz]

Presence Frequency

Remarks

Male Vocal

255

1200

2800

Female vocal

355

1500

3500

 

Electric bass

155-150

1200

2800

Acoustic bass

105

1312

2680

Kick drum

82

1050

2200

Snare

812

1320

4500

add 100 Hz for funk snare

Toms

212

805

1600

Cymbals

250

6500

9000-11000

Acoustic guitar

230

950

5100

Spanish guitar

230

1500

3500-4200

Electric guitar

250

1500

3200-5250

Grand piano

225

1000-1350

3500-4100

concert grand has it 50Hz lower

Violin

350

1050

4500

Cello

150

930

3250

Trombone

245

2000

2300

Trumpet

420

850

2600

Tenor sax

285

1300

1950

Alto sax

500

1420

2212

Hammond organ

235

850-1250

3500

for distorted Hammond take away 50Hz

Fender piano

280

750-1150

3600

Church organ

80

600-1000

1500

The common bass frequency for all the instruments is 76 Hz with such a "Q" shape that it starts from around 225 Hz.

The common treble frequency for all the instruments is 10 500 Hz with "Q" shaping the curve starting from around 5000 Hz
 

Furthermore, each of these instruments have bass and treble frequencies common for all audio and we can strengthen the overall bass and treble of the instrument using this setting. Accordingly, it is 76Hz and 10 500 kHz. Some experts recommend adding so-called "Air" in a range of about 13 000 - 16 000 Hz, those frequencies, however are not, vitally affect the sound of tracks tracks. In addition, there is a danger of the extraction of noise from the background, if a noise was present during recording. However, keep in mind that the smartest rule in mixing is that there are no rules here. If something is good for your ear, it probably is just a good thing. Do not look at the dials too much and just concentrate on sound. The most important thing here is personal taste and sensitivity to subtle tonal changes in music, rather than rigid technical rules, which can not be successful transferred to real world in every case.
 

Frequencies below around 40 Hz should be cut. These components of sound spectrum will only weaken the whole mix, not affecting its better sound at all. Similarly, the treble should be cut in the region of about 16 500 Hz. And finally, one very important principle: Boosting frequencies generally gives the effect of more stiff sound, and that is usually not very desirable, as natural sounds do not sound stiff. Very interesting results can be achieved by cutting certain frequencies, the result is usually softening the sound and making it smoother. Contrasting those 2 types of sound gives very good effect when two tracks which were treated with equalizer boosting and cutting play together... that good rule in order to achieve great sounding music mix is to have one track softened by cutting frequencies, and the other one hardened by boosting some frequencies. Most of the backing instruments should be softened while the solo instruments and vocals hardened by boosting somewhat. The softened tracks will give a nice cushion to support the lead ones.  

More expert comments and advices on the use of equalizers, the types and operation of their filters, and the terminology and technical tricks giving excellent results when mixing music can be found in other tabs on this page.
 

   Secrets of audio compression-what it is and what benefits gives us the audio compression?
 

Compression is often poorly understood part of the process of forming sound, and the adjusting of the audio compressor can be quite a task, even for the experienced musicians, and often something difficult to understand. Secrets of proper setting the audio compressor are fully explained on another tab on this page,  so let's concentrate in the meantime we on the analysis of the impact of the sound of the compressor from the more aesthetic and artistic than technical point of view.
The audio compressor was invented as an electronic device that was to control the sound from overdriving the tape when the signal became bigger. It was to be a kind of an automated hand which will turn the signal down when it is becoming too high. The sound engineers, however soon discovered that audio compressors give them not only technical control over sound- they give them THE BETTER SOUND. Compressed audio tends to sound more uniform, warm and round and therefore audio compressors are very widely used during mixing of music. They help to get much better sound and it is hard to imagine a studio engineer that does not use compressors. It is second most important sound processor after the equalizer.  

Actually, we can say that anything done with the audio compressor is on the 2-kinds the technical and the aesthetic aspect. Most important of the two is the aesthetic. Dry recording without compression, especially digital, is often making an impression that it is not very clear in terms of quiet sounds, is somewhat "thin". A compressor draws all, even these very quiet sounds from the deep background and brings it up making the whole sound image very clear to the human ear, as if given "in one piece glued together from different parts".

The role of audio compressor in creating the aesthetic part of the sound of music can not be over esteemed.

lastly revised 24 January, 2009

 

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Copyright ® by Mariusz Wojto˝, 2007-2008. Copying, the use of excerpts for any purpose without the agreement of the author prohibited.
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