Posts Tagged ‘ Perception ’

Visual feedback in plugins

When you’re starting out, it’s useful to use plugins that have numeric values and visual feedback. Big frequency graphs in EQ and transition diagrams on compressors are extremely valuable in helping you understand how these tools work. Bonus points if the tools have animated meters and graphs that dance along with the music. It’s a great way to learn how the sound is being changed. It’s a great way to learn how the parameters control how the sound changes.

But if you’re doing real work? Forget it.

Unfortunately, our eyes trump the ears. We hear what we see. Our perception of sound is so strongly influenced by our sight that sometimes even being aware of it doesn’t counteract the effect. It’s true.

It’s bad enough that your listeners don’t have a studio exactly like yours. They hear your sound differently to how you hear it. And that’s just considering the physical space. Now factor in the difference between what you’re seeing and what they’re seeing. Not only is their physical listening environment different to yours, but their visual stimulus is different to yours. Not only do they hear your sound different, but they perceive it differently.

It’s a losing battle, but we fight anyway.

We treat our studios acoustically. We purchase ridiculously expensive and over-engineered speakers and headphones. We do this even though our listeners will hear hear it differently anyway. No matter what we do. But we do it anyway – to try to hear the sound as plainly and as truthfully as possible. And sometimes it works pretty well.

But we should also strive to perceive the sound as plainly and as truthfully as possible. And that means controlling the visual stimulus in our studios.

We already attempt to create monitoring environments that are as neutral as possible. Maybe we should make our studios look as neutral as possible as well? Drab grey walls or sterile white doesn’t sound like much fun. Our studios are our workplace, and they should be comfortable and inviting. They are a place to be relaxed and focussed and creative. There should be a balance. And for the most part, it’s ok. Our studio environment is mostly static – it becomes a constant factor that our brains adjust to.

Dynamic visuals, however, are different. When your compressor is telling you that your kick drum is being compressed by 12dB, you’ll hear those 12 decibels. And you’ll be strongly influenced by how that 12dB looks. If the gain reduction scale goes from -15dB to 0dB, those 12dB will look like a lot of compression. And it’ll sound like a lot of compression too. On the other hand, if the gain reduction scale goes from -30dB to 0dB, those same 12dB will look like much less. And they’ll sound like much less too – if you’re watching the gain reduction meter.

The same goes for EQ. That 6dB cut looks (and sounds) like a lot when the frequency analyser’s graph scale is +/-9dB. Change the scale to +/- 24dB and suddenly everything changes.

But doesn’t the same apply to on-screen controls (such as knobs and sliders)? Certainly – but to a much lesser extent because the controls don’t respond to the music. Without visual feedback, you perceive the music with your ears only. There’s nothing visual that’s telling you what the music sounds like. To go back to the monitoring analogy, your perception will be plainer and more neutral.

There’s certainly a place for visual feedback. Ridiculous dancing graphics probably help car lovers enjoy their sound system. Full-screen iTunes visualisations are great for parties. Visual feedback in plugins are good for learning how they work and identifying what to listen for (it’s hard to listen for compression if your threshold is too high!)

But if you’re doing real work? Forget it.



The relative importance of mixing tools

Not all mixing tools are made equal. Some tools have a greater effect on the mix than others. Sometimes it helps to consider four types of tools – volume, tone, dynamics and ambience.

Volume is the most powerful mixing tool – the humble channel fader. If you only had one tool to do a mix, it’d have to be volume. Even in a more complex mix, it’s the most critical tool. No amount of EQ or compression or reverb can help you if the basic relative volumes of each track are wrong. Volume control of each track is essential to achieving an effective balance between foreground sounds (the focus on the mix) and the background sounds (the filling and depth of the mix).

Tone is the next most powerful tool. The tone of each channel is usually adjusted using EQ or filters. Tone control can be used in two ways – correcting problems in the sound of a track (such as unwanted resonance or treble/bass tilt) and supporting the depth in the mix (helping sounds appear closer the the foreground or further in the background).

Dynamics are almost as powerful as tone – but not quite. The dynamics of a channel can be adjusted using compression (for controlling loud parts of a recording) and gating/expansion (for controlling quiet parts of a recording). While powerful, dynamics are less useful than tone. While compression in particular can be useful for shaping the transients and the ‘feel’ of a sound, it’s less effective than volume and tone for adjusting the relative balance between the tracks in a mix.

Ambience is the least powerful of the four – it is the ephemeral cloud and subtle reflections that we use as cues to tell us the shape and size of the ‘space’. Ambience is often added with reverb and delay, but can also be manipulated by using dynamics processing to emphasise or de-emphasise the natural ambience in the raw recordings. Even though ambience is at the end of this list, it is still a very powerful tool. Like compression, it can often have an influence on the ‘feel’ of a mix – affecting the emotions rather than the function of a mix.


The vibe of a session

I recently came across this article, with this great paragraph:

THE REALITY is that 90% of the time, the artist (and probably the producer) dont want to sit around and watch you turn knobs and swap mics until you get your idea of the most awesome sound. They want to record. Instead of the perception that you are doing your job to the fullest, the actual perception will often be “this engineer doesnt know what he’s doing”, and then before you’ve recorded a single note, everyone has already lost faith in your abilities, and the session vibe is blown. The most important thing in any session ever is the VIBE. A great vibe will usually translate to great feeling takes, which is a bit more important than the most amazing vocal sound. a bad vibe will equate to unusable takes, even is sonically they are wonderful. VIBE. believe it.

And this gem:

The engineer is doing their job the best when they are transparent to the session. When nothing they do is slowing down the creative process.

My personal view has long been similar to this: Technology is best when it stays out of the way. As far as recording going, the engineer is part of the technology. The artist is in the studio to make music. Any time they spend not making music is time they spend waiting to make music.

Read the rest of the article. It’s worth it.