Monday, June 13, 2011

Less Is More...More or Less

Everytime I get in a rental car, the bass and treble of the stereo are ALWAYS boosted to their limits.  AND the "Loudness" button is engaged.  It only takes a couple of minutes to zero everything.  But, still, it's troubling.  Another typical trend is the "smiley face" eq curve.  You know...the shape a graphic eq dons on a friend's stereo system?  I envision the setup.  The moment the graphic eq is pulled from the box and plugged into the system, the "smiley face" is immediately carved into the once boring flat line.  I wonder if any thought went into it.

Why?  Why do people adjust eq so radically?  Do they listen while making adjustments?  Did they see one of their friends do it and thought that's how it was supposed to be?  Or were there small adjustments over time that culminated in the final curvature?  Perhaps, it's to compensate for hearing loss as a result of listening to another's eq abuse?  Is the Bose marketing campaign that effective?

Whatever the reason, it bothers me.  It's the equivalent to boosting the brightness, contrast, and all color controls fully on your tv or computer monitor.  Does that look good?

Most systems, nowadays, sound decent without all the hype.  It used to be that we would use eq to compensate for the lack of quality in our equipment.  Today's consumer equipment is much better sounding.  I wonder if eq's are even necessary.

What is eq?  EQ is short for equalizer or equaliser(in the Queen's English).  An equalizer in a playback system was designed to compensate or "equalize" an environment's acoustical deficiencies.  Yet, today, an eq is used more as shaping tool much like us audio engineers use during the recording process.  Mastering engineers are aware of this trend and adjust accordingly.  Ocassionally, I'll get a client new to mastering who comments on how flat his project sounds in the studio.  Once they get it out to their car or their home stereo system, they don't have the same comment.

I bet most people don't even know what the "Loudness" feature was designed to do.  The "Loudness" feature was intended to compensate for Fletcher-Munson curves at low volume.  The key part to the previous sentence is "AT LOW VOLUME."  The Fletcher-Munson curve, simply put, is the human ear's insensitivity to bass and treble at low volume.  The Loudness feature on stereo systems was intended to compensate for this lack of sensitivity by boosting the bass and treble.  The trouble comes when the Loudness feature is engaged at high volume.  It's unnecessary!

As an audio engineer, have you ever mixed a song that sounded great in the studio and when you played it in your car or home stereo it sounded thin and tinny?  You might blame the Fletcher-Munson curves and mixing too loudly. I can tell when someone mixed at too high a volume.  The bass is gone.  The treble is gone.  All that's left is mid-range.  I actually prefer to mix at low volumes.  Almost too low for some people. Distortion is easier to hear at low volume.  Everything sounds good loud.  It's easy to make something sound decent at high volume.  If you can make it sound good at a low volume, imagine how much better it will sound when you turn it up!

An issue that arises today for fledgling audio engineers is listening fatigue.  Extended periods of loud music can not only damage your hearing, but it's tiring.  As fatigue sets in, it's easy to reach for the treble frequencies.  You think it sounds better.  Your ear has become accustomed to the increased level.  And, it might sound better after a 12-hour day.  Get some sleep and come back the next day.  Does it still sound good?  If it does, great!  It's a good idea to have some reference material handy.  Go back and check yourself every hour or so.

You'll notice that until now, all that has been mentioned is boosting or adding eq.  I've often told people that I prefer to cut or subtract eq.  Taking out troublesome frequencies can be more effective than boosting other frequencies.  For example, if an instrument sounds dark or muddy, try taking out bass or low frequencies instead of reaching for the treble.  The same goes for an instrument that's too bright.  Cut the high frequencies.  This technique is more effective because it only affects the offending frequencies.

I am fond of high-pass filters.  They're simple and effective.  It is time to filter out my noise now.

Rock.  Roll.  Repeat.

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