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A Sound Education

2-Bits, 4-Bits, 6-Bits...

Low Bit Rate Sucks

"People don't appreciate music any more. They don't adore it. They don't buy vinyl and just love it. They love their laptops like their best friend, but they don't love a record for its sound quality and its artwork."

Laura Marling, musician

We love convenience. Drive thrus, same-day delivery, automatic transmissions, instant coffee. Uh, maybe not that last one. Convenience often drives technology. And when it does, something has to go. What are you willing to give up for convenience? Taste, comfort, money, quality?

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Recording History

recordinghistory

“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
Homer, The Odyssey

If you've read The Odyssey or The Iliad, then you know why they've been literary classics for almost 3,000 years. But did you know they date to the earliest origins of the alphabet? It's believed that Homer's poems and speeches were so revered that early scribes dedicated themselves to writing them down. In fact, half of all Greek papyrus discoveries contain Homer's works. Homer must have been one cool dude to influence all of Western literature.

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Star Wars With One Major Piece Missing

This is a great example of how important sound is in film.

Circuit-Bending

circuitbending

"I don't appreciate avant-garde, electronic music. It makes me feel quite ill."

Ravi Shankar

When you think of electronic music, you often think of the straightforward synthesizer, electric piano, or loops and samples. But some musicians like to rewire, alter, or downright reconstruct electronic equipment to make sounds they weren’t originally intended to do. At the forefront of these experimentations was BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, a special music lab that gave us unique sounds and music for hit TV shows such as Dr. Who.

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A Sound Education

asoundeducation
“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”
Socrates

What young person really knows what they want to be when they grow up? Very few of my childhood friends are still on the path they laid out early in life. Most of us have zig-zagged through careers, including me. Unlike today, if you wanted to be an audio engineer in the 70's like I did, there were very limited educational opportunities. Most recording engineers started as musicians or disc jockeys and fell into the job. As a teenager in the late 70's, I was into music more than anything. I hung out in radio and TV stations and got my first exposure to a "real" recording studio in a friend's basement. I was a child of tape. In fact, as a child I ran around my house with a cassette recorder taping anything that I found interesting. I would often shove a microphone into the face of a shy family member, who would naturally be at a loss for words. But when a teen nears graduation, the pressure builds into making that big life decision - "what will I grow up and be?"

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3D Sound on the Right Track

3daudio

“Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.”

Will Rogers


3D Audio on the Right Track


It's said that when an early motion picture was first shown to the public, women fainted and men ducked from an approaching train. The director made a bold new decision that would alter the course of filmmaking for the next century. Instead of just placing the camera in front of all the action like an audience watching a stage, the director moved the camera to a new position - within the action - to create perspective. That’s been happening in filmmaking ever since. But the same has been happening in sound as well. And now with emerging technologies, virtual 3D sound is now here.

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Get in the Groove!

Pasted Graphic

The new generation is discovering what the old generation stopped loving - LPs. LP sales are the highs they’ve been in 22 years. Records aren’t just for hipsters anymore, everyone, including the older generation that gave them up, are groovin’ to them.

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The Color of Sound

Sound Color
“Within You Without You,” The Beatles
1967

The Color of Sound


How would you describe a sound to someone without using descriptors that are unique to sound, like: loud, bassy, shrill, whining, atonal, or noisy?

Not a problem, because we most often describe a sonic experience with words related to our other senses: sharp, warm, angular, raspy, piercing, even, warbling, soft, smooth, or flat.

What about blue? I think of that as more of a style of music or mood instead of a type of sound. Why don't we use more colors to describe what we hear? Probably because a "yellow" sound could be cowardly. A "green" sound may be eco-friendly. A "purple" sound is probably regal. A "brown" sound - well, we'll leave that one alone.

What if we could see sound? Aside from graphical representations of sound like waveforms and meters, we can't just look at an orchestra and see sounds flying out of the trombones. I wish we could watch the beautiful tones flow from Itzhak Perlman's Stradivarius.

But we can - sort of. As reported by NPR, we can see certain sounds using a technique invented in the mid-19th century. Click on the link above to read about and watch a short video describing this process to get a clearer picture. To simplify, scientists watch the disturbance of heat waves by sound. Ever look down a highway on a hot summer day and see the heat creating wavy images? Scientists have used this phenomenon to "see" sneezes and aircraft wing turbulence. But Michael Hargather at New Mexico Tech uses it to study explosives.

So what's next? I would love be able to put on some goggles and see sounds and where they're coming from. Loud sounds would be bright. Bass would be blue, treble would be white, and green, red, and yellow would fill in the gaps. Imagine seeing green waves and ripples emanating from the violas, bubbles of blue from the tuba, and distinct columns of yellow and white from the violins. It would be like Peter Max was the conductor. With technology advancing at such a rapid rate, this may not be so far-fetched in our lifetimes. Color me crazy.

Did You Know?

  • "White noise" in sound engineering describes randomly generating all the sounds in the frequency spectrum. SInce the sounds aren't generated at the same time, they are measured over a period of time. Each sound is at a consistent level.
  • 600px-White_noise_spectrum.svg
  • White noise sounds similar to a radio that is tuned to no station.
  • White noise is often used in large offices to mask sounds from workers, computers, and other office machinery. People also use white noise generators to aid in sleeping.
  • "Pink noise" is similar to white noise, but decreases in intensity each ascending octave.

  • 600px-Pink_noise_spectrum.svg


  • Pink noise is primarily used to measure the output of an audio device.
  • Sound engineers play pink noise over monitor systems to check frequency response and level of speakers. If measurements show that a speaker produces some frequencies differently than the pink noise (more bass for example), then it is considered to have a "colored" response. Pro audio speaker manufacturers strive for a "flat" response from their products. This way an engineer isn't fooled into compensating for the difference while mixing.
  • Live sound engineers use pink noise to reduce feedback and get maximum performance from speakers.
  • Other types of noise used in analysis are violet, brown(ian), gray, blue. Other informal names for sound used in measurement are red, green, black, noisy black, and noisy white.


Tech Notes

Reducing feedback in a live sound situation is very tricky, especially if good sound performance is desired. The "squeal" you hear when a microphone is turned on is from a buildup of a certain frequency. It's usually the point at which the microphone and speaker are the most efficient. If one points a microphone at the same speaker that is amplifying it, then serious feedback occurs. Most speakers are placed in front of or beside performers so there is no direct bleed back into the microphone. If speakers are placed behind the performers (think The Who), then eliminating feedback is a bigger chore.

How do you eliminate feedback? Let's use the simplest set-up as an example: one microphone and one speaker. A graphic equalizer (GEQ), a device that increases or reduces frequency by octaves, is inserted after the microphone channel and just before the amplifier. The engineer slowly raises the amplifier level until the first inkling of feedback. Using the GEQ, the engineer locates the offending octave, ex: 630 Hz, by actually increasing that frequency creating more feedback. That octave is then reduced until feedback goes away.

Next, then amplifier is turned up a little more until the next inkling of feedback occurs, usually at another frequency, which is then reduced. These steps are repeated over and over until the amplifier is at a suitable level without feedback. Of course computer technology has simplified this process greatly with devices that rapidly reduce feedback "on-the-fly." And with software, engineers for permanent PA systems in large venues can even predict where feedback will occur before installation. They can then program in filtering or make changes to the architecture, equipment, or speaker placement.

Neil Kesterson

Leftover Beethoven

WIth the recent news that the Library of Congress is inducting 25 entries into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, I was excited to see U2, Linda Ronstadt, and Isaac Hayes get their due. Perusing the list, I saw a very influential (at least personally) album - Copland Conducts Copland: Appalachian Spring (1974).

I was a music major in college and always found Aaron Copland to be the quintessential American composer. He seemed to capture what Americans idolize about America: hope, boldness, charm, intrepidness, looking forward but not forgetting the past. Read More...

The BIrth of Recording

When Recording Writes the Music

When commercial radio really took off in the 1920's and 30's, it was fueled by advances in recording. You could even say that each drove the other. Early music recordings were mostly documents of what was already being played to live audiences - classical, early jazz, folk, etc. As bands got bigger and louder, the music got more exciting. Dixieland was new, records were all the rage, and radio was just beginning to transport the new sounds across the country, just like the transcontinental railway brought the ideas of the gilded age to America a half-century earlier. Read More...
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