But what if you haven't been able to do that, how do you know what music is supposed to sound like? I went to a large venue live concert a few months ago and was really almost shocked at how bad the sound was. And this is with national acts and a million dollar sound system.
I walked around the sound booth area wondering if they were hearing something different than I was hearing. But it was just as bad there. The sound guys were on their cell phones and obviously content with the quality of the sound. Half of the instruments were not even in the mix and the ones that were there were either too loud or too soft but always poor.
The subs were so loud that the low frequencies just rolled around the 8,000 seat auditorium like a thunderstorm. You could not figure out who was playing what unless you walked up to the stage and saw them. I walked completely around the auditorium and the sound went from bad to worse. It was not even close to acceptable at any point in the room.
So why do I mention this here? It used to be that you learned what music is supposed to sound like by hearing live music. But that is just not possible anymore. If you want to hear what acoustic instruments sound like, you go to a band or orchestra concert where there is no PA system. As far as jazz and rock groups go, you will have to listen to good recordings.
Now if you do not know how they are supposed to sound, how do you know if the recording is any good?
It is a sad musical example of Catch 22. I have talked to many people who thought they knew what good sound was until they actually heard good sound and then realized that they did not have a clue.
I learned this while analyzing mastered recordings with some sophisticated instruments and a great sound system. The more I listened and pored over frequency spectrums, and referenced the recordings to my own experience in big bands and orchestras, the more I realized that even mastering engineers can get it wrong. I could tell when they changed their speakers, because the frequency spectrum of their masters would change.
Now if even mastering engineers have to be careful, the average young performer, artist, etc., has little chance of getting it right. I noticed that many mastering engineers who did great work in the 70s, did not nearly as great work in the 90s, even though the equipment was better.
So, first of all, expensive equipment is not what makes great sound. You have to have great ears, but you also need a playback system that has accurate sound. Obviously if you have a frequency area in your playback system that is too much or too little, even if you have perfect ears, you will adjust to that sound. The result will be flaws at those points.
So what can we do about it? Well, one thing is to listen on different systems as a final check. That is what Auratones and Yamaha NS-10s were all about. If it only sounds good in your studio, you may be congratulating yourself on your wonderful sound, but it is worthless in the real world.
Another important tool that I absolutely depend on is the frequency spectrum graph of the song. I have done this for so many years that I can for the most part look at a printout of a frequency spectrum and tell you what it will sound like. That takes years of study, but it means I do not completely trust my ears, especially if they are tired. The spectrum does not lie, it is what the sound actually is. As it comes out of your speakers, it always a compromise.
How do you learn that? Take recordings that everyone says are great and look at their spectrum. Study it and realize that if yours is very different from that, your recording is no doubt wrong.
Don't listen to advertisements in magazines. They are trying to sell you something. Of course they are going to say it is the only product you need. If you read the session notes in recording magazines like Mix, etc., you realize that every track in the world was recorded differently. They used every kind of mic, recording technique, board, preamps, cables, outboard gear, plugins, DAWs, speakers, etc., known to man and some came out better than others, but it had virtually nothing to do with their equipment choice.
There were great recordings made in the 1930s and 40s with one (yes, only one) microphone in front of a screaming big band with a single vocalist and it was recorded in one take and you can hear every instrument and you can hear them better than recordings made last year with 50 mics and 200 tracks and millions of dollars worth of equipment.
So, if you are looking for good speakers to help you mix properly, find some great recordings from the 70s, take them to places that sell speakers, take them to studios with expensive speakers, listen carefully, and then see if you can get close to that sound without spending as much as a new car, or new house.
There are other issues such as the sound of the room. If you are using nearfields, keep them close. (Keep your friends close, keep your speakers closer) That minimizes the room's effect on the sound.
The present small speaker market is full of self powered options which are very inexpensive. But from my recent tour of them (see previous blog), It is not an easy task to find good speakers in that price range. They will have deficiencies and you have to learn what they are. You can still use them, but you have to know where they are wrong. That is where you rely on frequency spectrums.
Find others with good ears and ask them to help you. "In a multitude of counselors, there is wisdom."
If you are a teenage boy, it will not be another teenage boy. Experience in any endeavor takes years of hard work. There are no shortcuts or presets to bypass that. Your acquisition of a vaulted plugin will not make you an expert or guarantee a hit single. Just like you would not win the Daytona 500 even if you owned the fastest race car.
The bottom line?
Listen more than you talk.
Words to live by.
Until next time...