All about producing and mastering audio for disc, the web and beyond

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Ornette at The Grammy's

I know it's WAY off topic but I was reminded of the speech Ornette Coleman gave when I attended the Grammy's as a nominee a few years back. Here is the text of his remarks, remarkable as they are:


"OC: It is really very, very real to be here tonight, in relationship to life and death and I’m sure they both love each other.

I really don’t have any present thoughts about why I’m standing here other than trying to figure out something to say that could be useful to someone that believes.

One of the things I am experiencing is very important and that is: You don’t have to die to kill and you don’t have to kill to die. And above all, nothing exists that is not in the form of life because life is eternal with or without people so we are grateful for life to be here at this very moment.

For myself, I’d rather be human than to be dead. And I would also die to be human. So you can’t die, you can’t die to be neither one, regardless of what you say or think so that’s why I believe that music itself is eternal in relationship to sound, meaning, intelligence…all the things that have to have something to do with being alive because you were born and because someone else made it possible for you to be here, which we call our parents etc. etc.

For me, the most eternal thing is that I would like to live until I learn what it is and what it isn’t…that is, how do we kill death since it kills everything?

And it’s hard to realize that being in the human form is not as easy as wondering what is going to happen to you even if you do know what it is and it doesn’t depend on if you know what is going to happen to you.

No one can know anything that life creates since no one is life itself. And it’s obvious, at least I believe, it’s obvious the one reason why we as human beings get there and do things that seem to be valuable to us in relationship to intelligence… uh, what is it called…creativity and love and all the things that have to do with waking up every morning believing it’s going to be a better day today or tomorrow and yet at the same time death, life, sadness, anger, fear, all of those things are present at the same time as we are living and breathing.

It is really, really eternal, this that we are constantly being created as human beings to know that exists and it’s really, really unbelievable to know that nothing that’s alive can die unless it’s been killed. So what we should try to realize is to remove that part of what it is so that whatever we are, life is all there is and I thank you very much."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What is loud cont'd....

“When I was a kid, I was filling balloons with oxy/accetaline mixtures and tying a firecracker fuse in the bottom of them and lighting them. I had one go off at point blank range as soon as I lit the fuse. That seemed pretty loud at the time. Of course, I've never been around anything really loud, just things that seemed loud at the time.” – anon internet

“Music is the space between the notes” - Claude Debussy

“We think the record sounds pretty good but really, we just want to be sure it’s loud.” – a renowned American String Quartet that shall remain nameless

What is Loud?

This question is at the heart of so much of our work. How to measure volume, either in an absolute sense or a relative one. How loud should you listen, how loud should the vocal be in a mix, how loud should you record a track or a mix?

The related question, What is TOO loud may in fact be more germane. If something is TOO loud than something else gets lost. In a live sound reinforcement context too loud might be described as a point when the level becomes painful….you lose your hearing.

When recording too loud is when unintended distortion takes place…you lose fidelity.

In the context of mixing, too loud might be when one sound obscures others…you lose the balance.

In mastering too loud might mean that you lose the space between the notes.

In the days of analog recording and the early days of digital there was a relationship between the nominal level of a recording (‘0 VU’ or +4dbm or –20 dbfs) and the peak level (‘+20 VU’ or +24 dbm or 0 dbfs). In fact when mixes were heavily compressed you might see that 20db dynamic range shrink to 16 or even 14 db, thought that was the extreme. So the loud part of a song would peak at a level at least 14 db hotter than the nominal level of the music. And the quiet sections of the music would reside lower than that. There were technical and aesthetic considerations that helped form this ‘equation’.

Now, with our all powerful dsp chips we can actually make recordings that have a nominal level of –8 or 9 dbfs or even LOUDER! Now, often the quiet sections of the music are living in the area that was previously reserved for the med-loud sections.
Have you ever compared two level matched version of a mix, one at a ‘mildly compressed volume and one at a highly compressed volume to see which is louder?

The reasons for this? It could be that technology has improved and we simply can make hotter records. It could be that we live in an culture riddled with attention deficit syndrome and the only way to get people’s attention is to yell all the time and hope to be heard. It could be that the typical MP3 playback system is poor and dynamics don’t translate well on the poor equipment playing over the sound of a subway train.

While it’s not likely we can change the louder world, whatever the reasons for this phenomenon, we need to understand what the implications are.

The answers to these questions emerge in the context of every project and they bear asking. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

What does it mean to music when the difference between loud and soft is disappearing?
What does it mean when the average signal level presented to a D/A converter is so hot?
What does it mean that the excursion of a peak of a drum hit is now only 3-6db hotter than the rms level?
What does it mean when clipping distortion is an acceptable practice in recording?
What does it mean when listeners are routinely subjected to high listening volumes and levels of distortion in the recording?
What does it mean when engineers, producers and fans accept a hotter level as ‘standard’?
What does it mean when the level of a recording is sustained at a high enough level that you never get to hear the low level detail/ambience/etc.

What does it mean when you never get to hear the space between the notes…………………………

Monday, January 11, 2010

What IS loud?

Today's seminar with faculty at Berklee college was excellent. Lively discussions about what the value of dynamics is, where dynamic range comes from, and why records might sound loud....or why they might not. We also discussed whether records SHOULD be loud and more.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Original Thinking

Original see the challenge is:

I need to understand what it is that you are interested in. I can sit hear and write about technology trends or the cultural implications of the democratization of the music business or which kind of pantyhose works best as a pop filter but I don't have a hi degree of confidence that any of those topics are really going to speak to what you are all write me, let me know who you are and I'll try to address some of the topics that are hottest for you.

The second part of the challenge is to write something original. I mean you may not need that but honestly the net is full or articles extolling the virtues of vintage mics or neat tips and tricks about using compressors. Does the world need one more? I guess you'll let me know.

My goal is to give you some real info about the real world when it comes to recording tech and practice.

So next month I'll dive back into some specifics but for now I would like to talk about what makes a really great recording great, assuming that's our common goal. So before arguing ad nauseum about whether POW-R or UV-22 dither sounds better I propose the following list of what it takes to make a great recording:

1 Great music
2 Great musicians/Great performance/ Great programming
3 Great instruments
4 Great recording acoustics
5 Great monitoring acoustics
6 Great monitor speakers
7 Mic placement
8 Mic type
9 Clean Signal path

And so on...

Notice that the equipment used to make a great recording DOESN'T EVEN MAKE THE TOP 5!!!

Of course you CAN overcome some of these issues, and some records have nary an acoustic sound on them but even so you can't violate ALL of the first 5 conditions I set up above and hope to come away with a recording that will inspire your audience to part with their hard earned money, or maybe even inspire them at all. We get so hung up on recording techniques and gear it is easy to lose sight of the main ingredients of our stew.

Ultimately, everything that appears in this column is designed to help you serve the goal of creating the best possible recording, for artistic and/or commercial purposes. So when you’re getting caught up in the minutia, step back, and take a moment to use wider view and as you’re sweating the .1 db boost at 20kHz, see whether the first 9 things on the list have been tended to…..drop a line, I’ll be listening.

Jonathan Wyner ( has recorded, mixed and mastered more than 5000 records during the last 23 years, spanning every musical idiom (and some nonmusical idioms as well!). He is a professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. His credits range from the extremely well known (James Taylor, David Bowie, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, Kiri Te Kanawa) to the idiosyncratic and independent artists/labels. A 2007 Grammy nominee, his most recent production began airing on PBS in March 2007.