how I listen to audio today

Developing audio effect plugins involves quite a lot of testing. While this appears to be an easy task as long as its all about measurable criteria, it gets way more tricky beyond that. Then there is no way around (extensive) listening tests which must be structured and follow some systematic approach to avoid ending up in fluffy “wine tasting” categories.

I’ve spend quite some time with such listening tests over the years and some of the insights and principles are distilled in this brief article. They are not only useful for checking mix qualities or judging device capabilities in general but also give some  essential hints about developing our hearing.

No matter what specific audio assessment task one is up to, its always about judging the dynamic response of the audio (dynamics) vs its distribution across the frequency spectrum in particular (tonality). Both dimensions can be tested best by utilizing transient rich program material like mixes containing several acoustic instruments – e.g. guitars, percussion and so on – but which has sustaining elements and room information as well.

Drums are also a good starting point but they do not offer enough variety to cover both aspects we are talking about and to spot modulation artifacts (IMD) easily, just as an example. A rough but decent mix should do the job. On my very own, I do prefer raw mixes which are not yet processed that much to minimize the influence of flaws already burned into the audio content but more on that later.

Having such content in place allows to focus the hearing and to hear along a) the instrument transients – instrument by instrument – and b) the changes and impact within particular frequency ranges. Lets have a look into both aspects in more detail.

a) The transient information is crucial for our hearing because it is used not only to identify intruments but also to perform stereo localization. They basically impact how we can separate between different sources and how they are positioned in the stereo field. So lets say if something “lacks definition” it might be just caused by not having enough transient information available and not necessarily about flaws in equalizing. Transients tend to mask other audio events for a very short period of time and when a transient decays and the signal sustains, it unveils its pitch information to our hearing.

b) For the sustaining signal phases it is more relevant to focus on frequency ranges since our hearing is organized in bands of the entire spectrum and is not able to distinguish different affairs within the very same band. For most comparision tasks its already sufficient to consciously distinguish between the low, low-mid, high-mid and high frequency ranges and only drilling down further if necessary, e.g. to identify specific resonances. Assigning specific attributes to according ranges is the key to improve our conscious hearing abilities. As an example, one might spot something “boxy sounding” just reflecting in the mid frequency range at first sight. But focusing on the very low frequency range might also expose effects contributing to the overall impression of “boxyness”. This reveals further and previously unseen strategies to properly manage such kinds of effects.

Overall, I can not recommend highly enough to educate the hearing in both dimensions to enable a more detailed listening experience and to get more confident in assessing certain audio qualities. Most kinds of compression/distortion/saturation effects are presenting a good learning challenge since they can impact both audio dimensions very deeply. On the other hand, using already mixed material to assess the qualities of e.g. a new audio device turns out to be a very delicate matter.

Lets say an additional HF boost applied now sounds unpleasant and harsh: Is this the flaw of the added effect or was it already there but now just pulled out of that mix? During all the listening tests I’ve did so far, a lot of tainted mixes unveiled such flaws not visible at first sight. In case of the given example you might find root causes like too much mid frequency distortion (coming from compression IMD or saturation artifacts) mirroring in the HF or just inferior de-essing attempts. The most recent trend to grind each and every frequency resonance is also prone to unwanted side-effects but that’s another story.

Further psychoacoustic related hearing effects needs to be taken into account when we perform A/B testing. While comparing content at equal loudness is a well known subject (nonetheless ignored by lots of reviewers out there) it is also crucial to switch forth and back sources instantaneously and not with a break. This is due to the fact that our hearing system is not able to memorize a full audio profile much longer than a second. Then there is the “confirmation bias” effect which basically is all about that we always tend to be biased concerning the test result: Just having that button pressed or knowing the brand name has already to be seen as an influence in this regard. The only solution for this is utilizing blind testing.

Most of the time I listen through nearfield speakers and rarely by cans. I’m sticking to my speakers since more than 15 years now and it was very important for me to get used to them over time. Before that I’ve “upgraded” speakers several times unnecessarily. Having said that, using a coaxial speaker design is key for nearfield listening environments. After ditching digital room correction here in my studio the signal path is now fully analog right after the converter. The converter itself is high-end but today I think proper room acoustics right from the start would have been a better investment.

a brilliant interview

the album is dead, long live the album

Just enjoyed listening the new Röyksopp album as a whole. The album concept was declared dead ever so much during the last decade but I hope we will see more music releases like this again.

lost & found

Stuff to share from the interwebs. All related to music making, sound design, audio production.

You know you’re getting old if you once were used to those:

  • The Museum of Endangered Sounds: Imagine a world where we never again hear the symphonic startup of a Windows 95 machine. Imagine generations of children unacquainted with the chattering of angels lodged deep within the recesses of an old cathode ray tube TV …
  • »Conserve the sound« is an online museum for vanishing and endangered sounds. The sound of a dial telephone, a walkman, a analog typewriter, a pay phone, a 56k modem, a nuclear power plant or even a cell phone keypad are partially already gone or are about to disappear from our daily life …
  • And also this:

Modern scoring: ‘Tenet’: Ludwig Göransson Put Chris Nolan’s Breath in His Score — and Rethought Composing Altogether

About the future of audio mastering: How AI is solving one of music’s most expensive problems

FerricTDS is about glueing things together and not about distortion (I already told you):

Weird sound devices:

everything just fades into noise at the end

When I faced artificial reverberation algorithms to the very first time I just thought why not just dissolve the audio into noise over time to generate the reverb tail but it turned out to be not that easy, at least when just having the DSP knowledge and tools of that time. Today, digital reverb generation has come a long way and the research and toolsets available are quite impressive and diverse.

While the classic feedback delay network approaches got way more refined by improved diffusion generation, todays computational power increase can smooth things out further just by brute force as well. Still some HW vendors are going this route. Sampling impulse responses from real spaces also evolved over time and some DSP convolution drawbacks like latency management has been successfully addressed and can be handled more easily given todays CPUs.

Also, convolution is still the ticket whenever modeling a specific analog device (e.g. a plate or spring reverb) appears to be difficult, as long as the modeled part of the system is linear time invariant. To achieve even more accurate results there is still no way around physical modeling but this usually requires a very sophisticated modeling effort. As in practise everything appears to be a tradeoff its not that much unusual to just combine different approaches, e.g. a reverb onset gets sampled/convoluted but the reverb tail gets computed conventionally or – the other way around – early reflections are modeled but the tail just resolves into convoluted noise.

So, as we’ve learned now that everything just fades into noise at the end it comes to no surprise that the almost 15 years old epicVerb plugin becomes legacy now. However, it remains available to download for some (additional reverb) time. Go grab your copy as long as its not competely decayed, you’ll find it in the downloads legacy section here. There won’t be a MkII version but something new is already in the making and probably see the light of day in the not so far future. Stay tuned.

sustaining trends in audio land, 2022 edition

Forecasts are difficult, especially when they concern the future – Mark Twain

In last years edition about sustaining trends in audio land I’ve covered pretty much everything from mobile and modular, DAW and DAW-less up to retro outboard and ITB production trends. From my point of view, all points made so far are still valid. However, I’ve neglected one or another topic which I’ll now just add here to that list.

The emergence of AI in audio production

What we can currently see already in the market is the ermergence of some clever mixing tools aiming to solve very specific mixing tasks, e.g. resonance smoothing and spectral balancing. Tools like that might be based on deep learning or other smart and sophisticated algorithms. There is no such common/strict “AI” definition and we will see an increasing use of the “AI” badge even only for the marketing claim to be superior.

Some other markets are ahead in this area, so it might be a good idea to just look into them. For example, AI applications in the digital photography domain are already ranging from smart assistance during taking a photo itself up to complete automated post processing. There is AI eye/face detection in-camera, skin retouching, sky replacement and even complete picture development. Available for all kinds of devices, assisted or fully automated and in all shades of quality and pricing.

Such technology not only shapes the production itself but a market and business as a whole. For example, traditional gate keepers might disappear because they are no longer necessary to create, edit and distribute things but also the market might get flooded with mediocre content. To some extend we can see this already in the audio domain and the emergence of AI within our production will just be an accelerator for all that.

The future of audio mastering

Audio Mastering demands shifted slightly over the recent years already. We’ve seen new requirements coming from streaming services, the album concept has become less relevant and there was (and still is) a strong demand for an increased loudness target. Also, the CD has been loosing relevance but Vinyl is back and has become a sustaining trend again, surprisingly. Currently Dolby Atmos gains some momentum, but the actual consumer market acceptance remains to be proven. I would not place my bet on that since this has way more implications (from a consumer point of view) than just introducing UHD as a new display standard.

Concerning the technical production, a complete ITB shift – as we’ve seen it in the mixing domain – has not been completed yet but the new digital possibilities like dynamic equalizing or full spectrum balancing are slowly adopted. All in all, audio mastering slowly evolves along the ever changing demands but remains surprisingly stable, sustaining as a business and this will probably continue for the next (few) years.

Social Media, your constant source of misinformation

How To Make Vocals Sound Analog? Using Clippers For Clean Transparent Loudness. Am I on drugs now? No, I’ve just entered the twisted realm of social media. The place where noobs advice you pro mixing tips and the reviews are paid. Everyone is an engineer here but its sooo entertaining. Only purpose: Attention. Currency: Clicks&Subs. Tiktok surpassed YT regarding reach. Content half-life measured in hours. That DISLIKE button is gone. THERE IS NO HOPE.

The (over-) saturated audio plugin market and the future of DSP

Over the years, a vast variety of vendors and products has been flooded the audio plugin market, offering literally hundreds of options to choose from. While this appears to be a good thing at first glance (increaed competition leads to lower retail prices) this has indeed a number of implications to look at. The issues we should be concerned the most about are the lack of innovation and the drop in quality. We will continue to see a lot of “me too” products as well as retro brands gilding their HW brands with yesterday SW tech.

Also, we can expect a trend of market consolidation which might appear in different shapes. Traditionally, this is about mergers and aquisitions but today its way more prominently about successfully establishing a leading business platform. And this is why HW DSP will be dead on the long run becuse those vendors just failed in creating competitive business platforms. Other players stepped in here already.

the twisted world of guitar pedals II

Meanwhile I had the opportunity to put my hands on some Fairfield Circuitry effect pedal stuff mentioned earlier here and the “Meet Maude” analog BBD delay was right here on my desk for a deeper inspection. My actual experience was a rather mixed one.

Focusing on a rather dark and LoFi sound quality on the one hand plus a rather simplistic feature set concept wise on the other, they do not appear to be very flexible in practise and this at a rather steep price point. They appear to be very noisy featuring all kinds of artifacts even when integrated to the mixing desk via reamping. One may call this the feature itself but at the end it makes it a one-trick pony. If you need exactly that, here you have it but you get nothing beyond that. To me this trade off was too big and so I send it back.

However, I found their nifty low pass gate implementation (very prominently featured within their “Shallow Water”) that much unique and interesting that I replicated it as a low pass filter alternative in software and to have it available e.g. for filtering delay lines in my productions. The “Shallow Water” box made me almost pull the trigger but all in all I think this stuff seems to be a little bit over-hyped thanks to the interwebs. This pretty much sums it up for now, end of this affair.

Timeline & BigSky – The new dust collectors?

Going into the exact opposite direction might be a funny idea and so I grabbed some Strymon stuff which aims to be the jack of all trades at least regarding digital delay and reverb in a tiny stomp box aka desktop package. To be continued …

Further readings about BBD delays:

a brief 2021 blogging recap and 2022 outlook

Currently on my desk, awaiting further analysis: The Manultec Orca Bay EQ

Rebuilding my studio and restarting blogging activities one year ago was pretty much fun so far. Best hobby ever! To get things started in Jan/Feb this year, I did a short summary about the recent trends in audio and I might revise and update that in January again. Quite some audio gear caught my attention over the year and some found its way into the Blog or even in my humble new studio setup, e.g. the unique SOMA Lyra-8 and the Korg MS-20 remake as well as the Behringer Clone of the ARP 2600.

I also went into more detail on how to get the most out of the SPL Tube Vitalizer or the renaissance of the Baxandall EQs just to name the two topics and also had a more realistic look at the Pultec style equalizer designs which might be something I will continue to dig into a little bit further in 2022. As of lately I’m also intrigued by some analog effect pedal designs out there, namely the Fairfield Circuitry stuff. And as always, I’m highly interested in everything psychoacoustic related.

By end of August I started re-releasing my very own plugins and also did mkII versions for FerricTDS, ThrillseekerXTC and TesslaSE. I will continue that route and on top of my list is to have the whole Thrillseeker plugin series complete and available again. Some are asking me if I will develop brand new audio plugins as well. While I’m doing that already but just for my very own, at this point in time it remains unclear if some of that stuff will ever gonna make it into a public release. But you never know, the TesslaSE remake was also not planned at all.

Something I will continue for sure is that special developer interview series I did over the years. This year I already had the chance to talk to Vladislav Goncharov from Tokyo Dawn Labs and Andreas Eschenwecker from Vertigo Sound which gave some detailed insights about creating analog and digital audio devices, especially dynamic processors. To be published in January, the very next interview has also been done already and this time it will be with this years Technical Grammy Award winner, Daniel Weiss.

I’m looking forward to 2022!

Stay tuned
Herbert

the twisted world of guitar pedals I

Quite recently I had a closer look into the vast amount of (guitar) effect pedals out there. Most are already DSP based which surprised me a little bit since I still ecpected more discrete analog designs after all. While looking for some neat real analog BBD delay I finally stumbled across Fairfield Circuitry’s “Meet Maude” which got me intrigued, having a rather rough look&feel at first sight but some very delicate implementation details under the hood.

Their delay modulation circuit has some randomness build in and also there is a compression circuit in the feedback loop – both designs I’ve also choosen for NastyDLA and which makes a big impact on the overall sound for granted. But the real highlight is the VCF in the delay feedback path which actually appears to be a low-pass gate – a quite unique design and soundwise also different but appealing in its very own regard.

They employed very similar concepts to their vibrato/chorus box “Shallow Water” featuring also random delay modulation and a low pass gate but this time a little bit more prominent on the face plate. On top, their JFET op-amp adds some serious grit to any kind of input signal. All in all, I did not expect such a bold but niche product to exist. If I ever will own such a thingy, there will be a much more detailed review here for sure.

The TesslaSE Remake

There were so many requests to revive the old and rusty TesslaSE which I’ve once moved already into the legacy folder. In this article I’m going to talk a little bit about the history of the plugin and its upcoming remake.

The original TesslaSE audio plugin was one of my first DSP designs aiming at a convincing analog signal path emulation and it was created already 15 years ago! In its release info it stated to “model pleasant sounding ‘electric effects’ coming from transformer coupled tube circuits in a digital controlled fashion” which basically refers to adding harmonic content and some subtle saturation as well as spatial effects to the incoming audio. In contrast to static waveshaping approaches quite common to that time, those effects were already inherently frequency dependent and managed within a mid/side matrix underneath.

(Later on, this approach emerged into a true stateful saturation framework capable of modeling not only memoryless circuits and the TesslaPro version took advantage of audio transient management as well.)

This design was also utilized to supress unwanted aliasing artifacts since flawless oversampling was still computational expensive to that time. And offering zero latency on top, TesslaSE always had a clear focus on being applied over the entire mixing stage, providing all those analog signal path subtleties here and there. All later revisions also sticked to the very same concept.

With the 2021 remake, TesslaSE mkII won’t change that as well but just polishing whats already there. The internal gainstaging has been reworked so that everything appears gain compensated to the outside and is dead-easy to operate within a slick, modernized user interface. Also the transformer/tube cicuit modeling got some updates now to appear more detailed and vibrant, while all non-linear algorithms got oversampled for additional aliasing supression.

On my very own, I really enjoy the elegant sound of the update now!

TesslaSE mkII will be released by end of November for PC/VST under a freeware license.