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.

audio analyzers currently in use here

During tracking, mixing and mixdown I’m utilizing different analyzers whether thats freeware or commercial, hard- or software. Each of them doing a decent job in its very own area:

VU Meter

Always in good use during tracking and mixing mainly for checking channel levels and gainstaging all kinds of plugins. I also love to have a VU right on the mixbus to get a quick visual indication about Peak vs RMS dynamic behaviour.

TBProAudio mvMeter2 is freeware and actually meters not only VU but also RMS, EBU LU as well as PPM. It is also resizeable (VST3 version) and supports different skins.

Spectrum Analyzer I

To me, the Voxengo SPAN is an all-time classic analyzer and ever so reliable. I’ve always used it to have a quick indication about an instruments frequency coverage or the overall frequency balance on the mixbus. There is always one running at the very end of the summing bus in the post-fader section.

Voxengo SPAN is also freeware and highly customizable regarding the analyzer FFT resolution, slope smoothing and ballistics.

Spectrum Analyzer II

Another spectrum analyzer I’m using is Voxengo TEOTE which actually is not only an analyzer but a full spectrum dynamic processor. However, let alone the analyzer itself (fully working in demo mode!) is an excellent assistant when it comes to assess the overall frequency balance. The analyzer does this in regards to a full spectrum noise profile which is adjustable with a Tilt EQ, basically. Very handy for judging deviations (over time) from an ideal frequency response.

Voxengo TEOTE demo version available on their website.

Loudness Metering

I’m leaving all EBU R128 related business to the TC Electronic Clarity M. Since it is a hardware based monitoring solution it always is active here on my desktop no matter what and also serves for double-checking equal RMS levels (for A/B comparisions) and a quick look at the frequency balance from time to time. The hardware is connected via USB (could be SPDIF as well) and is driven by a small remote plugin sitting at the very end of the summing bus in my setup here. It also offers a vector scope and provides audio correlation information. It supports a vast variety of professional metering standards.

Courtesy of Music Tribe IP Ltd.

Image Courtesy of Music Tribe IP Ltd.

 

 

 

What loudspeakers and audio transformers do have in common

Or: WTF is “group delay”?

Imagine a group of people visiting an exhibition having a guided tour. One might expect that the group reaches the exhibitions exit as a whole but in reality there might be a part of that group just lagging behind a little bit actually (e.g. just taking their time).

Speaking in terms of frequency response within audio systems now, this sort of delay is refered to as “group delay”, measured in seconds. And if parts of the frequency range do not reach a listeners ear within the very same time this group delay is being refered to as not being constant anymore.

A flat frequency response does not tell anything about this phenomena and group delay must always be measured separately. Just for reference, delays above 1-4ms (depending on the actual frequency) can actually be perceived by human hearing.

This always turned out to be a real issue in loudspeaker design in general because certain audio events can not perceived as a single event in time anymore but are spread across a certain window of time. The root cause for this anomaly typically lies in electrical components like frequency splitters, amplifiers or filter circuits in general but also physical loudspeaker construction patterns like bass reflex ports or transmission line designs.

Especially the latter ones actually do change the group delay for the lower frequency department very prominently which can be seen as a design flaw but on the other hand lots of hifi enthusiast actually do like this low end behaviour which is able to deliver a very round and full bass experience even within a quite small speaker design. In such cases, one can measure more than 20ms group delay within the frequency content below 100Hz and I’ve seen plots from real designs featuring 70ms at 40Hz which is huge.

Such speaker designs should be avoided in mixing or mastering situation where precision and accuracy is required. It’s also one of the reasons why we can still find single driver speaker designs as primary or additional monitoring options in the studios around the world. They have a constant group delay by design and do not mess around with some frequency parts while just leaving some others intact.

As mentioned before, also several analog circuit designs are able to distort the constant group delay and we can see very typical low end group delay shifts within audio transformer coupled circuit designs. Interestingly, even mastering engineers are utilizing such devices – whether to be found in a compressor, EQ or tape machine – in their analog mastering chain.

The renaissance of the Baxandall EQs

Already in 1950, Peter Baxandall designed an analog tone correction circuit which found its way into some million consumer audio devices later on. Today, it is simply referred to as a Baxandall EQ.

What the f*ck is a Baxandall EQ?

Beside its appearance in numerous guitar amplifiers and effects, it made a very prominent reincarnation in the pro audio gear world in 2010 with the Dangerous Music Bax EQ. The concept shines with its very broad curves and gentle slopes which are all about transparancy and so it came to no surprise that this made it into lots of mastering rigs right away.

And it also had a reason that already in 2011 I did an authentic 1:1 emulation of the very same curves within the Baxter EQ plugin but just adding a dual channel M/S layout to better fit the mastering duties. For maximum accuracy and transparancy it already featured oversampling and double-precision filter calculations to that time and it is still one of my personal all time favourite EQs.

BaxterEQ

During the last 10 years quite a number of devices emerged each showing its very own interpretation of the Baxandall EQ whether thats in hard or software and this was highly anticipated especially in the mastering domain.

A highly deserved revival aka renaissance.

When comparing units be aware that the frequency labeling is not standardized and different frequencies might be declared while giving you same/similar curves. More plots and infos can be found here (german language).

A more realistic look at the Pultec style equalizer designs

One of the few historic audio devices with almost mystical status is the Pultec EQP-1A EQ and a lot of replicas has been made available across the decades. Whether being replicated in soft- or hardware, what can we expect from a more realistic point of view? Lets have a closer look.

Some fancy curves from the original EQP-1A manual
  • In the top most frequency range a shelving filter with 3 pre selected frequencies is offered but just for attenuation. Much more common and usable for todays mixing and mastering duties would be an air band shelving boost option here.
  • Also in the HF department there is just one single peak filter but this time just for boosting. It offers 7 pre selected frequencies between 3 and 16kHz and only here the bandwidth can be adjusted. However, the actual curves could have been steeper for todays mixing duties.
  • There is no option in the mid or low-mid range at all and also no high pass option. Instead, there is a shelving filter for the low-end which allows for boost and/or attenuation around four pre selected frequencies between 20 and 100 Hz.

All in all, this appears to be a rather quirky EQ concept with quite some limitations. On top of that, the low frequency behaviour of the boost and cut filters is rather unpredictable if both filters are engaged simultaneously which is exactly the reason why the original manual basically states “Do not attempt to do this!”.

Nowadays being refered to as the “Pultec Bass Trick” the idea is that you not only boost in some low end area but also create some sort of frequency dip sligthly above to avoid too much of a boost and muddiness in total. In practise, this appears to be rather unpredictable. Dial in a boost at 3 and an attenuation at 5, just as an example: Does this already feature a frequency dip? And if so at which frequency exactly? One has no idea and it even gets worse.

Due to aged electronics or component variety one has to expect that the actual curve behaviour might differ and also to see each vendors replica implementation to be different from another. In practise this indeed holds true and we can see the actual bass frequency dip at a much higher frequency within one model compared to another, just as an example.

… the more I boost the EQ the more it makes me smile …

A reviewers statement misguided by simple loudness increase?

Fun fact: Like the original device, all current (hardware) replica models do not have an output gain control. Also they increase the overall signal level just by getting inserted into the signal path.

So, where is the beef? Its definately not in the curves or the overall concept for sure. Maybe I’ll take some time for a follow-up article and a closer look into the buffer amplifier design to see if all the hype is justified.

Further Links

Not really demystifying but fun to read:

In the VoS plugin line you can find some Pultec style low end performance within NastyVCS: https://varietyofsound.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/nastyvcs-released-today/

Also interesting to read and hear: https://www.sweetwater.com/insync/pultec-shootout-with-sound-samples/

how old are your ears?

(via)

distortion in transformer cores, N. Partridge, 1939

This is the first of a series of articles in which the question of amplitude distortion arising in the iron core of a transformer will be dealt with on a quantitative basis. Information on this subject is scarce and the design data given is the outcome of original research by the author.

Be aware that tis articles appeared in the The Wireless World magazine from around 1939 (!). I’ve found some decent scans here: 1, 2, 3, 4.

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