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

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.

Dynamic 1073/84 EQ curves?

Yes we can! The 1073 and 84 high shelving filters are featuring that classic frequency dip upfront the HF boost itself. Technically speaking they are not shelves but bell curves with a very wide Q but anyway, wouldn’t it be great if that would be program dependent in terms of expanding and compressing according to the curve shape and giving a dynamic frequency response to the program material?

Again, dynamic EQs makes this an easy task today and I just created some presets for the TDR Nova EQ which you can copy right from here (see below after the break). Instructions: Choose one of the 3 presets (one for each specific original frequency setting – 10/12/16kHz) and just tune the Threshold parameter for band IV (dip operation) and band V (boost operation) to fit to the actual mix situation.

They sound pretty much awesome! See also my Nova presets for the mixbus over here and the Pultec ones here.

[Read more…]

Dynamic Pultec EQ curves?

Wouldn’t it be great if the Pultec boost/cut performance would be program dependent? Sort of expanding and compressing according to the boost/cut settings and giving a dynamic frequency response to the program material.

Well, dynamic EQs makes this an easy task today and I just created some presets for the TDR Nova EQ which you can copy right from here (see below after the break). Instructions: Choose one of the 4 presets (one for each specific original frequency setting – 20/30/60/100Hz) and tune the Threshold parameter for band II (boost operation) and band III (cut operation) to fit to the actual mix situation.

See also my presets for the mixbus over here.

[Read more…]

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.

Lets talk about mixing levels (again)

Some years ago we had lots of discussions about proper mixing levels in the digital domain – with mixed (sic!) results, IIRC. Meanwhile, more and more influencers are claiming that targeting -18dBFS with a VU meter readout is the “digital audio sweet spot” and the way forward in terms of plugin gain staging. In practise that would imply mixing digital peak levels at around 0dBFS again but maybe I’ve missed something during my absence in recent years. So, to what mixing levels are you up to in your DAW today?

42 Audio Illusions & Phenomena

In a comprehensive series of five YouTube videos, Casey Connor provided an awesome overview and demonstration of 42 (!) different psychoacoustic effects. Watching and hearing (headphones required) not only is so much entertaining and educational but also provides some deep insights why we all do not hear in the exact same way. Relevant for all of us in the audio domain whether it is sound design, mixing, mastering or development. Highly recommended!

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:

Also interesting to read and hear:

sustaining trends in audio land, 2021 edition

Now, after spending some time on digging a little bit more deeper into the current offerings and market situation in audio production I just wanted to briefly outline some of my personal summaries regarding sustaining trends but maybe outline also some new things I do see on the horizon.

The mobile audio evolution

To me this indeed looks like an ongoing trend for years now which simply does not stop. On the one hand we can see the whole software and especially the App market continuing and increasing in all areas and platforms: notebooks, tablets, smartphones and their respective eco systems accordingly. Where Ableton once started in providing an almost complete mobile music production approach in literally just a bag, Bitwig and others followed and now Apps are everywhere allowing any kind of recording and music or media production on the go. Apples recent move with the M1 SOC (System on Chip) approach fits perfectly into this trend by increasing the mobility even further in terms of power, size and efficiency. Others will follow this path for sure. Also we can see traditional music gear manufacturers going more and more into compact and battery powered solutions as well, such as the Korg Volca series or the Roland boutique thingies, just to name the two.

The retro cult continues

Companies like Behringer will continue to spit out analog HW clones like there is no tomorrow. Whether thats synthesizer reissues or blatant plain copies of vintage mixing outboard or modeled software – you’ll find everything and in almost all shades of quality and price. And I think this is a really good thing to have such a variety to choose from and also this will lead to some serious price drops in the overpriced used gear market in that area.

Modular madness

I don’t think this is part of the overall retro trend but a niche on its very own. In any case the modular synthesis thing is still gaining more and more momentum. There is a sheer amount of hardware options to choose from and meanwhile also quite a lot of audio interfaces and controller solutions are offering not only Midi but also CV support. Even in software land one can put his/her virtual hands on something modular. All in all, this looks and sounds like real fun and a great opportunity to spend a lot of time on (and money).

Look mom no computer

All those neat outboard DAW-less setups shown on YT: Some hardware samplers and grooveboxes here, some fancy retro synths there and fx stomp boxes all over the place. Well, “Look mom no computer” is of course absolutely wrong here because half of that stuff has tiny little digital displays and computers underneath you have to tinker with. Personally, I would prefer some neat “one knob, one job” analog interfaces plus a real full-blown DAW any day. However, definately a sustaining trend and a good thing.

Loudness war, quo vadis?

While it seems that LUFS finally made it and in fact has been successfully settled as a standard in the broadcast domain – in music production in general it has not. Todays audio mastering target levels are still insane and even some “engineers” continue to present converter clipping as the holy loudness grail to their YT followers. That really hurts. At least some of the big streaming sevices restricted target loudness levels to -14 or -16LUFS which gives a little hope.

ITB production finally took over

Now that even the last renowned mixing engineer has finally surrendered to the dark side in the box – at least for the recording and mixing part – the question remains, why this has taken so long. Was it for quality concerns? The time-to-market pressure to finally have total recall in all regards? Simple ignorance or fear? We might not be sure about the final answer but we do know that today almost everybody can run some media production tasks in a decent quality on his very own while having a low entrance barrier. And this is what I really would call the “game changer” of the last decade. Now, your skills are the limit.

Game of DAWs

There is really no trend in particular here other than the fact that we have the very same players on the board since a decade ago. Maybe Bitwig will aim for the crown from Ableton? It’s whole inherent synthesis and modulation integration make this comprehensive sequencer an instrument on its very own and also it runs natively on Linux. All the other contenders improved step by step here and there but quite comparable. Maybe having build in mixing scenes and more convincing analog style summing is a thing which sticks a little bit out. So, on my own I wasn’t that much impressed about this very last episodes and now I’m looking forward to an upcoming but much more entertaining season, hopefully.

The pandemic impact

As we all know, the Covid impact on everything live performance related was and still is a sheer desaster. How this will evolve in the future is hard to predict but it is clear that there won’t be any back to normal any time soon if ever. That means this area must transform into the digital/virtual domain as well and most of the suppliers in exact this kind of areas are already the winners of the current situation.

Stay healthy!