The Search for Warmer and Fuller Sounding Masters
If we could record the musical instruments exactly as we hear them in real life, most of the music we hear would probably sound a little different. A recording that sounds like it needs no frequency tweaking at all; I’m sure plenty of engineers who are reading this rarely come across to such a fine recording quality.
We would say that nowadays we have great technological advancements that brings us microphones with lower noise floor, better dynamic range and frequency response, ultra-high definition low noise preamps and selection of purist audio and power cables, for more affordable prices. So, why can’t we do it better? Why does the music still lack warmth in 2018?
Recordings lose their body and warmth somewhere on the chain and we try to bring it back using all the equipment we have, analog hardware or digital plugins, tweaking and hoping it gains its body back. Most of the time psychologically persuading ourselves that it gets better. Does it really get better? Could it be just plain gain increase making it sound slightly louder which will fool our ears easily?
I believe that such high definition recording characteristics are rare, not because we don’t have the technology to do such a fine job, but because we don’t pay enough attention to something very important in the recording chain: acoustics.
Every audio engineer knows that acoustics play a great role in the recording quality. In the new era of home studios, importance of acoustics began declining, mostly due to limited spaces to implement successful designs and high costs of dedicated material. Thus, sound engineers began applying more DIY approaches to acoustics and also manufacturers began to come up with different solutions for rooms, like self-measuring and adjusting monitor speakers to correct room issues. However, we cannot deny that acoustics is a part of physics; rules will not change here. You need space, right material, and correct application. Just as you cannot build a house out of feathers and expect it to hold, you cannot EQ out your control room problems with a self-measuring speaker and expect it to fix all your acoustic issues. Such a speaker correction would only fix frequency related issues, and leave all time-related reverberation issues there, which actually are the biggest problems in rooms. Besides, this electronic room correction solution is only for control rooms; A well-designed acoustical treatment is still necessary for recording studio live rooms.
Most of the small or mid-sized rooms have one common acoustic similarity; When you analyze acoustic test results of such rooms, you notice that most problems happen below 500 Hz, which happens to be the most important part of a sound, it’s body! This is the range that defines the fundamental sounds of musical instruments or human voice; The frequencies that makes us feel the sounds closer, warmer, basically more real.
Inferior room acoustics causes plenty of frequencies below 500hz resonate very heavily in the room. Let’s say you are recording an acoustic guitar. If there is a 200hz resonance in the room (the problem will be way more complicated than just 200hz but let’s use a single frequency for this example), and this was captured by the microphone, which might even sound louder than the 200hz coming from the guitar itself. So, what happens when we record things with top of the range equipment in a studio with this acoustic issue? When it is time to mix the track, either the engineer who did the recording or another mixer notices the problems laying in the sound below 500hz that was caused by acoustics; bad resonances, boomines, boxiness or muddiness, whatever you call it. So, either they are fixed during mixing, or it gets even worse during mixing due to the control room with bad acoustics and it becomes mastering engineer’s job in the end. Of course, only solution is to cut these frequencies by several dBs, a few if you are lucky. This is how it all starts; first stage of losing the body of your recording. It sounds better for sure, after removing all those problem frequencies. But how would it sound if we did not have to remove those?
Finally, the mix goes into the hands of our mastering engineer who will be responsible to recover all the missing warmth and body of the whole mix. Of course, at this point what a mastering engineer can do for this flawed mix is very limited and the result is always going to be average. Even a tube mastering EQ that costs a fortune or the best analogue tape emulation hardware that your mastering studio owns will not help bringing out details that doesn’t exist in the recording from the beginning.
In my opinion, it might be a good idea to stop blaming the digital technology for our warmth-lacking sound recordings and start valuing the importance of acoustics in every stage of record production by investing in acoustic treatments more.
Owner of and Mastering Engineer at Maven Mastering