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Old 12-15-2008, 09:16 PM   #92
Human being with feelings
Join Date: Aug 2006
Posts: 1,975

Let's talk a little more about farfield vs nearfield recording and how the concepts interact with some of the stuff from earlier.

As a quick aside, if you have followed the thread so far, one of the biggest reasons to purchase actual dedicated-purpose nearfield monitors is because they are designed for even response at close-up listening, as opposed to the Bose tagline of "room-filling sound," whatever that means (it probably doesn't mean perfectly linear mids at a distance of two feet from the speaker). I will leave the advantages of monitoring in the nearfield to the acoustics thread, but the short version is that you're generally better off listening to monitors that are too close than too far.

Do you play electric guitar? If so, do you play with the speaker a centimeter away from your ear? If you do, you should probably stop. But if you are like most players, you have probably spent significant effort on dialing in an amp sound that sounds good from, say, 1.5 meters or 6 feet away (I'm trying to incorporate metrics for readers who don't live in this alternate universe known as USA). So why do we commonly record guitar amps with the mic shoved right up in the speaker grill?

For that matter, why do we record string bass with a mic under the bridge, or piano with mics under the soundboard, or drums with mics right up against every kit piece?

The answer is complicated in theory, but the short version is because it often sounds better.

In the real world, we are making records for people to listen to on a variety of playback systems, in a variety of listening environments. And ideally, we want the records to sound good in all of them. A "purist" approach might be to simply set up the ensemble in a concert hall and record them from row 3, center with zero processing. This is all well and good for re-creating the ideal listening experience in a dedicated audiophile listening room, but an immediate problem presents itself in proletarian real-world playback.

In a loud car, or as shopping mall background music capped at 60dB SPL, or in a noisy bar's jukebox, the playback is not going to be a philosophically pure listening experience. We have no control over the playback volume or acoustics. We have no control over the background noise.

But an interesting solution presents itself if we consider the ways in which human hearing automatically adjusts for surrounding acoustics (if you haven't already read through the acoustics stick in this forum please do so). If we simply recreate the SOURCES (i.e. the individual instruments) proportionately, then we can theoretically create a virtual concert hall in whatever space the listener is in. I.e. we don't actually have to re-create the "ideal listening experience," we can just reproduce all the instrument sounds, balance them out, and let whatever environment the listener is in take care of the rest. And the obvious way to do this is with direct recording and close-miking.

BUT, that leads to some pretty significant complexities. For instance your electric guitar sound that was developed for listening six feet (or 1.5m) away is going to sound a lot different on studio monitors with the mic shoved in the grill. Especially if you are trying to make records that might be played back at a different (lower) volume than you usually play guitar.

The fact is that volume makes a big difference. For example, let's take gunshots. If you've ever shot a gun, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't shot a gun, imagine something really loud and then make it a lot louder.

Now, with that in mind, I want you to think about TV and movie gunshot effects. The fact is that an authentic recording of a gunshot, when played back at sane living-room listening levels, sounds like a wimpy little "pop" or hand clap. You have probably heard this kind of gunshot recording before in documentaries or newsreels or some such and thought "how wimpy." But that's what a gunshot sounds like, unless it is at ear-blasting, speaker-rupturing SPL levels.

So what happens in *most* TV and movie soundtracks is that they compress, saturate, stretch out, and "hype up" the sound of gunshots to create the *impression* of loudness within safe, reproducible playback levels. This is particularly pronounced if you watch a movie or TV show where there are massive-sounding handguns interspersed with smaller ratatat-sounding high-caliber machine guns. In reality, the machine guns are just as loud and powerful as the sidearms on every round, if not more so, but there is no way to fit the explosive "decay" into every machine-gun round, so the mixer is forced to compromise. In real life, machine guns are not abruptly treblier and smaller-sounding than handguns. Real-life machine guns are a great way to go deaf quick, but in the movies, the action hero's voice sounds just as loud and powerful as the high-caliber assault rifle, which is yet another illusion.

The fact is that we can, within limits, create a whole lot of sonic illusions. Where these are most useful in the studio is in creating the right sense volume, space, and size that will fool the ear on playback. In other words, we can make gunshots *sound* deafening, even at perfectly safe listening levels, within limits.

Facts about the rock band AC/DC that you might not have known:

-The singer from AC/DC usually sings whisper-quiet.
-The guitar players from AC/DC usually use quite low gain settings for heavy rock guitar, older Marshall amps with the knobs turned up about halfway (no distortion pedals).

Both of these fly in the face of impressions that most casual listeners would have about AC/DC, which is a band that has been releasing some of the loudest-sounding records in rock for decades. The reality is that the moderate amp gain settings actually sound louder and bigger than super high-gain settings, which are prone to sound nasal and shrill at low volumes.

The singer, like TV gunshots, is creating the impression of loudness without straining his voice by only pushing and exerting the upper harmonics that are strained while screaming. IOW, he's singing not from the diaphragm, as most vocal coaches teach, but from the throat and sinuses. Instead of screaming, he's skipping the vocal chord damage, and only exercising the parts of the voice that are *unique* to the scream. He's using parts of the voice that normally never get used except when we're screaming our head off, and the result is that it sounds like someone screaming his head off, even though he's barely whispering. Because nobody walks around talking like that, the effect is of a "super-scream," something that sounds louder than any mortal human could ever scream, because the normal sound of a human voice is completely overwhelmed by the effects that are usually only heard during screaming.

My point is not to endorse AC/DC, nor to say that you should try to emulate them, only to cite a commonly-heard example as a way to illustrate how perceived loudness, size, and impact can be crafted as a studio or performance illusion.

Nearfield close-miking opens up a world of opportunities in this respect. We can zero in on the sharp "thump" of a kick drum and make it feel like a punch in the chest for an uptempo club track, or we can stretch it and compress it to sound like distant thunder for a slow mournful ballad. We can take a poppy, bouncy snare and turn it into a gated, white-noisy industrial explosion or we can subtly lift up the decay to get a sharp, expressive, woody crack. We can flatten out the guitars and shove the Celestion greenbacks right into your ears. We can get the bass to pump the speakers and we can make the piano plunk and plink a whole new backbeat.

But for the reasons mentioned above, we still run into trouble with trying to get "natural" sounds from close-miking. This might be something of a lost cause, but listen to modern-day records on the radio and see how many of them actually sound anything like a band in a room. Not many. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is not for me to say, but I will go out on a limb and venture that increasingly artificial-sounding productions lend an increasingly disposable quality to popular music.

How many of today's records will people still be listening to in 30 years? Will some balding middle-aged insurance salesman be telling his kids that they don't understand rap metal and that their stuff is just "crap metal" and go home to watch Limp Bizkit's PBS special at the Pops while sipping iced Chablis?

Anyway, stuff to think about. More to come.
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