Equalized and Optimized: A Brief Tutorial On Sound

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Equalized and Optimized: A Brief Tutorial On Sound

To more than half the population of planet Earth, the barrier between good sound and the most horrendous audio experience of modern times looks a lot like this:

Simple image of good vs bad sounding music to most people

More loud is more good…?

It is unfathomable how many times during my tenure as a live sound engineer I have received the following advice from concert-goers.

“HEY – YOU SHOULD TURN IT UP, THAT WOULD SOUND BETTER!”

As if these people thought, somewhere on my sound console, there was a slider that looked like this:

If sound engineering could be done by a kindergartner.

The magical “better” button.

Spoiler Alert: there is not.

There is no magic “remove painful squealing sound” button, nor is there a “fix off-key harmonies” knob.

See, this:

Soundboard, because making things sound beautiful is an art.

Where the magic really happens.

can actually be reduced down to this: 

Map of the soundboard landscape.

Every new landscape needs a map.

which, thanks for the advancements of consumer audio, can actually be reduced down to this:

Apple makes equalizer

Presets, yay!

Now, I might have lost some of you, but that’s okay. I can start over. We’ll start with the dumb question:

Do you love music?

Almost as much as you love to google pictures of cats. 

Who doesn’t like music? I know people who aren’t insanely enthusiastic about particular bands or genres, but I have yet to encounter a person who is generally opposed to the concept of music. However, depending on the type of music you’re into, you might be listening to it wrong.

Like if you are listening to the Foo Fighters through these:

Apple earbuds

Small Straw

or if you shelled out the big bucks for a pair of these to listen to your favorite podcast:

beats by Dr. Dre Pro

Big Straw

Honestly, the sad truth (for me, at least) is that most people don’t care what the music sounds like. They take the sound, smush it down to brick of dynamic-less noise, and walk down a busy street listening to it through their iPhone speakers. This breaks my heart; it also makes me want to break their phone while screaming, “YOU HAVE NO RESPECT FOR THE CRAFT.”

But that would be crazy, right? (I am actually looking for verification on this.)

This is not to say that you need to go out and buy a 7.1 JBL surround sound system for a mere $6,000. There are super easy and fiscally responsible ways to optimize your audio experience using the tools you already have at your disposal.

Because if you are using any Macintosh product, you have this:

Mac equalizer

Sliders, whee!

Look how pretty that is! And it comes with presets! So let us say, hypothetically, that you are listening to Dave Grohl serenade you through a pair of Harmon Kardon stereo desktop speakers? Open up your Equalizer window.  Set Phasers to ROCK.

Rock Preset on Mac Equalizer

Spock isn’t the only one who can stun you.

Now, when it comes to audio, there are quite a few different components to music than just guitar riffs, said no rock guitarist ever. There are things like drums, and keyboards, and vocals.

So here’s a fun fact: the textbook line is that human hearing ranges from 20hz to 20,000hz. However, the real talk line is that almost no one can actually distinguish sounds below 80hz. So when you see controls for 32hz and 64hz – those frequencies are going to present the illusion of a low end “rumble,’ but not actually sound like music. In the rock genre, that’s appropriate – it’s the bottom end of the bass guitar, or the part of the kick drum that punches you in the gut. But in audio books, 32hz and 64 hz are as relevant as your MySpace Top 8 in 2013. Just ditch them – even Barry White’s voice won’t be affected by pulling down those lows.

If anyone has an audio book read by Barry White, please message me. I don’t care what it is, I want it.

Something you might notice about the Rock preset is, it seems that right in the middle of this rather symmetrical equalization wave, there is a drop. But here, on the spoken word preset, there is a bump:

Spoken Word Presets on Mac Equalizer

Because when you replay Benedict Cumberbatch reading R. Kelly’s “Genius” you want his dulcet tones to sound juuuuuust right.

This has a rather simple explanation: in spoken word, there are no guitars.

The human voice ranges from about 500hz (Hello, James Earl Jones) to around 3.5khz (and hi, Karen from “Will and Grace.”) So naturally, to optimize the clarity of the spoken word, those frequencies are going to get boosted a tad. However, you know what else hangs out around those same frequencies? Guitars and synths. 

So in the musical stylings of Dave Grohl, the drums and bass guitar need a little more beef to them to battle it out with those narcissistic electric guitars. So you boost the low lows, and the high hi’s, and you have a fair amount of singing, a solid amount of punch, and some sharp cymbals to round out the experience.

The Equalizer window in your music player, be it iTunes or something Microsoft-related, is a fantastic resource to spruce up your tunes. If you really love folk music, but think the tracks sound a little thin – warm them up with a bump around 500-2khz. If your podcast sounds like it was recorded through a wool blanket in the middle of a thunderstorm, drop out those lows and boost the 4khz.

If you have a subwoofer, make it earn its keep! Crank up the pre-amp, give those 100hz and under frequencies a little bit more power, and actually hear how solid Flea’s bass lines were from the early Red Hot Chili Peppers recordings. Seriously, Mother’s Milk – check that noise out.

No matter the medium, there are ways to make it work for you. From those white iPhone earbuds, to Bose noise-canceling giants, to flying array speakers and delay stacks at your local amphitheater, a little bit of fiddling can make or break your favorite jam.

 

Geek Girl recommendation: start with a preset, give it a good listen, and then alter it until it sounds like you want to open up all your windows and make the neighbors bow to the glory of your stereo.

That’s how you know you’re doing it right.

 

******

Eleanor Thibeaux is a Post-production Audio Engineer, currently residing in Northern California. Every fourth Monday, she stops by International Geek Girls Pen Pal Club for a little bit of shop-talk, or an editorial diatribe. Every fourth Wednesday, she takes a nap break, instead of eating lunch. She feels this is all just part of keeping it balanced.

By |2014-12-23T18:55:09+00:00August 26th, 2013|Music, Technology, Tutorials & DIY|2 Comments

About the Author:

Eleanor Thibeaux lives in the Northern California Bay Area with her computers and coffee maker. As an Audio Engineer and Producer by day, her love of and obsession with gadgets and technology is obvious; her sizable collection of superhero themed coffee mugs that can no longer be contained in one cabinet is not. She does what she wants. No regrets.