Four Ways to Improve Your Ears

Ear Training for Everyone

One of the most important pieces of equipment that a sound engineer uses is his or her ears. Although naturally good hearing is required, there are also specific things that engineers listen to that must be learned. Amazingly enough, training for these things can improve your basic good hearing to be top-notch engineer hearing.

There are several web sites and phone apps that can help you train your ears. Most of them have training in several components that engineers listen for. These include frequency, equalization, volume, compression, delay, and tempo. Not all apps have training for each of these, but all of them have training in the most important: frequency recognition. Being able to quickly pinpoint a frequency is especially important for live engineers so that they can alleviate feedback.

In case you don't have ears like this.

In case you don’t have ears like this.

Auricula & Freqtrain 2

Both of these phone apps excel in frequency recognition training, although like all of these apps, the frequency tones they test are limited to only a few examples from the full range of audible frequencies. These examples, however, cover the range in increments that can at least help you know the general vicinity of whatever frequency you’re wanting to fix or enhance.

Freqtrain 2 offers no other training other than frequency recognition, but Auricula also offers training and quizzes in Core, Gain, and Delay recognition. Auricula has the added bonus of a feature that allows you to put your own music file in the program to test frequency recognition in a more realistic way. In addition, Auricula offers a desktop software version.

Knowing the frequencies to pull or push is essential for any live or studio engineer.

Knowing the frequencies to pull or push is essential for any live or studio engineer.

StudioEars

This app is available both online and for mobile phones. Instead of frequency tones, it tests frequencies via simulated instrument sounds. StudioEars also has some basic musical ear training for intervals, rhythm, and harmonics.

Philips Golden Ears

Developed by the Philips company to test the employees building their audio equipment, Golden Ears tests in five categories: frequency, details, soundfield, bass, and volume. The sound files are large in this one, though, and it is only available online.

What tips do you have for training your engineer ears?

Keeping Your Gear in Order

Every sound professional eventually acquires numerous pieces of sound equipment in his or her arsenal. We may use these pieces of equipment for personal projects such as recording a friend’s band, or haul them to set up a system for a live show at a venue. Everybody has their own favorite pieces of equipment or preferences—or phobias—about particular brands or models, and some of these pieces can be held onto for decades because they have juuust the right sound.

Because of people’s fondness for a particular piece of gear, or because of the cost of buying a new piece of equipment, an essential skill of sound professionals is the ability to repair electrical equipment. And not just their own gear with which they are familiar. You never know when a venue’s one SM7B will suddenly go on the fritz and the singer insists on having it. Knowing the mic’s internal construction well enough to determine the cause of its malfunction may enable you to fix it on the fly.

 

DIY for Sound and Audio

One of the best ways I have found to learning how to repair anything is to learn how to build your own. That way you know the basic components and some typical problems that might occur that need fixing in addition to the actual repair knowledge. For sound and audio equipment, there are a lot of resources on the web to help understand how to build your own gear. There are even several places to buy preassembled kits with all the pieces you need. Not all of these are geared toward beginners, however, and some knowledge of circuitry and electronics can be required.

The internal circuitry of a mic preamp. (From diyre.com)

The internal circuitry of a mic preamp. (From diyre.com)

Audio Gear

A good place to learn the basics of electrical equipment in the context of audio gear is diyrecordingequipment.com. There are special considerations to take in to account with audio gear, because the noise common to any electronic equipment can interfere with the quality of the sound or recording produced by the equipment. This site offers preassembled kits for sale, but it also has articles and podcasts about basic electronics concepts such as resistors and impedance. These concepts are explained specifically with musicians and musical/audio gear in mind. The explanations are a bit too basic at times, however, so I suggest reading the comments section for a fuller understanding of what is going on with certain topics.

Cables A crucial component of every sound setup is the cabling. This is also the component that is most likely to fail or to cause problems with the quality of sound. It is an essential skill for sound professionals to be able to fix—or build—their own cables. A good guide for how to do this can be found here.

Soldering Any repair or build of electrical equipment will require the knowledge of how to solder, and audio is no exception. This great instructional video on soldering a guitar pedal will teach the basics to a beginner.

This video discusses which soldering iron is best for audio work.

This video discusses which soldering iron is best for audio work.

What other electronics knowledge is a must have for audio and sound engineers?

 

 

The Problem with Austin Music

It’s no secret that the music scene in Austin is changing. Although the city dubbed itself the “Live Music Capital of the World” some years back, the live music scene is hurting economically today. Despite the fact that the economy of Austin is booming in large part because of its inimitable music scene, the city has done little to promote or even protect the people and places involved in this economic resource.

klw red river 04

Kelly West AMERICAN-STATESMAN People carry amps and musical equipment into Beerland on Red River in downtown Austin, Texas on Saturday, October 8, 2011. (From http://cityhall.blog.statesman.com/)

The city has a special department, the Music and Entertainment Division, which is charged with this task. The department is small, however, and is also the clearinghouse for zoning compliance and policy creation tasks. This leaves little time for work on developing plans and policies for sustaining and expanding the live music scene.

Who Can Help?

Several organizations help support the musicians here in town, including the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, HAAM, SIMS, and Austin Music People. These organizations provide professional, health, and insurance support for musicians, but their financial resources are limited. Musicians are also not generally known for their business or organizational capacities, and so these organizations suffer from musicians failing to take full advantage of them.

The Census To ascertain the full dimensions of the problem, the Austin Music Office conducted a survey asking all segments of the industry for their economic statuses, concerns, and ideas. Among other findings, it discovered that the steep rent increases and falling housing availability have affected musicians no less than any other group. Musicians, often living on poverty-level wages, have found it increasingly hard to find housing and find jobs that allow them to survive a city with an increasing cost of living. Those in the know say fewer musicians are moving here and that many established musicians are leaving.

Property Issues

Venues, too, are feeling the crunch as downtown rents skyrocket or properties are sold out from under them. Venues that the scene has relied on to foster and grow new bands and talent, and therefore are unable to charge high ticket prices, are especially vulnerable to these forces. Which in turn means that fewer bands are able to find their audiences and further their careers here.

The Continental Club at night with neon sign.

The Continental Club, one of the best of the many small venues that make up the vibrant Austin live music scene.

The Mayor’s Plan Using this information, Mayor Steve Adler has produced a report asking for new policies to be written and implemented to strengthen this important part of the Austin economy. Hopefully, these new plans will help. What ideas do you have for strengthening the live music scene in Austin?

 

Four Steps to the Best Listening Room

As a recording engineer, it’s important to have a space where you can truly hear the subtleties of the mixes you are working on. Many non-professionals don’t realize how much speaker placement and room fixtures affect their listening experience, even of television shows. Audiophiles can spend a lot of money to get a better sound system, but a problem you’re hearing might be the room itself. I’m currently outfitting a spare room in my house to meet the needs of professional mixing, and have found some good articles on how to set up a pre-existing room for optimal listening.

The Secret to Equipment and Furniture Placement

There are a few basic steps that will provide the best sound quality in a room. The first is to position the monitor speakers and seating correctly. The correct positions for these are determined by both the measurements of the room and the relationship between the speaker and seating positions.

Finding the Sweet Spot In his excellent article on setting up listening rooms, Ethan Winer describes how to determine these measurements. He describes the basic equilateral triangle method (with the points being the speakers and the listener’s head), but he also gives information about distances from walls and floor/ceiling that aid finding the best sound your system can produce. Either procedure should leave you with a spacing similar to that in the picture below.

listening position

A sample configuration for optimal speaker placement and listening position for a surround sound system. (From Winer’s article.)

Treat Your Walls and Ceilings

The second step is to treat the zones of first reflection. Sound waves travel around the room like billiard balls, and the first reflection occurs at the first solid object a sound wave hits. These regions of walls, floor, and ceiling generally need to be treated with acoustical tiles of some sort to optimize the mix and direction of waves that bounce off these zones.

Mirrors or Math? To find these zones, you can use either mirrors or math. Winer gives a good description of both methods. You can buy pre-made acoustic panels, but you can also build your own. I’ve known a couple of people who’ve done this and they work just as well as the store bought versions. It’s really all about the foam you use. I found these great instructions on acousticsfreq.com.

All About Those Bass Traps

At this point you should also install foam base traps in all of the corners, including where walls meet and where they meet the floor and ceiling. This isn’t strictly necessary, but never fails to improve sound.

Diffusers and Their Placement

The final step for getting the acoustics of your room in shape is determining whether you need diffusers or not. Many rooms don’t, but they can add warmth and musicality to the room. If you have over-treated your room with acoustic panels, this can help bring back some of the natural reflection and reverberations that make music come alive. They generally are placed on the rear wall.

A common style for diffusers is wooden blocks placed in random patterns like the one above.

A common style for diffusers is wooden blocks placed in random patterns like the one above.

Bringing It All Together

This tutorial on Arqen.com talks about the full acoustic treatment process including acoustic panels and diffusers. It also gives acoustics tips on building professional studios and control rooms.

I’m really looking forward to diving into these steps more as I outfit my room, and I’ll be sure to post pics once it’s done. Do you have any tips for making the perfect mixing or listening room?

Three Takes on Mixing Mistakes

With the rise of more and more home studios and relatively inexpensive mixing software, musicians are more likely to engineer their own recording projects than at any time in the past.
Not only does software such as ProTools, Ableton, and Cubase allow new engineers access to many more processing effects, the Internet has a wealth of information and instruction for people just beginning to explore the techniques needed to engineer a really good mix. There is so much information about mixing available on the web, in fact, that it can be overwhelming for a novice to find appropriate information for a given situation.
To help sort through these for readers, here is my review of a few listicles that offer tips to  beginning engineers hoping to get a great mix. These articles are all available at sites that offer further instruction if one is willing to poke around.
Bill Mueller gives some very useful and detailed technical specifications in his article In The Studio: 5 Mistakes Beginning Mix Engineers Make. Mueller mentions the tendency of new engineers to mix too loudly, thereby compromising the quality of the sound. There are both technological and biological reasons studio monitors should not be set at more than 80 dB for mixing. Then, too, many beginning engineers bring the levels of the individual tracks to 0 VU too early in the process. Piling other tracks on top of this results in a final mix louder than 0 VU, which must then be reworked to pull the level back to 0 VU.
Mueller also discusses the importance of the initial organization within a DAW of a project and the tendency to put too much reverb on a track in an effort to fix poor recording quality. What Mueller calls a “political mix” is also described as a basic problem: a mix with elements resulting from the internal drama of a band rather than what sounds good. He gives one technique for dealing with this problem, though this might or might not work in any given studio situation.
In 8 Tips for Becoming a Better Home Studio Engineer, Mark Marshall outlines a few of the most basic ideas someone who is new to engineering should consider while working on a project. The first and last of these are essentially the same and perhaps the most important to remember: a well-engineered project is the result of a good engineering job, not good (or bad) gear. Marshall also mentions twice that it is key that people take the time to learn engineering and be patient with the learning process—it won’t happen overnight. Finally, Marshall gives tips for specific things to work on, from organization to miking techniques. Unfortunately, Marshall gives little specific or technical information about his topics.
A blog post on Studio One Expert titled Avoid These 5 Mistakes When Mixing focuses on the psychology of the engineer more than on specific technical considerations. The post mentions lack of preparation, taking breaks, and confidence as some of the top struggles of a beginning engineer. Also, as many experienced engineers would agree with, using too many effects can kill a mix. The adage “he who EQs least EQs best” holds true for using effects and plugins—the fewer the better.
What sources do you know that offer advice to beginning or small studio engineers?