Is Sound Subjective? Pt. 1 PA Tuning

Image courtesy of sergio_leenen

Image courtesy of sergio_leenen

The other day I was pursuing one of the many online sound groups and came across a question from someone who I believe to be a volunteer sound tech at a church. He was asking if sound was subjective. He had been dealing with various other leaders in the church and was struggling to come up with a consensus on whether there was “good” sound or if it’s all in the ear of the beholder. 

As someone who has been party to many of these discussions, I’m going to throw my thoughts out here about this topic. The more I’ve thought about it over the weekend, the more I want to break it up into two or three posts—we’ll see how it goes. Because I think we have a few things going on here. 

First I want to tackle the idea of PA tuning, because without a well-tuned PA, good sound is much harder to achieve. And, as you might expect, there are plenty of opinions on how to tune a PA. Second, I want to dig into the difference between “subjective sound” and “personal preference” when it comes to mixing. I think those concepts are often confused, and when we assert one as “correct,” we get into trouble. We’ll see where we go from there. 

You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tune A Fish

That’s probably one of my favorite album titles of all time (thanks, REO Speedwagon!). When it comes to PA tuning, you could ask 10 guys how to do it and get 11 answers. But it basically boils down to two main schools of thought. The first says the PA should be as linear as possible; that is, what comes out of the board comes out of the PA. When you look at a transfer function graph of a PA tuned like this, it should be pretty close to flat across the audio spectrum. 

Before we go any further, I want to stop and say that in an actual, live room, you’ll never get it totally flat. There will always be slight anomalies, but these should be fairly small. And if you do manage to get it totally flat, you can completely change that by moving the mic about 3 feet. So when I say a linear system is “flat,” I don’t mean the trace looks like it was drawn with a ruler. I mean it’s generally flat. 

The other school of thought is to build in some tonal shaping into the tune of the PA. This would normally include what some call the “bass haystack,” a 6-12 dB bump at the low end that looks somewhat like a haystack, and usually also includes some rolloff of the high frequencies. How much roll off and where it starts will vary, but it’s usually in the order of 1-2 dB per octave above 1-4 KHZ. 

Which is Right?

I’m sure there are those out there who will argue to the death about which method is correct (or have their own, far superior method). Because this is that important. [That was sarcasm] As is often the case, much of this is personal preference. I’ve heard and mixed on systems tuned both ways and to me and my ears I prefer the latter approach. I find these systems sound more musical and less harsh. However, good friends of mine will argue that mixing on a system tuned the way I like it is like mixing with blankets over the speakers. I can appreciate that. Their approach to mixing is different from mine and while we achieve similar results, we go about it differently. I think it’s possible to get a great sounding mix on either tune, but you have to approach the mix differently. 

I do believe folks in either camp will agree that the overall tune of the speakers should be accurate. Aside from a bass haystack (or not), and a subtle, linear roll off of the HF (or not), the system should pretty much deliver what comes out of the console. So while we may have be able to build consensus on a couple of different ways that are “correct” to tune a PA, there are a lot of ways to really screw it up.

You Can’t Tune What Wasn’t Designed To Be Tuned

Part of the problem stems from too many badly designed (or not at all designed) and engineered systems that simply cannot be tuned. What kind of system would this be? I’ve seen seating areas fully covered by 2-3 speakers that are at radically different distances from the seats. You can’t fix the comb filtering that will ensue with electronics. I’ve seen systems that use speakers that are entirely wrong for the space. Sure, they make sound, but it’s so uncontrolled there’s no way to make it sound good. Other times, entire seating sections are off-axis of the PA, and there’s no electronic fix for that. Those are all bad. 

I’ve also seen all sorts of crazy frequency response traces from systems I’ve been called in to fix. These are usually the result of someone with just enough knowledge to be dangerous going in and playing with all those cool EQ controls inside the DSP. I’ve also seen some, uh, interesting EQ curves on 31-bands on the master bus of consoles. Cleaning all that up makes a huge difference. 

The Bottom Line

While I think there is some room for preference and individual taste when it comes to tuning a PA, if you put 10 top notch sound guys in a room with a competent system tech, you could come up with a general consensus of what sounds good and would be easy to mix on. And it would be relatively easy to spot ways not to do it. 

Next up, is mixing a personal preference or is it subjective?

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.

Taming Female Vocal Ensembles

Lately, I’ve had time to be more intentional about listening to great music. I bought a phenomenal set of speakers for my listening room, and have enjoyed throwing the best recordings I can find at them. One of my experiments was Mark Knopfler’s latest album, Tracker, which I bought as 192Khz/24 bit AIFF files. To say it sounds amazing is an understatement. One of the songs, Wherever I Go, features a female vocal I wasn’t familiar with. I looked up Ruth Moody and discovered The Waillin’ Jennys. As I sit here listening to their live album—which is most excellent—I got to thinking about mixing multiple female vocals live. 

The Dreaded Mid-High Build Up

The Jennys sound amazing because they have an actual alto, mezzo and soprano. When they sing together, they are singing different parts in different parts of the frequency spectrum. Plus they’re really good. 

In many churches, you’ll have 3-5 (or more) female vocals on the worship team. But because we’re not dealing with professionals, and we work with what we have, they’re not usually all different parts. What you’ll have is 3, 4, 5 or more women singing the same part. And when that happens, things can get a bit shrill. 

This is Not Criticism

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not making a statement on women in general, women on the worship team or women’s voices. I’m simply pointing out that when several of them sing the same part, amplified through a big PA (which itself may be a bit on the bright side), it can get a bit edgy as the volume increases. It’s usually not a problem at moderate levels, but when the energy and volume go up, harshness is likely.

But we’re problem-solvers, it’s what we do. And we have amazing technology at our disposal, so I’m going to share a quick tip on how to fix this. 

Enter Dynamic EQ

The dynamic EQ and its cousin, the multi-band compressor are your best friends in many female vocal scenarios. They both have the ability to reduce the level of a frequency band based on incoming level, though they do it differently. Which one you use will largely depend on what you have available. Some consoles have both, like my favorite DiGiCo’s, while others will only have a multi-band comp. Don’t fret over it, use what you have. 

All you’re going to do is bus all your female vocals to a group, and put a dynamic EQ or multi-band compressor on that group. If you have a dynamic EQ, pick the mid-high band, and widen it out so it covers roughly 1-4 Khz. Set it for about 3-6 dB of cut, then set the threshold so it only starts kicking in when you start hearing that shrill, painful mid-high build up. Those are starting settings, of course, your mileage may vary. Just don’t take too much out or it will sound unnatural.

With a multi-band comp, use the mid band, and set it so it encompasses the same 1-4 Khz range. Go for a slow-ish attack and release of 150-200 msec, and a ratio of 2:1 to start. Then set the threshold so it kicks in when things get shrill. You may have to increase the ratio. Or not. Again, adjust to taste.

The Goal

All we’re trying to do here is take the edge off the frequency build up. You want this to be subtle, and not at all obvious. The end result should be that the women can sing their hearts out without it feeling harsh. Get that right, and the worship music will be more engaging and less distracting.

Better Sounding Video, Pt. 2

As I mentioned last time, in honor of my SALT class on getting better audio for video, I’ve dug up some of the very first posts I wrote for ChurchTechaArts, way back in 2007. The previous post focused on the reason for close-mic’ing your talent, and how to use handheld and shotgun mic’s for that purpose. Today, we’ll consider a few other options. 

Wired Lavaliere

My second favorite way to mic interviews (after a shotgun mic), is the wired lavaliere. I have used these extensively professionally with great results. You don't have to worry about interference and the sound quality is excellent. For wired mics, I really like Sony's ECM-77, though the ECM-66 and 55 are pretty good too. The 77 is great because it is tiny, can be hidden almost anywhere and sounds terrific. If you can’t find those, the Countryman B3 or Tram TR50 are great options. DPA also makes some fantastic (and fantastically small) lavs, though they are spendy. 

Wireless Lavaliers

Ideally, you would use a wireless mic that has a camera mount receiver, such as the Shure FP series. The wireless option gives you the most flexibility because you have no wires to connect you to the talent. As long as you stay in range, and choose a clear frequency, things work great. Be wary of cheapo wireless mics, however. If a camera mounted receiver and body pack combo doesn't cost $400-500 at least, keep looking.

The other big downside to wireless is the simple fact that the RF spectrum is shrinking as the Federal government keeps selling it off. We already lost the entire 700 Mhz band, and it looks like we have about 3 years to vacate the 600 Mhz band. When you use a wireless mic, you’re competing with everything else in the area for clear spectrum, and that’s going to become harder. My rule of thumb is that if the talent isn’t moving, there’s not reason to not wire them. 

Another Wireless Option

A final option is to use a wireless mic that you would use in a live sound application. I used to do this a lot at church because we didn’t have a camera mount wireless system. I’d just take one of the Shure ULX-P (back in the day) mics, set the receiver on the floor next to my tripod, and strap the transmitter on the talent. It works great, though it is a bit of a pain every time I move the camera.

Plugging It All In

All of the applications are assuming your camera has XLR inputs to work with (though the camera mounted receivers usually come with an 1/8" cable). Each of these mics are professional grade solutions for prosumer cameras and above. If your camera has only a 1/8" mic jack, all is not lost. You might be tempted to make up an adapter to take XLR to 1/8". Don't do it. The pre-amps on consumer grade equipment will not function well with these types of microphones.

The better solution is to use an adapter box made just for this purpose, such as the ones from BeachTek. They have a variety of solutions that include phantom power, metering and variable gain. They are well worth the investment (as low as $199).

Now that many people are shooting with DSLRs, a better solution is to buy a small recorder from Zoom or Tascam and capture your audio that way. I’ve shot quite a few trade shows with a Tascam DR-40, and it works great. I have a headphone Y-cable on the headphone output jack and take one side to the mic input on my DSLR (for later audio synchronization) and use the other for monitoring.

Listen Live 

Finally, when you are recording, plug some headphones in and listen to what you are recording. I am amazed and confused when I see people recording audio, but not monitoring it (and I've seen it with professionals as much as non-professionals!). When you listen in, you can hear trouble before it is too late. Make sure you use good headphones that provide good isolation. I've been burned before using cheap "walkman" type headphones and thinking I was hearing clean audio, when what I was really hearing was the person talking in the room.

Hopefully you've found this helpful and you will be on your way to making better, more effective videos that will tell the story without being distracting.

Today's post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.