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The Ultimate Live Sound Mix

Jul 20, 2010

Hey all,

In the last edition of Pooch's Corner, we talked about the age old question of analog vs. digital technology. Today, I want to talk about the ethereal and empirical question, "What is the best sounding piece of gear?" Have you noticed how strong (and different) opinions are about specific gear and products in our industry? Every single engineer and musician has widely varying opinions about what the BEST pieces of gear are to achieve what they believe to be the ultimate mix.

How is this possible? How can things be so varied in opinion?

There is subjectivity and there is measurement. Measurement gives us some tools to compare different products, but the real wild card is our experience as listeners. It seems that even though we, as humans, have similar hearing equipment (assuming the equipment is functioning properly; this is a whole OTHER discussion), but what is pleasing to one individual is not pleasing to another.

This is such a wide division; how does one decide what is good?

Technology has provided us with a wide variety of tools that research and development have spent exhausting hours of time designing. From my own interaction with Waves, I have discovered just how much time and energy is spent in making a great product. Are these just things that we throw out the window because hearing is so subjective

I think not. I attribute a great amount of my success to my own God-given personal hearing NOT being the golden ears that every engineer wishes (or thinks) that they have, but more to the side of my hearing being straight down the middle of the road. MOST people agree with my interpretation of what a band should sound like. Some think it's great, some think it sucks, but most agree that it is, at least, acceptable.

Early on in my career, I spent time polling all of my non-musician friends to find out what they liked about the rock shows they were going to. What I discovered was that most people think that a mix is good if they can understand the vocals, and they are not being hurt by the sound (too loud or piercing). This reduces our jobs as engineers into a very small area of requirements. So why, then, do we as engineers and sound professionals spend hours trying to achieve what we perceive to be the ultimate mix?

The answer lies in the subjectivity of human hearing. Blame it on the human brain. Hearing is so intricately wired in the brain that there is a lot of room for subjectivity. Studies have shown the effect of audio illusions on our hearing processing, and noise studies have shown the brain's unique tolerance for distortion. Harmonic distortion is often pleasing to most listeners; hence, the digital vs. analog distortion argument that the members of the Audio Engineering Society have been arguing over for years. If you really want to get into the mish-mash and research behind human hearing, enjoy hours of technical jargon starting here.

But, I digress; what does this all mean? Do I waste my time on a daily basis trying, to the best of my own abilities, to provide for the audience what I think to be a great mix? Nope. I want to believe that I am NOT wasting my time. I want to believe that the hours I spend tweaking that plugin "just right" is not because I have an attention deficit disorder and an over-obsessive compulsive disorder (although this may TRULY be the answer.)

I guess we have to go to the end user, the guy or girl standing there with the 44 ounce (1.2 liter) beer (one of many that day), wildly convulsing to the 105dBA-weighted rock show, and ask him or her; he (or she) will be the judge. I'm cool with that. Thank God, hearing IS subjective. My personal standards (I believe in my own prideful, delusional brain) are so much higher than what THEY require, I can sleep at night knowing that what came out of those speakers today was pretty damn good. The 50,000+ people that were at the show today, thought so too (I hope). As I lay my head on my pillow, I sleep with a big smile on my face. Fooled 'em again.

Ken "Pooch" Van Druten
WavesLive Product Specialist