March 13, 2014, by Matthew Weiss
As engineers we tend to form strong opinions. We base our decisions on what we hear and what we feel. And it’s important to trust these sensibilities with confidence.
Oftentimes, certain subjects will come up in which we lack technical understanding. But we don’t always need technical understanding — we need results.
Unfortunately (and fortunately) when we get those results, we equivocate that with having a correct technical understanding of everything that happened along the way.
So here’s a couple things that tend to get us audio engineers all prickly.
1) Sample Rates
What’s “the best” sample rate to record and/or mix at? Is it 44.1? 48? 88.2? 192?
We tend to divide ourselves into two camps on this one: Higher is better or lower is better. Here’s my take.
The crux of this argument to me is “accuracy.” First and foremost, we are asking what will give us the most accurate results when translating the continuous analog signal into the discrete digital signal.
In order to make this determination we have to first define what “accuracy” actually means.
We can take accuracy to mean the degree of similarity between the analog and digital information. If we don’t consider mechanical errors, than the higher the sample rate the higher the accuracy. We can simply capture more information at higher sample rates.
However, there are two big caveats here.
First of all, we can’t factor out mechanical errors.
They exist, and they skew accuracy. We don’t have error free conversion. And while technology is getting better every day, the fact remains: the higher the sample rate, the greater the mechanical error of the conversion process.
So while we might capture more information at 192 kHz, it’s actually less accurate than the information captured at 44.1 kHz. Oops.
Luckily, caveat number two is that we don’t need unlimited accuracy.
We actually only need accuracy to the degree in which we can use it. It’s not very important if sound above 22 kHz is accurate — or even there at all. While it can be argued that we still sense super frequency sound content, we certainly don’t sense it in a way that makes it more important than what we can clearly hear.
When coupled with reduced storage space and better computer performance, this makes 44.1 kHz to 96kHz all perfectly fine choices, and in my opinion, superior to 176.4 kHz or 192 kHz.
Mind you, one of things we love about recording to tape is the inaccuracies it prescribes on the sound. There’s nothing to say one might not like the sound of 192 kHz—that’s subjective. And if you do—rock out. If it sounds better to you, then it is.
BONUS: When converting sample rates it is a complete myth that 88.2 kHz translates to 44.1 kHz more easily or accurately than 96 kHz translates to 44.1 kHz. Just because it’s vastly easier for our math-challenged minds to divide by two, to a computer, it’s no different at all.
2) Tuning Systems
This one is sure to stir the pot.
The statement is this: The tuning system A 432 is superior to our current tuning standard of A 440. In other words, the theory is that we are currently tuning everything about a quarter tone sharper than where we should.
The problem with this theory is that it’s extremely hard to test and also supremely subjective.
Throughout human history our tuning systems have varied quite widely. In the last 50 years or so we have tuned concert A as high as 446, with more common standards being 442 and 440.
During the Baroque period we tuned A down to 415Hz. That’s more than a semi-tone in variation. And that’s just western tuning. Tuning systems have varied so much that even the harmonic relationship between notes has been adjusted.
Tuning fundamentally comes down to the tension placed on the vibrating element of an instrument. The less tension, the lower the frequency of vibration and vice versa. Changing the tension not only changes the pitch, but also changes the way the vibrating element interacts with the rest of the design.
For example, a guitar in standard tuning will sound tonally different than a guitar in drop D, even when the same notes are being played.
Does drop D sound better than standard tuning? Obviously. I mean, no, it’s completely subjective. It’s a different sound, and functionally speaking, drop D will not give you the same vibrancy that the standard tuning will. It will give you an exciting characterized tone, but not a “functionally better” tone.
The point of all of that is to say that “technically” the best tuning system is the one that the instrument was designed for. Tuning a harpsichord to A 432 would sound odd—though it might be cool.
As for the conspiracy theories and “science” behind the value of A 432… well… I can’t say that any of that is assuredly true or untrue. I’ll have to leave that for you to decide on your own.
So there it is. My take on two of the most annoyingly controversial subjects in the field of music production. Feel free to flame, curse, badger and troll in the comments here.
Matthew Weiss engineers from his private facility in Philadelphia, PA. A list of clients and credits are available at Weiss-Sound.com. To get a taste of The Maio Collection, the debut drum library from Matthew, check out The Maio Sampler Pack by entering your email here and pressing “Download.”
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