Study Hall

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How Do You Know What Sounds Good?

Developing a frame of reference

Most of us feel that we know good sound when we hear it. We also have tools to help us analyze the properties of sound, and we’ve learned to interpret those measurements and equate them with good and bad.

But I find it fascinating that sometimes even when things measure “poorly,” we say that it sounds good anyway. Or, conversely, sometimes the measurements look spectacular but “there’s just something wrong.” The challenge is defining what actually constitutes “good” sound, and how we know it is so.

A major issue is that our references are all different from one another. Actually, it goes further than that – many of us have rather poor references. There might be a high-water mark in our memory of some time in the past when we heard a particularly amazing sound system and/or a really great mix.

But memories of sound (or most anything else for that matter) are quite fallible.

In addition, what medium are we using on a daily basis? If it’s something like a car stereo or a smartphone, are we “listening through” their shortcomings, becoming oblivious to noticing things like their inherent distortion? Our frames of sonic reference very rapidly get used to what we’re hearing most often.

In a similar way, vision can be quickly skewed by the prevailing source of light. You’ve heard of white balance on cameras, right? Our ears do the same thing as our eyes (and both are wired to our brains) – they adjust to the prevailing conditions and consider that to be “normal.”

Live Is, Well, Live

It’s helpful to remember a time when you realized that there’s another level of sonic excellence. Not the sound, per se, but the fact that it was different and somehow “better” than average.

My favorite personal memory of this is the time I was walking across the campus of the University of Maryland, on the way to set up a recital recording, and out of one of the dorm windows, I heard a saxophone being played.

Then it struck me—I was instantly aware that it was a real, live saxophone being played by a real, live person, rather than a reproduction. Ever since that day, I’ve pondered why this was so obvious. The answers aren’t easy but one thing is clear – loudspeakers and amplifiers don’t quite do sound the justice it deserves.

Something is missing, even from the best playback or reinforcement systems on the planet. Studying this concept could help lead us toward developing better systems and/or operating them in a better fashion.

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