Kim Lajoie's blog

Things you can’t hear

by Kim Lajoie on January 30, 2012

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I was thinking about the Minibrute, checking out the videos and reading the specs. Those who know me well won’t be surprised that I’m drawn to the noisy oscillator shaping and filter feedback. I’m not a fan of the keys, but it’s not a deal-breaker.  Then I realised I could patch up some filter feedback with my Dark Energy (I modded it to have dual audio outputs). And then I thought it’d be fun to put my Freqbox in the feedback path. So the signal path is something like this:

Dark Energy: Oscillator + audio input -> LP Filter -> Output 1+2

Freqbox: Dark Energy Output 2 -> Input drive -> Oscillator with sync and FM -> Dark Energy audio input.

That’s some serious chaos.

And I realised that the Minibrute probably wouldn’t offer me anything substantially different to what I could already cook up with my existing gear and a bit of creativity.

Don’t believe the hype.

Learn as much as you can. Try everything out. Learn to listen carefully.

But if you can’t hear it, don’t waste your time on it. If it might be useful, you’ll probably figure it out later. You’ll discover it when your skills catch up with your ambition. Or it’s something that’s been misrepresented and misunderstood as it passed from one person to another.

The trouble is, there’s no way to tell the difference between the two until your skills improve. So don’t worry about it. If you can’t hear it, don’t waste your time on it.

And just to keep in in perspective – if it’s something you can hear, but you have to squint your ears to pick it out, chances are it won’t make any difference to your listener.

A good example is dither. I’m sure that on some music in some listening environments, crunchy digital truncation at -96dB is audible and undesirable (e.g. delicate orchestral music in Bob Ludwig’s studio). But for my music and my listeners, anything happening at -96dB is totally inconsequential. So I haven’t A/B tested a whole bunch of dither algorithms to work out which one is best. In fact, sometimes I don’t use any dither at all when I master. And I can’t tell which jobs they are by listening to them. And no-one’s noticed either.

Another example is tuning the kick drum to the key of the song. I can’t remember ever doing it. I recently released an electro-rock album where it didn’t even occur to me that the kick should be tuned to each song. And I think the songs slam.

Maybe you disagree with me. Let me know. Maybe you hear something that I don’t. As you know, I’m always happy to be wrong if it means learning and growing. But don’t parrot ‘truisms’ that you don’t have first-hand experience of. Just because you read it somewhere doesn’t make it true.

-Kim.

7 thoughts on “Things you can’t hear

  1. Pingback: Things you can’t hear | Home Recording Masters | Microphones, Recording Equipment and Software Reviews

  2. Guest032 says:

    Nice words man. For I’m in electronic music, and I almost never tune a kick drum to a key. It “sits” where it “sits”, f**k it. If it sounds good, then it’s good. I try to improve my arrangement, and composition. Good stuff badly mixed/mastered is still a GOOD stuff badly mixed/mastered.

  3. Kim Lajoie says:

    I agree – I think there more value to be had in focussing on arrangement and composition.
    Personally, if I have to spend more than 15 minutes getting a kick drum sound, it’s because I don’t know what I’m doing (i.e. I’m aiming for a kick that doesn’t suit the song or the rest of the mix).

    Then again, I can spend hours on composition.

    Maybe for some people it’s the other way around – they see the kick as the most important part of their work and spend hours on it. And their composition is not much more than selecting their stack of loops and duplicating them across five minutes with a few mutes here and there. And they might equally say “If I have to spend more than 15 minutes on arrangement, it’s because I don’t know what I’m doing”.

    -Kim.

  4. Hey Kim – great post!

    I think the ‘kick tuning’ thing depends on what type of music you are making. How much of the focus is on a carefully crafted kick? Is the kick the star of the song? Is the character of the song very strict and in line? Rock is not precious, and yet toms and kicks are often tuned to rock songs (not necessarily in key, but to feel right).

    I think that brings me to my own use of kick tuning.. I don’t do it much, and I very rarely match it to the root note of a song, but I have at times found benefit matching it to the feel of a song.

    I think the moral at the end of the day, is as you say, don’t parrot ‘truisms’ to yourself. Depending on your audience, your choice of instruments, and the overall character of the song, you may want everything tuned to one note, 12 notes, don’t tune at all, or make complete chaos. Learn the basic concepts behind the universe / music / serving yourself / serving your audience, and then apply it to get what you want.

    There are 1,938,204,180,999 ways to get banging kicks. Learn fewer basic concepts and apply them to quickly get what you want.

  5. Kim Lajoie says:

    Definitely – a lot depends on the role of the kick in the song and in the mix. The kick will play a different role in dance, rock, folk, etc.

    -Kim.

  6. Adam Dempsey says:

    Hi Kim,

    Great post! Just to add an objective view: the thing with d*ther is not that it can’t be heard at normal listening levels (while preserving signal detail within the noise), but that it prevents easily accumulated noise (truncation distortion) that otherwise CAN be heard – and at a measurably higher level than the d*ther. So, while great production aspects, performance, arrangement, mic’ing, phase, mixing, etc, should be a given, it’s obviously all about minimising your (otherwise cumulative) losses.

    And as a former drummer I say tune them for intervals and for rhythm, but not to clash with fundamental notes of other parts (other than for emphasis or effect).

  7. Adam Dempsey says:

    (Having said that, flat Triangular Probability Density Function (TPDF) d*ther fully does the job. Or perhaps a high-pass version to taste, for critical, dynamic applications).

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