Kim Lajoie's blog

Visual feedback in plugins

by Kim Lajoie on October 24, 2011

When you’re starting out, it’s useful to use plugins that have numeric values and visual feedback. Big frequency graphs in EQ and transition diagrams on compressors are extremely valuable in helping you understand how these tools work. Bonus points if the tools have animated meters and graphs that dance along with the music. It’s a great way to learn how the sound is being changed. It’s a great way to learn how the parameters control how the sound changes.

But if you’re doing real work? Forget it.

Unfortunately, our eyes trump the ears. We hear what we see. Our perception of sound is so strongly influenced by our sight that sometimes even being aware of it doesn’t counteract the effect. It’s true.

It’s bad enough that your listeners don’t have a studio exactly like yours. They hear your sound differently to how you hear it. And that’s just considering the physical space. Now factor in the difference between what you’re seeing and what they’re seeing. Not only is their physical listening environment different to yours, but their visual stimulus is different to yours. Not only do they hear your sound different, but they perceive it differently.

It’s a losing battle, but we fight anyway.

We treat our studios acoustically. We purchase ridiculously expensive and over-engineered speakers and headphones. We do this even though our listeners will hear hear it differently anyway. No matter what we do. But we do it anyway – to try to hear the sound as plainly and as truthfully as possible. And sometimes it works pretty well.

But we should also strive to perceive the sound as plainly and as truthfully as possible. And that means controlling the visual stimulus in our studios.

We already attempt to create monitoring environments that are as neutral as possible. Maybe we should make our studios look as neutral as possible as well? Drab grey walls or sterile white doesn’t sound like much fun. Our studios are our workplace, and they should be comfortable and inviting. They are a place to be relaxed and focussed and creative. There should be a balance. And for the most part, it’s ok. Our studio environment is mostly static – it becomes a constant factor that our brains adjust to.

Dynamic visuals, however, are different. When your compressor is telling you that your kick drum is being compressed by 12dB, you’ll hear those 12 decibels. And you’ll be strongly influenced by how that 12dB looks. If the gain reduction scale goes from -15dB to 0dB, those 12dB will look like a lot of compression. And it’ll sound like a lot of compression too. On the other hand, if the gain reduction scale goes from -30dB to 0dB, those same 12dB will look like much less. And they’ll sound like much less too – if you’re watching the gain reduction meter.

The same goes for EQ. That 6dB cut looks (and sounds) like a lot when the frequency analyser’s graph scale is +/-9dB. Change the scale to +/- 24dB and suddenly everything changes.

But doesn’t the same apply to on-screen controls (such as knobs and sliders)? Certainly – but to a much lesser extent because the controls don’t respond to the music. Without visual feedback, you perceive the music with your ears only. There’s nothing visual that’s telling you what the music sounds like. To go back to the monitoring analogy, your perception will be plainer and more neutral.

There’s certainly a place for visual feedback. Ridiculous dancing graphics probably help car lovers enjoy their sound system. Full-screen iTunes visualisations are great for parties. Visual feedback in plugins are good for learning how they work and identifying what to listen for (it’s hard to listen for compression if your threshold is too high!)

But if you’re doing real work? Forget it.

-Kim.

14 thoughts on “Visual feedback in plugins

  1. Sam willis says:

    very interesting post kim! do you have any tips on how to remove the visual aspect from plugins?

  2. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Sam willis
    The best approach is to simply choose tools that don’t provide much visual feedback. It can be pretty difficult though – many plugins are very visual! A small meter or two is usually fine, but try to stay away from bouncing spectral graphs, large compression curves etc.

    For some background information about our visual precedence, check out the McGurk Effect: http://www.google.com.au/search?q=McGurk+Effect

    Fascinating stuff!

    -Kim.

  3. Kim Lajoie says:

    As a side note, visual feedback is also useful for measuring things we can’t hear but are still relevant to audio production. A good example of this is setting levels when recording to a digital format. There’s no perceivable difference between a snare drum peaking at -24dB or at -3dB. But you’ll want to know how far you are from 0dBfs so you can control the *risk* of having an (undesirable) audible result – clipping.

    -Kim.

  4. Hi Kim great post!

    This is something I’d experienced first hand, but never had any kind of theoretical background to explain.

    I initially found that the track I was working on always sounded inexplicably ‘different’ when I just bounced it down and listened to it outside of my sequencer.

    Now I always make sure I do my ‘proper listening’ when anything production related is closed. In fact the most productive listening is with the computer turned off so I can’t check my emails or play minesweeper while listening.

    The only exception I make to this rule is that as an amateur I find it useful to use some spectrum analysis to see if I have any gaps in the spread of the track frequency. I find the Winamp internal visualiser the most useful.

    My ears have got much better over the years, but it helps to have a little bit of help now and then. In any case I do this for fun not work so I’m not to bothered!

  5. You know, reading this reminded me of a video I watched recently, I am sure you’ll appreciate it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-lN8vWm3m0

  6. Sam Willis says:

    wow, fascinating stuff guys! thanks as always.. 🙂

  7. Grebz says:

    I actually think that this is irrelevant, though interesting and mostly true. We are indeed influenced by what we see. Same goes with taste: the mere sight of any food you like will make you salivate. Turn the lights off and you’ll have a hard time differentiating veal from beef. Same goes with pain: you fall down, you hurt your knee, but it doesn’t hurt that much until you actually SEE that you’re in fact bleeding.

    So yes, seeing those flashy colors bump up and down on screen will have an influence on what you hear. Partly because you’re focusing on what you are currently doing, and so you don’t pay attention to anything but the current task (compression, reverb, whatever…).

    So why do I think it is irrelevant? Because even if your hearing perception is falsified by what you see, there will come a time when you’ll listen to your work, maybe eyes closed, and you will no longer have those visual plugins opened in front of you. You will do nothing but listen, and at this moment, if you haven’t already done it, you will notice the flaws. Objectively so. And you will then be able to fix them, knowing what you’re looking for.

    (sorry for any mistakes, English isn’t my mother tongue)

  8. Kim Lajoie says:

    Scream Electric :

    I initially found that the track I was working on always sounded inexplicably ‘different’ when I just bounced it down and listened to it outside of my sequencer.

    This is an interesting phenomenon, and goes to show how much of our perception is influenced by what we see!

    -Kim.

  9. Kim Lajoie says:

    Gabriele Maidecchi (@maidoesimple) :

    You know, reading this reminded me of a video I watched recently, I am sure you’ll appreciate it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-lN8vWm3m0

    That’s actually the video that started me thinking. I saw it a while ago and the idea had been bouncing around my head. Fascinating stuff!

    -Kim.

  10. Kim Lajoie says:

    Grebz :

    So why do I think it is irrelevant? Because even if your hearing perception is falsified by what you see, there will come a time when you’ll listen to your work, maybe eyes closed, and you will no longer have those visual plugins opened in front of you. You will do nothing but listen, and at this moment, if you haven’t already done it, you will notice the flaws. Objectively so. And you will then be able to fix them, knowing what you’re looking for.

    (sorry for any mistakes, English isn’t my mother tongue)

    That’s a really good point, and it can certainly help. What I’m suggesting goes one step further though – by using tools that don’t provide (or have disabled) a strong visual component, there’s hardly any need to close your eyes. Why give preference to your ears only some of the time when you could do it all the time?

    Also – your english is pretty good! I wouldn’t have guessed that it is not your first language.

    -Kim.

  11. chris H says:

    Wow, very interesting. For everyone using logic; you can switch in every plugin between editor (with visuals) and controls (without visuals).
    Go to your plugin window and under view you can chose editor or controls.

    Another great post Kim! Love your blog.

  12. Kim Lajoie says:

    chris H :

    Wow, very interesting. For everyone using logic; you can switch in every plugin between editor (with visuals) and controls (without visuals).
    Go to your plugin window and under view you can chose editor or controls.

    Another great post Kim! Love your blog.

    Thanks! The latest version of Cubase has a similar feature too. And most other DAWs probably do as well. For more complicated plugins though, a bare list of parameters can be tedious to search through to find the parameter you want to adjust.

    -Kim.

  13. jph says:

    You’re right, I understood this the day that I began to work on Linux. Ladspa plugins usualy don’t have a dedicated GUI, they use only the default DAW GUI. I found that working this way, I rely more on what I hear than what I see, and that’s what matters.

  14. inaudible says:

    Very well said, its something im trying to do more and more (very difficult, particularly with something like compression).

    I strongly agree with Scream Electric’s comment on the track sounding different when bounced. I try to turn my monitor off (it has a keyboard shortcut) when listening as much as possible to help with this. Not only does it imrove my listening, it keeps me ctrl-alt-ing to another window whilst I’m listening back so I stay focused for longer.

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