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What’s more important gear or room treatment?

Dennis Foley December 15, 2014 No Comments
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In a recent Google Hangout I got together a bunch of experienced and talented audio engineers to help bridge the gap between what you are hearing as an engineer and how the room is causing that problem. We tried to cut through some of the confusion between “mix sound” and “room sound”. The following video and transcript comes from one particular section where we addressed the issue “What’s more important, gear or room treatment?”. If you would like to see the full hour and a half discussion you can see the video further down the page.

Joseph Baffy (JB): Is that vicious cycle of chasing our tail with gear comes from not understanding how much the room imparts on what we hear?

Dennis Foley (DF): Well that’s exactly it because in my studio I have probably a $100,000 room and $400 worth of gear. And my cat uses the right channel speaker as a scratching post. You go girl I’ll fix it anyway! You know it doesn’t matter I’ll make the room sound good anyway. When I sit in here and listen to recordings and I listen to how the engineer move stuff from left channel to right channel. How he’ll move from left to right, how he’ll maybe stop in the middle on his journey from left to right and stay a little while in the center then move to the right, I hear all of those things and I hear all those layers and levels and I know you guys put them in there because you hear them and you put them in there and that’s part of your sound but when you play them back you lose half of that if the room is not good. I would be losing all my hair and it would be falling out if I was an engineer because I hear everything in my room that you guys put in it but I imagine it’s got to be really frustrating for you guys because you put all this time and effort into it and nobody can hear half the things that you’re doing.

Joshua Wilson (JW): You know it is. I think that like the room is kind of like the underdog of the whole music thing because it’s been like somebody starting out or whatever you know like looking at TV or whatever it’s been shown that you can do acoustics cheap, you know I mean about with McDonald’s cup holders and stuff like that so like that’s what they go, that’s what they go do instead of like, instead of like understanding that it’s probably the most important part out of anything out of your gear or anything it’s part of them both and it actually took me a long time to realize that.

And I didn’t get to that point until I got to where I got you know the gear that I can’t really, unless I start spending ten grand on you know equipment you know I can’t really get better gear that what I got right now, you know I mean. So by being able to hear everything like you don’t understand, you don’t start understanding what your room, what effect your room is having on your music until that point but the thing is it’s probably the most vital part of the first thing you should probably take care of instead of buying gear cause you could actually spend less money on gear and you know put that money that you spend extra on gear into your room and get it to sound right and then you’d have an even better sound with the cheaper gear or more affordable gear.

Joseph Baffy (JB): I agree with you a hundred percent Joshua.

DF: Well we’re doing an interesting project in Hollywood, California and this might shed a little bit of light on the struggles that you guys go through. We’re doing a room where one half of the room is going to be 2-channel playback the other half is going to be for recording. We’re going to be recording organ, drums, guitar, everything. So the acoustics of the room are going to be pretty constant because I’m going to design the live room so to speak to sound a certain way and the 2-channel playback room to sound a certain way.

We’re going to do some recordings live and we’re going to play them back on the 2-channel system. Since the room acoustic is consistent and the same, then we can say pretty much that the difference in sound, and there will be a difference, the difference in sound that we’re hearing is related directly to the gear and the whole recording process. So it’s going be an interesting experiment because we’ve got a good sized room, we’ve got good dimensions and I’m going to manage all the pressure and reflection issues in the room so that when we record whatever the instrument is, I think we’re even doing drums. and then playing it back immediately because our acoustic memories well for us acoustic engineers I think they’re a little bit longer than average person but because we have all this knowledge and experience.

But the bottom-line here is we’re going to try and see how much difference there is between the actual recorded sound and then play back on the system and we’re using top-notch gear all the way across the board, I don’t think you could spend more money and get better gear than we’re using. So we should have all the variables of quality and quantity and room sound taken care of and it should be an interesting experiment next year, should come online about February 1. So it would be a good project to really hear how much impact gear has and how much impact room has.

JB: Now that really sounds excellent cause I think there’s a lot of folks that are in a position where their control room and their recording room are the same room.

DF: Yes

JB: They don’t have the luxury of a control room and a live room. Right, definitely it sounds interesting

DF: It would be a fun project and I think the videos and the educational tools we get from that maybe will go a long way to helping people understand. I don’t know if we’re any closer to an answer yet anyone jump in here I’m getting a little bit more confused the more we talk. Brad you got any ideas?

Brad Pierce (BP): It really just comes down to what you’re hearing. I mean, is it true or is it not true? I mean from an engineer’s point of view what you hear to be the truth and so that you can make the right decisions and if you’re not hearing the truth perhaps you make the wrong decisions and it’s through trial and error that you find that out.

BF: Right and the trial and error is taking your mix to your car, to your living room, to the boom box and that gives you the reference point in which you get to learn how to work around the space that you’re working in, okay.

BP: Yeah it’s an enlightening process.

DF: Do you all have engineers that you respect in terms of their sound quality?

BP: Yeah, I very much like the Steely Dan mixes, I like that. The Luther mixes are just fantastic, those are a couple that I use for reference.

DF: And how do you think they get that sound?

BP: Well top quality gear, top quality rooms and a lot of experience.

JW: Well also performance

BP: Yeah performance it does start from the conception of the composition, the music it’s got to be the right song, the right arrangement on up. So there’s a lot of factors but it really comes down to the guy who’s hearing you know. What is he hearing, the guy that’s on the faders? You know you couldn’t say after the capture, after the sound is captured and what did Frank Phillippatty recorded in a whole house and I don’t know somewhere in ten by two, I can’t remember the story told the heck it was James Taylor. You guys aren’t familiar with that story at all that he told?

Yeah, so don’t quote me on this but because it was a couple of years ago I heard him tell the story.
He recorded James Taylor and it was just a regular house and they weren’t using state-of-the-art equipment and James Taylor went on to win huge amount of awards for that album. And I don’t even remember the album name, you know shame on me. So I think that took the best acoustics and the best gear out of the equation. What was left?

JW: Well like I said, it was the whole performance thing as well, like an experienced person it’s going to come to like mic placement, like you said it’s a lot of variables and everything. So we’ve been doing it, working around a room and obviously there’s a lot of people that are still doing that with cheaper equipment and all that stuff and getting great sound and that maybe one of the issues too is that getting people to focus on the room is because they’ve gotten so used to whatever environment they’re in that they’re comfortable with that and they kind of like “Oh my sound’s good, I don’t want to do anything to it”. But you have to want better to get better basically.

JB: Key phrase right there.

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Dennis Foley

I am an acoustic engineer with over 30 years’ experience in the business. My technology has been used in Electric Lady Land Studios, Sony Music of New York, Cello Music and Films founded by Mark Levinson, and Saltmines Studios in Mesa, Arizona, along with hundreds of others.

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