NO SUBSTITUTE FOR THE HUMAN EAR Re: Management Perspectives: Listen Up! in the September 2003 issue: thanks for stating what, for our firm, has proven
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Nov 1, 2003 12:00 PM


Re: “Management Perspectives: Listen Up!” in the September 2003 issue: thanks for stating what, for our firm, has proven to be quite obvious.

It has amazed us when a contractor, or for that matter a consultant, quickly looks at the response of a system on an analyzer (or uses the “automatic” tuning function) and does not seriously listen to, or play with, the system that was just installed.

In more than 30 years in this industry, I have found that the greatest learning about the behavior of sound systems occurs during the system checkout and “tuning” phase of the project. During this time, all the details of the system are examined, and any fine adjustments are accomplished. It is also the time in which the system may be pushed to its limits under controlled conditions. The best analogy for this period of time is a test pilot checking the entire operating envelope of a new aircraft before it is released to the new owner. Would any of us like to pilot a new aircraft in which the person who built the thing said, “It should fly good”?

Ear training is not able to be acquired during the afternoon in a short course. It is a matter of critical listening to good sound over time and learning those points that are considered beneficial or detrimental. This, unfortunately, does not necessarily mean listening to prerecorded music, though there are excellent recordings over any sound system. It does mean listening to the actual musical instruments. It means knowing what is a clean sound and what is a not a clean sound. It amazes me when people use their favorite heavy-metal track to evaluate if the sound system is exhibiting a distorted signal.

Given the ever-pressing goal of getting in, getting out, and getting the job done, I am not surprised that once a contractor, and some consultants, sees a smooth spectrum in the mix position and it is not spectacularly nasty during a quick walk around, he or she considers the project finished. This is not beneficial to our industry.

While we can chastise those of us in this industry, we must also realize that the clients are bombarded with advertising that leads them to believe that with the use of a computer design program and a computer analysis system, a good sound system is available in a snap. That pressures the consultant or contractor to get the job done quickly. With a client base that has been informed through advertising that you can get a sound system with little effort, it will be interesting to see where that line of thought will lead. Will there be a piano manufacturer that will create a piano that will tune itself without the aid of the critical listening ear of a human? Actually, comparisons have shown that pianos tuned using only a tuning analyzer have proven to be less musical than those tuned with a trained piano tuner with a critical ear.

The solution may be to educate the client base that a sound system, particularly one that is used to reproduce music, must be set up for proper operation just as a piano tuner would set up a new piano. When clients understand that a sound system that is used for purposes of amplifying or presenting music actually functions like a musical instrument, they will pressure our industry to provide the service that they currently do not understand is critical and part of the appropriate cost of their sound system. It also means that those of us who consider ourselves to have a career in this industry will need to invest the time and the effort to learn what is “good” sound.

Thank you for your article. I hope it made others stop, think, and possibly respond.
Fred Schafer
F. C. Schafer Consulting, LLC

Michael MacDonald's “Management Perspectives” article was spot-on. He is a welcome voice in the sonic wilderness. Since 1970 I have been the contrabassoonist with the National Symphony Orchestra, in Washington, D.C. I also operate an audio/video/acoustical consulting firm, Your Silent Partner, serving the residential and commercial (studio) markets.

The subjective review of sound system design has fallen out of favor, owing mainly to the digital age; if it looks good on paper or on the display, it must sound good. There is no longer any tolerance for the gray area, as we had in the good old analog days — no more screwing around with tonearm/cartridge VTA. No more editing tape with the trusty old grease pencil. It is either right or wrong. So now we have a whole new generation of recording engineers, consultants, and studio designers who have never questioned the musical and tonal accuracy of their systems, because they have never stopped to actually listen to their work and compare it to the original model (heaven forbid that they should attend a live, unamplified musical event).

I use all of the most up-to-date measuring gear in my designs. But I view these as only a guide and tool, as I view a metronome when I practice difficult musical passages on my bassoon. The real art of making music or designing an accurate audio system begins after the measuring stage is finished. It's called individual interpretation (which is why I never get tired of performing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony after all these years with dozens of different conductors), and it allows the human element to become involved.

Not to toot my own horn (as it were), but the October 2003 RobbReport has an article about a home theater I designed for a Scottsdale, Arizona, client who wanted something no one else had: the best theater on the planet. But what measure can we use for such a request? I used George Lucas's Stag, principally because it has become the industry standard of what represents the best attainable sound. But in the final analysis, even though Lucas's 600-seat screening room may be the “best,” it is not the ultimate, because it has to translate to the many other smaller mixing stages at Skywalker. So in that sense, it does not attain the greatest transparency and dynamic range current technology allows. But it was designed with the finest and most advanced measuring equipment, much of which Jerry Steckling created for the particular application. The true art of the Stag is in the way it was fine-tuned the old-fashioned way: with the human ear. That is one of the reasons I enlisted Skywalker's chief acoustical designer, Jerry Steckling, to help me design the sound system for my client's theater. Goodness knows I've been in a lot of mixing stages, studios, and home theaters that measured wonderfully but sounded awful. They probably would “measure” better than the Stag or the theater in Scottsdale. But just try to spend two hours doing a mix or watching a film without getting an ear bleed.

Congratulations on a terrific(and too short) article.
Lewis Lipnick
via e-mail

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