The Sound of Sound (with Sub-Woofer Rant)

December 29, 2007

I ran across this fascinating article on sound mixing. It talks about how producers and mixers are mixing albums to meet the limitations of MP3s:

Producers also now alter the way they mix albums to compensate for the limitations of MP3 sound. “You have to be aware of how people will hear music, and pretty much everyone is listening to MP3,” says producer Butch Vig, a member of Garbage and the producer of Nirvana’s Never- mind. “Some of the effects get lost. So you sometimes have to over-exaggerate things.” Other producers believe that intensely compressed CDs make for better MP3s, since the loudness of the music will compensate for the flatness of the digital format.

As technological shifts have changed the way sounds are recorded, they have encouraged an artificial perfection in music itself. Analog tape has been replaced in most studios by Pro Tools, making edits that once required splicing tape together easily done with the click of a mouse. Programs like Auto-Tune can make weak singers sound pitch-perfect, and Beat Detective does the same thing for wobbly drummer

That’s not so new. Producers have always taken into account what media or player the music will be listened to on. Phil Spector made the most of his mixes, knowing they would be listened to on mono equipment and mono, AM radio. In the eighties, producers optimized their mixes to play best on 1/8″ cassette tape and the best players, as tapes were briskly outselling vinyl, just before the marketing slam-dunk of CDs came on the scene. When CD’s limitations showed through the hype, many producers tried to overcompensate by accentuating the bass and treble to an obnoxious degree. I have never owned top-of-the-line audio equipment, per se, but can play my vinyl edition of Byrne and Eno’s My Life In the Bush of Ghosts side-by-side with both CD editions I own and – despite the scratchiness – the vinyl offers a more satisfying listening experience. It has a depth and warmth that even the 2005 remaster can’t approach. To me, a lot of vinyl sounds very 3-D, and has a rich bass and midrange and something in between that digital formats can’t touch.

10 – 120 Hz

In my opinion, this was probably one of the factors that led to the emergence of the sub-woofer as a primary speaker.

I think the subwoofer is an instrument of the nincompoop. Listening to anything with that much bass is like eating a cake that’s all frosting – and the yucky, industrial bakery type at that.
It’s like listening to an all-tuba orchestra.
Young people love the subwoofer. I believe part of it is the youngsters need to mark territory by making their music penetrate walls and buildings and carry longer than a humpback whale’s singing in their quest to irritate others with their inane musical choices.
Part of my irritation may be due to the fact that I have very poor upper frequency hearing, due to years of concert going and working in industrial sweatshops. But it’s abuse and over-reliance is abundant. I once helped some coworker comrades prepare a humorous hip-hop song parody for a work party, and when it came time to set it up for an office birthday celebration, the young man whose boombox we used insisted on pushing the hell-button market ‘MEGA-BASS’, ‘ULTRA-MEGA BASS’ or whatever. The results were that everyone sitting right next to the speakers were visibly annoyed and no one could decipher the words being rapped, which was what the whole thing was about. The words were buried in this muckish mud of thwacking bass drums and muddle.

I’m relieved that either noise ordinances or personal fashion trends have made the booming car in traffic a relative rarity, these days. I remember living in a poor neighborhood when those devices were first coming on the market. You couldn’t sleep for more than an hour without being woken up by them roaming through the area. It was like some kind of Third-World nuclear proliferation issue: people who didn’t have two nickels to rub together would sign their lives away for a sub-bass annihilator, because the other guy had it.
Our hillbilly neighbors now love cranking their car stereo to some godawfull music while he tinkers outside, does yard work or administers to his still. They must yell loudly to one another to be heard over the muck, so they do it often.

Your low frequencies are there for a reason. It’s like painting a whole room bright purple. Use it sparingly and appropriately, folks.



  1. Excellent rant! I do a lot of multi-track mixing to mp3 and there are several problems with the process. Few people ever discuss them. Kudos!

  2. I do a lot of recording original music and I gave an advance mix of something to a friend who reported that his foot “hardly moved” when he set it on his subwoofer while doing a playback. He told me “if you want people to get up and DANCE to this, you’re going to have to pump up the subwoofer range.” I found the comment to be either mildly irritating or insulting. All of the instruments were reproduced at their natural range. He seemed to imply I should compose for the playback equipment. Thanks for the post; it’s thoughtful and thought provoking.

  3. the car stereos that we bought have built in equalizers and it sounds great :;.

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