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Do Musicians Need to Know About Sound?

Music and Sound: Part 1

Modern and changing times have pushed people to learn and use technology more and more, especially musicians. But particularly during the pandemic, many musicians have had the need to record themselves, edit and mix their own music.  Does this mean now that they have to master a new career as sound engineers too besides being musicians?

I would say yes, but only if it is their true interest. Diving into a sound career implies a lot of technical terms to learn, gear to buy, and aptitudes to have. So, I would say no, if you are not much of a technophile and you don’t want to consume your instrument study time into troubleshooting equipment or learning about deep theoretical and technical aspects of sound.

That being said, my first and best advice would be to always hire a professional sound person to help you set up your home studio, teach you how to do your recordings and mixes, and give you professional advice. However, if you are still thinking to give it a try and set up your own home studio, mix your own music, and doing it all by yourself, I may have some tips for you.

Technical aptitudes are part of the important things to consider: computer skills and good problem-solving skills are basic aptitudes you’ll need to enhance to set up, use, and master your own music studio. Keep in mind that you might have to update or buy a computer that can manage recording and music software requirements. Most websites have now a specific list of technical requirements to use their products, so you might want to take a look through their websites to make sure your computer is up to date. The most important things to consider for a computer to be able to manage music and recording software are mainly: processor type, operation system version, RAM size, disk space, ports, etc. If any of these terms are in a foreign language for you, you may also need help from a person how knows about computers.

Here is an example of Ableton Live Computer requirements for a Windows Computer:

Windows 10 (Build 1909 and later)

Intel® Core™ i5 processor or an AMD multi-core processor.

8 GB RAM

1366×768 display resolution

ASIO compatible audio hardware for Link support (also recommended for optimal audio performance)

Access to an internet connection for authorizing Live (for downloading additional content and updating Live, a fast internet connection is recommended)

Approximately 3 GB disk space on the system drive for the basic installation (8 GB free disk space recommended)

Up to 76 GB disk space for additionally available sound content

Digital Audio Workstations

The next thing you will need to consider is getting digital audio workstations (DAWs) and/or music creation software. DAWs are computer programs designed to record any sound into a computer, manipulate the audio, mix it, add effects and export it in multiple formats.

You will need to choose according to your needs and preferences among many workstations that are available online from free versions to monthly subscriptions or perpetual licenses. Some of the most popular DAWs between professional sound engineers are Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic Pro, Ableton Live, Reaper, Luna, Studio One, but you can also find others for free or less than USD $100:

To learn how to use any of these DAWs you will be able to find many resources online on the manufacture’s websites, Google or YouTube, such as training videos, workshops, live sessions, etc. Here is an example of a tutorial video for Pro tools that can be found on Avid’s YouTube channel: Get Started Fast with Pro Tools | First — Episode 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9H–Q-fwJ1g

Some theoretical concepts will also come up when doing recordings and mixing, like stereo track, mono track, multitrack, bit depth, sample rate, phantom power, condenser mics, phase, plugin, gain, DI, etc. Multiple free online resources to learn about those concepts are available all over the internet. Just take your time to learn them.

You can read about educational resources at https://soundgirls.org/educational-resources/

Audio Interface

The next thing you are going to need is an Audio Interface, but why?

Audio interfaces are hardware units that allow you to connect microphones, instruments, midi controllers, studio monitors and headphones to your computer. They translate electric signals produced by soundwaves to a digital protocol (0s and 1s) so your computer can understand it.

Depending on your requirements as a musician you may need to record one track at a time or more. For example, if you play drums you may need more than one mic, but if you are a singer probably one mic is just enough. This means that you will find audio interfaces with different amounts of inputs where usually the price is attached to it, the greater the number of channels and preamps, the more money you’ll need. Audio interfaces will also have different types of inputs: for microphones, for instruments (with a DI), or both (combo), make sure you choose the proper one for your needs. Especially, make sure it has a built-in preamplifier in case you are using condenser mics to record.

There are also microphones that you can plug directly into your computer or phone via USB, this means no audio interface is needed (it’s built-in). This type of mics might be helpful for podcasters, broadcasters, video streamers. However, bear in mind that even if you try your best, this type of recordings may not have the same results as a professional recording and mixing.

Microphones

Learning about microphones and microphone technics might take lots of blogs to read and videos to watch, so I will narrow it down: there are no straight formulas for sound or strict rules to follow regarding to microphones. The mic you choose can vary depending on your budget, the type of instrument you play, and what you are using your microphone for. For this, you will need to search and learn about types of mics depending on their construction (dynamic, condenser, ribbon, etc.), types of polar pattern (cardioid, super-cardioid, Omni, etc), and some recommendations of mics based on the instruments you’ll record.

For example, you may find definitions for commonly-used terms for microphones and Audix products on their website: https://audixusa.com/glossary/. Or you can register for Sennheiser Sound Academy Seminars at https://en-ae.sennheiser.com/seminar-recordings.

If you want to read more about Stereo Microphone Techniques you can also check: https://www.andreaarenas.com/post/2017/11/06/stereo-microphone-techniques

Midi Controllers

Midi controllers: Musical Instrument Digital Interfaces are mostly used to generate digital data that can be used to trigger other equipment or software, meaning that they do not generate sound by themselves. A MIDI controller can be a keyboard, drum pad-style device, or a combination of the two. You will need to learn how to program and map your midi controller to be able to use it creatively for your productions.

You will also find many resources online that will help you learn about midi controllers, such as Ableton on how to set up your midi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWOXblksDxE

Acoustics

The acoustics of the room is also important, the lack of acoustic treatment can make your recordings sound different, and usually in a bad way. Sound gets reflected and absorbed in all surfaces present in a room and noise can interact with your recordings too. If you are in an improvised room in your house and no professional acoustic treatment is possible to make, you might have in mind some basics like avoiding recording in rooms with parallel walls, square or rectangle design pattern with square corners and hard surfaces, minimizing the reflected sounds with carpets, soft couches, pillows, etc.

Once again, considering hiring a sound engineer as a consultant might be your best option if you are planning to take the next step as a musician to learn about sound engineering. It would make you save time; money and you’ll be employing a friend.

 

 

Acoustemology?

During these last months of 2020, I started a master’s degree that has pleasantly surprised me, and although it seems to be unrelated to my professional facet of audio, studying “cultural management” has led me to know a new and exciting world, which has more related to my interests than it seems.

But why do I want to talk about acoustemology and cultural management when I have been in sound engineering for almost 14 years focusing only on the technical aspects? In some reading, I found that term, acoustemology. At the time I did not know but that due to its etymological roots caught my attention.

Already with ethnomusicology and some branches of anthropology in conjunction with acoustics, studies of music, ecological acoustics and soundscapes have been carried out, helping to interpret sound waves as representations of collective relationships and social structures, such is the case of sound maps of different cities and countries, which reflect information on indigenous languages, music, urban areas, forest areas, etc., some examples:

Mexican sounds through time and space: https://mapasonoro.cultura.gob.mx/

Sound Map of the Indigenous Languages ​​of Peru: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.mc.mapasonoro&hl=en_US&gl=US

Meeting point for the rest of the sound maps of the Spanish territory: https://www.mapasonoro.es/

The life that was, the one that is and the one that is collectively remembered in the Sound Map of Uruguay: http://www.mapasonoro.uy/

As Carlos de Hita says, our cultural development has been accompanied by soundscapes or soundtracks that include the voices of animals, the sound of wind, water, reverberation, temperature, echo, and distance.

But it is with the term acoustemology, which emerged in 1992 with Steven Feld, where the ideas of a soundscape that is perceived and interpreted by those who resonate with their bodies and lives in a social space and time converge. An attempt is made to argue an epistemological theory of how sound and sound experiences shape the different ways of being and knowing the world, and of our cultural realities.

But then another concept comes into play, perception. Perception is mediated by culture: the way we see, smell, or hear is not a free determination but rather the product of various factors that condition it (Polti 2014). Perception is what really determines the success of our work as audio professionals, so I would like to take a moment with this post to think over the following ideas and invite you to do it with me.

As professionals dedicated to the sound world, do we stop to think about the impact of our work on the cultures in which we are immersed? Do we worry about taking into account the culture in which we are immersed when doing an event? Or do we only develop our work in compliance with economic and technological guidelines instead of cultural ones?

When we plan an event, do we use what is really needed, do we have a limit or to attend to our ego we use everything that manufacturers sell us without stopping to think about the impact (economic, social, and environmental) that this planning has in the place where these events will be taking place? Do we really care about what we want to transmit or do we only care about making the audio sound as loud as possible or even louder? Do we stop to think what kind of amplification an event really requires or do we just want to put a lot of microphones, a lot of speakers, if it’s immersive sound the better, make it sound loud, and good luck if you understand? Do we care about what the audience really wants to hear? Are we aware of noise pollution or do we just want the concert to be so loud that people can’t even hear their own thoughts?

Are we conscious of making recordings that reflect and preserve our own culture and that of the performer, or do we only care about obtaining awards at all costs? Have we already shared all the knowledge we have about audio or are we still competing to show that we know everything, that I am technically the best? Or is it time to humanize and put our practice as audio professionals in a cultural context?

I remember an anecdote from a colleague, where he told how after doing all the set up for a concert in a Mexican city, of which I do not remember the details, it was only after the blessing of the shamans and the approval of the gods that the event was possible.

Our work as audio professionals should be focused on dedicating ourselves to telling stories in more than acoustic terms, telling stories that bear witness to our sociocultural context and who we are.

“Beyond any consideration of an acoustic and/or physiological order, the ear belongs to a great extent to culture, it is above all a cultural organ” (García 2007

References:

Bull, Michael; Plan, Les. 2003. The Auditory culture reader. Oxford: Berg. New York.

De Hita, Carlos. 2020. Sound diary of a naturalist. We Learn Together BBVA. Spain Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdFHyCPtrNE&list=WL&index=14

García, Miguel A. 2007. “The ears of the anthropologist. Pilagá music in the narratives of Enrique Palavecino and Alfred Metraux ”, Runa, 27: 49-68 and (2012) Ethnographies of the encounter. Knowledge and stories about other music. Anthropology Series. Buenos Aires: Ed. Del Sol.

Rice, Timothy. 2003. “Time, Place, and Metaphor in Music Experience and Ethnography.” Ethnomusicology 47 (2): 151-179.

Macchiarella, Ignazio. 2014. “Exploring micro-worlds of music meanings”. The thinking ear 2 (1). Available at http://ppct.caicyt.gov.ar/index.php/oidopensante.

Victoria Polti. 2014. Acustemología y reflexividad: aportes para un debate teórico-metodológico en etnomusicología. XI Congreso iaspmal • música y territorialidades: los sonidos de los lugares y sus contextos socioculturales. Brazil


Andrea Arenas is a sound engineer and her first approach to music was through percussion. She graduated with a degree in electronic engineering and has been dedicated to audio since 2006. More about Andrea on her website https://www.andreaarenas.com/

Sistemas de Grabación Estéreo

Para poder seleccionar la técnica con la que trabajaremos, primero, debemos considerar algunos detalles como son: presupuesto, equipo disponible y estilo de música, teniendo esto claro podremos tomar una decisión del sistema que mejor se adapte y funcione a las circunstancias que nos enfrentemos.

Hay 4 elementos básicos para poder escoger una técnica:

De allí surgen algunos de los sistemas de grabación estéreo más conocidos, como son:

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Existe una relación de la posición en la que una fuente virtual aparece entre un par de parlantes y la diferencia de intensidad del sonido (en dB) para una señal estéreo. Esta variación  se logra en los sistemas de grabación estéreo mediante los cuatro elementos anteriormente expuestos: patrón polar, posición, ángulo entre los micrófonos y distancia a la fuente. (Recordemos que estamos hablando de técnicas de grabación estéreo)

Por ejemplo, sabemos que para lograr que una fuente virtual se sitúe 100% hacia uno de los parlantes la diferencia debe ser de 18dB (1.5 ms), para 75% es de 11dB, para 50% es de 6.5dB, para 25% es de 3dB y 0dB para estar completamente al centro.

Estas diferencias de nivel (dB) o en tiempo (ms) se pueden lograr manipulando la distancia y/o el ángulo entre los micrófonos, esto, para que el sonido que llega a cada una de las cápsulas de los micrófonos del sistema, se traduzcan en imágenes diferentes en los parlantes, con distintas posiciones y anchos de imagen de las fuentes virtuales.

Por ejemplo, al acercar los micrófonos a la fuente, la imagen se hace mayor en los parlantes. O si se reduce el ángulo entre los ejes de los micrófonos de un sistema XY la imagen disminuye debido a que el área de grabación se hace mayor. De la misma manera podemos observar diferencias de imagen entre cada uno de los sistemas AB vs. XY vs. equivalente.

La imagen de la orquesta representada anteriormente, muestra un ejemplo extremo de cómo pueden variar los resultados según la configuración escogida, sin embargo, esto no significa que siempre que seleccionemos un sistema de grabación estéreo AB se obtendrá una imagen que proviene de los extremos izquierdo y derecho de los altavoces, o que al escoger un sistema coincidente se obtendrá una imagen concentrada en el centro de los parlantes. Todo depende de los parámetros seleccionados (patrón polar, ángulo, distancia entre los micrófonos y distancia entre la fuente) para cada configuración.

Específicamente si comparamos un sistema XY con patrón polar cardiode vs uno AB podríamos escuchar:


Les invito a escuchar y seleccionar su sistema de grabación en estéreo preferido, realizando variaciones en los patrones polares, distancias y ángulos de los sistemas de grabación.

Aprovecho para agradecer a la persona a quien le debo estos conocimientos, a quien aprecio y admiro enormemente, Thorsten Weigelt.

Notas adicionales:

A continuación encontrarán una lista con las especificaciones de los sistemas de grabación estéreo establecidos más conocidos.

 


Andrea Arenas: Soy ingeniero de sonido. Mi primer contacto con la música fue a los 10 años cuando comencé a tocar percusión. Me gradué de ingeniero electrónico y desde el 2006 me dedico al audio. También tengo estudios de composición y un loco amor por la música.

Nizarindani Sopeña: Journalist by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), specialist in subjects of the cultural field. Publisher since ten years of Sound: check Magazine, a Mexican publication aimed at professionals in the entertainment industry in Latin America and the world.

 

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Stereo Recording Systems

In order to select the technique with which we will work, first, we must consider some details such as budget, available equipment, and music style; having this clear we can make a decision on the system that best suits and works to the circumstances that we face.

There are 4 basic elements to choose a technique:

From there arise some of the best-known stereo recording systems, such as:

 

There is a relationship of the position in which a virtual source appears between a pair of speakers and the difference in sound intensity (in dB) for a stereo signal. This variation is achieved in stereo recording systems through the four elements previously discussed: polar pattern, position, the angle between the microphones and distance to the source. (Recall that we are talking about stereo recording techniques)

For example, we know that to get a virtual source to be 100% towards one of the speakers, the difference must be 18dB (1.5 ms), 75% is 11dB, 50% is 6.5dB, 25% is of 3dB and 0dB to be completely at the center.

These differences in level (dB) or in time (ms) can be achieved by manipulating the distance and / or the angle between the microphones, so that the sound that arrives at each of the microphones’ capsules of the system is translated in different images in the speakers, with different positions and image widths of the virtual sources.

For example, when the microphones are brought closer to the source, the image becomes louder in the speakers. Or if the angle between the axis´ of the microphones of an XY system is reduced, the image decreases because the recording area becomes larger. In the same way, we can observe image differences between each of the systems AB vs. XY vs. equivalent.

 

The image of the orchestra represented above shows an extreme example of how the results may vary according to the chosen configuration; however, this does not mean that whenever we select an AB stereo recording system we will obtain an image that comes from the left and right ends. The right of the loud speakers, or that by choosing a matching system, a concentrated image will be obtained in the center of the loud speakers. Everything depends on the selected parameters (polar pattern, angle, distance between the microphones and distance between the source) for each configuration.

Specifically, if we compare an XY system with a cardioid polar pattern vs an AB one, we might hear:

 

I invite you to listen and select your favorite stereo recording system, making variations in the polar patterns, distances, and angles of the recording systems.

I take this opportunity to thank the person to whom I owe this knowledge, whom I greatly appreciate and admire, Thorsten Weigelt.

Additional notes:

Below you will find a list of the specifications of the most well-known established stereo recording systems.


Andrea Arenas: I’m a sound engineer. My first approach to music was through percussion since I was 10 years old. I graduated electronic engineer and dedicated to audio since 2006.  I also have composing studies and crazy love for music.

Nizarindani Sopeña: A journalist by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), a specialist in subjects of the cultural field. Publisher since ten years of Sound: check Magazine, a Mexican publication aimed at professionals in the entertainment industry in Latin America and the world