Tonality and Truth


Walk into any room, anywhere, and start singing. It always sounds a little different, right? Your voice is fairly consistent, but different rooms have different characteristics. Some spaces have resonances that can enhance lower frequencies, giving the effect of more robust bass. Others do the opposite, thinning out the bottom. As makers and consumers of music, we accept a wide range of tonalities as “true enough,” even though complete tonal purity is unattainable.

If the real world imposes different flavors on sound, how much more must the elctronic processes of audio reproduction? Like a subtle Instagram filter, every microphone affects frequency and ambient balances in a unique way. More alterations are introduced at the microphone preamplifier and analog-to-digital converters. In order to listen back, this data must be decoded and fed into a speaker system that again alters the sound, in a new physical space that adds color to the signature sound of the speakers. This is all to say, if neutrality and “truth” are what we’re after, we had better understand how every component of our recording chain is functioning to create the sound at the end of the process.

Consider this video of a baritone that my friend Corey follows. He knows that opera singers and their adoring public usually have quite a bit of physical distance between each other during a performance. High frequencies tend to weaken in the diffuse field, but microphones usually need to be closer to a sound source than our ears for proper ambient balance. Therefore, a good choice of microphone for this baritone’s voice might possess a frequency response (i.e. color) that imitates the attenuated higher frequencies several meters of distance imposes naturally. The microphone may be close to the singer by operatic standards (1 meter away), but it sounds similar to what the audience is accustomed to hearing 10-20 meters away.

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Alternatively, a microphone designed to be used in the diffuse field might have the opposite tendency to compensate for the reduction of upper frequencies.

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Prior to the development of digital recording consumers were accustomed to the sound that early ribbon microphones, vacuum tubes, transformers, magnetic tape and vinyl albums imparted to audio recordings. When digital audio replaced the analog systems, the flattering and/or forgiving sound of all that circuitry (and the imperfect storage mediums) gave way to a less flattereing, less forgiving tonality. Digital was “perfect” – but we weren’t ready for perfection. Was it that digital was harsh, or were we just used to warm and fuzzy tube tone?

In either case, getting as close to the truth as possible has always involved understanding what the filters of technology are doing to our tone and using them wisely.

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