Hearing When It’s Wrong and Using Reverb to Tie it All Together

"Constructive Interference" by Clearly Ambiguous made available under a Creative Commons Attribution license
"Constructive Interference" by Clearly Ambiguous made available under a Creative Commons Attribution license

In a previous post I rehearsed some arguments about why direct to stereo recording may be a desirable recording method. There are two main reasons for this, the first is that it gives a chance to capture a live performance giving the listener all the subtlety of musicians making music together, the second is that our hearing skills are sensitive and subtle. It is, I believe this second aspect that makes highly produced recordings sound “wrong”, “unnatural” or fatiguing to listen to.

Human hearing is an incredibly powerful sense, not as precise as bats or dogs but still a powerful tool,

  • We can distinguish the voices of different people with amazing accuracy even over the restricted bandwidth of a telephone
  • Mothers can tell the cry of their own baby from others even over great distances
  • We can place the origin of sounds in space with great accuracy, as long as both ears are working

These skills are there for almost all of us not just musicians or recording engineers. We may not be aware of them or consciously use them but they are there. They are vestiges of important survival skills from the history of our evolution. They used to be vital for hunting and avoiding being hunted by predators and human enemies. These skills are not analytic but we know when something sounds wrong and it can be unsettling.

I believe this is part of what makes many recordings sound uncomfortable to listen to. They sound wrong on a subtle level because the combination of several sounds originating from different spaces is not natural and we can sense that. This is often exacerbated by the use of several different artificial spaces in production.

Using different reverbs on several sound sources in a track creates an uncomfortable metaphor of several distinct spaces coexisting, putting a nice rich plate reverb on the snare drum, a warm wooden hall on the vocals and a big church on the backing vocals can sound great in isolation but it’s Frankenstein’s monster in combination. I think on some level we, as listeners, can hear this and it can become uncomfortable.

There is a solution short of recording everything in one space and at one time. That is to use on virtual space and to use a buss to send the sources to your virtual space. It is remarkable that many people don’t do this. Perhaps it’s a consequence of the capabilities of virtual studios landing on people’s computers with massive instant capability. One virtual space ties the sounds you are mixing together. It’s not perfect but it helps.

This is not to say it’s never a good thing to combine virtual spaces. There is lots of room for art in recording but it’s a good thing to be aware of the pitfalls. Human hearing is a subtle thing and although we are getting used to smooth manufactured recordings with little dynamic range we still retain our primal listening skills.

Published by

Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at rubken.net.

  • Interesting insight on reverb and what may make some produced music difficult to listen to. Thanks.

  • Thanks for the comment Peter. Reverb is a subtle thing. It's easy to think of it being part of a palette of effects but it's an analogue of something we are so used to hearing. Even if we don't think about how we hear consciously we're very good at hearing the subtleties of the sounds around us.