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Home | Library | Articles | Natural Sound Methodology

Natural Sound Methodology

by Shawn Micheal - Martech Natural Sound Lab supervisor
When Shawn isn’t making the world safe for audio, he is using his creations to make better records.

Article summary: Critical Listening is the key to knowing when it’ s right.

Featured in Fall 1998 Audio Horizons 680k | Newsletter List
MSS-10 product information

Audio engineers take pride in being able to hear things that most others are incapable of hearing. In reality, the average citizen can probably hear just as well, it's just that they don't know how to listen. To understand what engineers do, we must differentiate between hearing and listening.

An analogous situation to hearing and listening is eating and tasting food. I thoroughly enjoy eating, but I perceive a dish as one, big, wonderful flavor, whereas my wife tastes the same dish as a collection of individual flavors. What this means is that I enjoy the dish and that's it, but my wife can go home and duplicate it. She has learned how to breakdown the whole into basic elements and knows how the details work together to form one magnificent piece of art. In many ways, great chefs are like top engineers. Chefs use their ability to taste while engineers use their ability to listen.

Engineers as a whole have developed their ability to listen so as to focus not only on the main subject, but also on the nuances of what is surrounding the subject, and even beyond. For the average engineer the subtleties of balance, eq, panning, reverb and/or echo of each element is almost as important as the song itself. Just as the chef must decide whether to sauté in butter or olive oil to get the right flavor, the engineer must decide things such as how wide the stereo spread on background vocals should be to give them impact without causing distraction. But for the top engineer, other issues such as spatial imaging or dimensionality and low-level detail are also as important, just as the master chef is as concerned with presentation as with taste.

The question is how well do we listen? This author once read a review where the reviewers agreed on the sound quality of a power amp, but one felt that it placed you in the fourth row of the audience, while the other thought it put you in the eighth. Half of the review was arguing this trivial(?), subjective(?) issue. The question should be, which row did the producer and engineer intend?

There are two issues that need to be addressed. First, does it sound good? This is a subjective decision based upon the emotional response of the moment. Second, does it sound as good as the original source? This is an objective decision based upon the evaluation of a device, component, etc., against the sound source. If a device sounds "better" than the original source then the coloration is termed "euphonic." If a device sounds the same as the source then it is termed as "neutral" or "natural." If the device sounds worse than the source then there are hundreds of esoteric or vulgar words that might be used to describe it, depending on how different it sounds. Objective listening is the main concern of this article.

When research and design began for the MSS-10 Mic Preamp, we auditioned many different manufacturers' preamps and realized that no two sounded alike. Many sounded good, but which sounded the most correct? We realized that we needed a listening system that provided a high degree of resolution, to most accurately assess each against a known source.

Bud Wyatt, Martech's electronic engineer on the MSS-10 project, had many years of experience in critical listening electronics design with The Mastering Lab and Sheffield Lab. After Bud gathered recommendations from fellow audio enthusiasts, we auditioned and chose equipment for our listening room. That was when the fun began.

Bud modified a CD player, replacing all analog stages with custom electronics to provide a repeatable sound source, allowing the listener to acquaint himself with a passage of music through looping. Repeatability was recognized as the only way to make honest comparisons.

After extensive listening we chose a rotary switch made from coin silver to use as the A/B switch. (The same switch we use in the MSS-10!) Careful attention was paid to the influences of wire and impedance. Connections were hard wired with silver solder, so that connectors would not influence the sound.

Finally, we could begin to audition amplifier technologies. Active and passive components were listened to individually and collectively, for timbre shifts and dynamics. Many devices that touted extremely low distortion didn't do well at all in listening tests. Most were found to cause changes in tonal quality, imparting a synthetic, edgy character and demolishing the depth and energy of the audio.

Components and topologies were tested for flawless audio reproduction. Daisy-chaining multiple 20dB amplifiers together with 20dB pads magnified any distinguishing footprint left by an amplifier design. We found this method to be a true test of how a system can deteriorate the audio, a test most designers avoid. This test also forced us back to the drawing board many times. When the right amplifier design was found, the whole process had to be repeated in the development of our custom input transformer.

The ultimate test of the MSS-10 design was with a microphone on a live source. To say we were stunned by the results is an understatement. We expected to hear an improvement in quality, but what we actually heard was a lack of "gunk"! All the sound and character of the microphone was there, but that was it. No distortion, no blurring, no hype, no roll off, nothing.

The MSS-10 allowed us to experience the microphone like we never had before.

Quality audio is made up from performance, environment, and the audio tools used to capture it. Martech is developing audio tools, like the MSS-10, for engineers like you, to stand out among your peers. Critical listening enabled Martech to develop a markedly better microphone preamp, allowing you to seriously enhance any recording project. The beauty and clarity of the MSS-10 will provide a dramatic difference. Your clients will love that!

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