Robert Katz Leave a Comment

How important is it to get rid of? Do you measure the noise level in your masters?

Chris Caudle wrote…

I guess the other question is, does it matter? Do most people on this list check their systems with measurements to verify the noise level, or rely on getting the noise below audible levels, and then quit worrying at that point?

and I replied…

I can answer that question, but it’s not important. In my philosophy, below a certain point, simple measurement of noise has relatively little coordination with obtaining good sound.

I don’t think any of us have a handle on what measurements make sound “good”. Low noise sounds “good”, but not exclusive to many other factors that we haven’t defined well; noise cannot be inspected without considering, for example, multiple distortion components, and their amplitudes relative to the noise floor (masking effect).

So, to a certain extent it’s extremely important to have low noise, but if the circuitry which obtains that low noise sounds “worse” to my personal subjective ears than other circuitry (topology or implementation) which may measure quieter, the “better sounding” always wins.

I think that as we approach the lowest levels of noise, each layer that we peel off the onion is an ambiguous layer; it becomes harder to make the choice between leaving the noise because it is covering up an ugly distortion component, or removing the noise when it reveals a useful ambience or musical component. We have to listen (for ultimately it is the listening) and decide whether we have improved or worsened the sound. At the lowest noise levels, some “ugly” distortion components in our sources or chains of equipment which were formerly masked, are unmasked.

When you consider it that way, noise reduction (by balancing, or other techniques) is a far more complex question than simply “go at it with a microvoltmeter”, with or without weighting filters.

I’ve never been afraid of a “little tape hiss” for example; it can cover up a number of evils. It’s the first layer of the onion everyone wants to remove, but when you remove that layer, the one below often smells ugly. In fact, I’d rather have millivolts of tape hiss than microvolts of the kind of distortions prominent in the inferior A/D converters recently cited by DC and GM…that’s one of the most ugly layers of the onion revealed when the tape hiss is removed.


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