Subwoofers

Robert Katz Leave a Comment

With all the home theater systems out there, this engineer is having problems getting his mixes to translate.

From: Pat Casey

Subject: *Re: Mixing with modern subwoofers

My comments are: I would like to make a request. I have become very frustrated trying to create a uniform mix with the relatively new advent of modern day subwoofer systems. I cannot find a stable reference CD because most CDs prior to the last few years don’t even contain information (or very little) below 40hz. The result is a product that varies greatly from song to song and CD to CD. I cannot seem to get a handle on mixing for todays modern systems which most often have a subwoofer and a small set of satellite speakers (ignoring the frequencies around 100-200hz!)

I just want to get great bass response that translates well on any set of speakers (like Beatle songs do!) My stuff is either too boomy or not bassy enough. How about an article on that? I’m sure you see this on the tapes you recieve too. Thanks for a great site (it was very nice of you to share your wisdom)

God Bless.

Pat Casey

Dear Pat:

Many thanks for your comments.

Bass is definitely the last frontier to get right in recording, mixing and mastering.

The Beatles recordings sound good because the recording was designed to work in a wide variety of playback systems. If they can do it, so can you. You just have to find “the center”. And a good mastering engineer can help you do it.

We do see a great variety of bass problems in tapes that are sent to us. The only saving grace is that since the bass (and the bass drum) sit pretty much alone in their part of the spectrum, we can tolerate a wider range of bass levels…bass usually doesn’t mask the vocal or other instruments. But it’s still important to get it as right as possible, and away from the extremes.

I don’t think the situation with bass has changed any with the advent of home theatre and subwoofers. People still get them wrong. 20 years ago, bass freaks were using Cerwin Vega 24″ woofers set 10 dB too hot; people today still get into their cars and apply a smile-shaped EQ to everything; and people still listen to their home stereos with the loudness control engaged. The situation hasn’t changed in 20-30 years. There’s all kinds of variation out there.

I also don’t think the information below 40 Hz is the big deal. We can repair that problem with little damage in the mastering, whether you have too little or too much at or below 40. Our subwoofers go down flat below 20 and we’ll be able to hear if there are subsonic problems that should be corrected. You should be concerned with getting everything above 40 Hz right in the mixing! If, for example, there’s a subsonic vibration in the bass drum that you didn’t hear in the mixing, we can fix that in the mastering with no damage to the musicality of your piece. But if you don’t get your bass drum to bass balance right, we’ll have a much harder time fixing that in the mastering. And to get the latter right, you need loudspeakers that are correct at least from 50 Hz to 250 Hz.

There is always a center (the right sound) and there will always be extremes. There will always be, by distribution of the average, just as many boomy systems on one side of the center as there are thin systems on the other side. The trick is to find the center and to know when you’re there, and to have confidence when you are right. The new “small satellite/subwoofer” combination does add a new element to the equation by often having a hole in the upper bass/lower midrange (due to improper setup), but that, in myopinion, is just another variation from the center, and your bass will fall into place on that system if you get it to sound right on a neutral system.

There have always been systems with holes in the middle, or excessive midrange, and I feel there are just as many of both of those errors out there. That’s why you can find a center, or the Beatles wouldn’ t sound so good on so may systems.. If you try to mix or master to make it sound “right” on any defective system (including this incorrect satellite/sub system)….then your mix will be wrong everywhere else!

Always mix for the center…the system which is most neutral, most extended, and most right.

That doesn’t mean that you have to mix on $30,000 mastering speakers, just that you have to mix on reasonably good speakers, so that you can get it close enough so that we mastering engineers do not have to make radical adjustments.

We don’t have any more problems mastering for proper bass response today than we had years ago. Actually, I welcome the homes with the subwoofers, because some people are going to get it right! I master in an absolutely neutral, correct environment, and I know how it will translate to all varieties of systems that are out there. We get it right 9 times out of 10, thank god, and the 10th time we have to do a slight revision (not uncommon).

If you know how it will translate, you know that it will sound boomy on a boomy system, and thin on a thin system, and right on the right system. When you hear it on one of those defective systems, you have to accept that is the character of that system. If music doesn’t sound boomy in my car, I’m almost disappointed (g).

Bass is more of a problem because the equal loudness countours say that a small change from the absolutely correct bass response produces a very large change to the ear. To help circumvent that, mix at a proper (not too loud) monitoring level, or it will never be right anywhere else—the bass will be too low elsewhere because of the equal loudness countours.

Know your system cold… if your system tends to be a little light in the bass, mix knowing that fact. However, if your system is missing the lower octaves (like NS-10’s) you can easily end up with a recording that has very heavy bass drum and weak bass. Know your speakers cold and avoid the speakers that have serious anomalies!

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