Journal Note: Tweaking Audibility, One Part At A Time


In addition to writing blog posts, I also write notes to myself about music making. These notes are free of narrative and big picture theorizing, focusing instead on the nuts and bolts of what I did, why I did it, and how it worked out. Some notes do eventually become blog posts, but most of them just go in a file to remind me of what I’ve done…and the fact that I’m actually doing something. Here’s a note from a recent session:

“I had a bit of a breakthrough with 11. As I listened I noticed that the cs80 part wasn’t loud enough, so I spent the entire time boosting its volume. By now, I know each of the parts fairly well, and so although I could hear the cs80 pad fine, I was mentally filling in missing details. The part’s lines weren’t actually clear until I raised the volume—sometimes substantially. This is an effective way to work: focus on adjusting one sound at a time through the entire track, as you listen to it in context of everything else. I chose the cs80 not because it’s the most important sound (it isn’t) but because it was the first sound in the mix to jump out at me as being wrong. I spent last week doing something similar with the marimbas: adding slight amounts of presence here and there to boost their audibility (without changing their volume).

Listening to the cs80 part in relation to everything else, I made sure I could hear it well whenever it entered and was important to hear—especially at the outset of its phrases (unless I wanted it to sneak in, which I did, once in a while). Sometimes, when the part wasn’t playing, it’s noise tail (created by distortions) kept going, so I re-shaped those tails some more too. You want to hear the tails because they’re interesting and unstable timbres, but they shouldn’t wash over other important parts. This is exactly what was happening at the beginning of the middle section, which is announced with a single high bell tone. After my first round of adjustments, the cs80’s noise tail was obliterating the bell so I had to go back and keep lowering the noise’s level until the bell was audible again.

The lesson? Push the levels of parts as far as you can for maximum audibility and clarity, but stop and dial it back a touch the moment the level begins interfering with something else in the mix. In a way, we keep returning to Ritchie Blackmore’s famous request—Can I have everything louder than everything else?—but compromise by making sure one part’s quest for loudness doesn’t prevent other parts from being heard too.”   

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