How To

Pump up the volume, or maybe not

the volume factor

The volume factor

Over time I’ve often wondered what it is about listening to music that sets people alight. Looking at the variables that we can actually control with an audio systems settings seem to be a good place to start. Having been to literally hundreds of hi-fi shows over the years, and heard all sorts of kit in all sorts of demonstrations the thing that turns me off the most is inappropriate volume. Too quiet is just as bad as too loud, the latter being commonplace in some shows (ambient noise levels tend to rise as the day goes on), and can be significantly off-putting to a lot of listeners; either they can’t hear what’s being played clearly enough, or they’re drowned in sound which is way too loud.

I suppose I should start by clarifying why I listen to music. I really enjoy the totally immersive emotional journey that music takes me on. While I can appreciate that, for some, composers like Einaudi (whose music, to me, sets a mood rather than includes a journey) are where it’s at, that doesn’t wash for me – except on very rare occasions. Not for a serious listening anyway. Music needs to be that transport of delight (to quote the cartoonist Johnny Helms), and to create that feeling of learning and experiencing something new along the way. So this begs the question: Does sound quality per se affect the amount of enjoyment and immersion when you listen?.

There are those for whom sound quality is king. Curiously, again in my experience, they tend not to be musicians – which is probably contrary to what you’d expect. For most musicians the quest would seem to be the search for the very essence of the composer’s (or performer’s) message. Most musicians that I know (from a wide range of performed genres) have what might be termed adequate music systems. I wouldn’t go as far as to say any of them has a high-end system. Some are above average, some below or very near, but for them sound quality doesn’t seem to be a major determining factor in their listening. It seems to be more about the intent of the performer in conveying the musical experience, rather than whether the aural image is pin-sharp, totally seamless top to bottom, or with incalculable spatial scale to the fore. Again, is it that emotional connection which is key?

There is no doubt at all that a system which is really excellent can produce some wonderful soundscapes, and that for those unused to such high quality it can be something of a revelation – a bit like connecting a decent amp and speakers to your average two-channel TV. Sound from flat screen TVs is limited by the shameful size of the speakers, loudspeaker technology has moved on, and we can get amazing results from miniscule drivers, but it’s not hi-fi. Despite this, watching tv can be a totally immersive experience, as can listening to the car radio despite the vagaries of poor or compromised sound quality.

On this basis it’s reasonable to assume that sound quality per se is not a recipe for aural contentment, nor of stereo image accuracy, and not for the emotional connection either. However, a bit like focussing a camera lens, once we get a few things right the aural image will snap into focus, and our perception and enjoyment of a recording will be increased.

But hang on – each and every recording is different. How do we know how loud it should be? If we do a little research about the recordings we listen to, most of the clues we need are there. The first requirement is a system which does not make all recordings sound the same. If it does, it’s not hi-fi (as there is no truth to its replay characteristics) and its ability for you as a listener to compare and contrast will be severely compromised.

The one thing a system should be able to do is show clear differences between recordings. You should be able to discern whether something is recorded in a large reverberant space or the intimacy of a salon or small studio. No two sax / marimba / cello / bass guitar players or any singers sound the same. If they do, there’s something wrong.

Now, most of my listening tends to be of acoustically-recorded performances. So my rock/pop etc collections tend to be a miked bass guitar or a keyboard, and not one fed straight into a recording desk. So my comments from here on are effectively based on the notion that the recording has some degree of transmission in air between instrument and recording device. The key to unlocking how this works goes back to my reference to clues about the original.

If we’re hoping to hear Coldplay on the Glastonbury stage then volume levels are expected to be quite high. Although the band is miked, those mikes feed the PA systems, they’re not used for the recording feed. The recording mikes are usually some way down in the audiences area, placed optimally for that PA set-up, and to capture the event as if you were in the audience. So, on replay, at home (assuming the family and the neighbours are out), the volume can be cranked up quite high to achieve the feeling that, in reality (if you close your eyes) you could be there. Curiously, if you set the volume too low then it’s not so much that the aural image shrinks (which it usually does) but it loses its impact, its immediacy, and feels like you’re listening through some sort of aural telescope, but from the wrong end. Conversely, if you turn up the volume too much the focus is lost, the transients become diminished, and the whole thing won’t fit in your head (assuming the system isn’t struggling to do this – Ed).

But get it just right – not too loud, but not too quiet either, and the sonic results can be breath-taking. But maybe a rock concert is not the best example to use. Imagine a solo instrument – perhaps a guitar. Some of John Williams’ solo recordings, or Martin Taylor’s are absolutely wondrous. They’re not recorded the same way, but one thing they are not is quiet. Have you ever heard an acoustic guitar in an average lounge? Its loud. Properly played it will fill a small auditorium with sound with ease.

For best effect most solo guitar recordings are fairly close-miked. As a result, again you need to have the volume a fair way up. You should be able to hear the movement of the fingers on the strings, not just the strings being plucked, and it should actually be quite loud, just as if the player and their instrument were in your room.

However, if you’re listening to something like Rodrigo’s Concerto D’Aranjuez, even though there’s a whole orchestra accompanying the guitarist, it will most likely have been recorded at something of a distance from the ensemble. In this case, don’t expect the guitarist to be as loud as just a solo guitar.

Vocalists – ah well, such a range. Solo female vocals tend to be close-miked unless it’s a live performance, so to a degree, even when singing softly, they should be quite in yer face and immediate. Live and studio recordings will probably need different treatment. Others, like church choirs are a lot more distant, but then the echo in the acoustic gives you a big clue about how to set the volume.

the volume factor

The upside of unpicking a recording and playing it back at the right volume, or rather, its own appropriate volume can really play dividends in terms of listening enjoyment and accessing the emotional content of music. Certainly, creating the illusion of the soundstage and a representation of the recording venue are benefits of getting the volume right. Those, and putting the performers in their own space are additional facets which help create the right perspective on the performance.

The other thing to bear in mind is that the recording itself, with mics at a distance from the performers and at the level it was, captured the dynamics in a unique way. If we were to alter the replay characteristic of recorded volume to be either louder or quieter than the original were also going to massively distort the relationship between loud and soft. This will also alter the perspective and relative placement of instruments in the mix, as their location is largely defined by the relative loudness to other instruments. If we start playing around with the replay volume, those spatial relationship cues will all be distorted too.

The downside is that if you play any compilations you’ll probably find that each successive track has been recorded in a different way, so you almost run the danger of playing with the volume knob more than listening to the music. Yet the benefits are there to be had, and it is a skill which can be learned without too much trouble.

If you need another perspective on the above, the only other way I can try and illustrate what I mean is this: imagine you’ve taken a photograph, a long-range shot using a telephoto lens. The image is nice and sharp, but due to the nature of telephoto lenses, the apparent depth within the photograph is severely foreshortened. Think back to those shots looking down long American highways, where the cars are a slightly strange shape and the road appears to be very short (despite being many miles long). That perspective on a recording is fixed. You can try manipulating the image, but all you end up doing is distorting it.

You could try zooming in, and turning up the volume to get closer but then the perspectives within the photo will all be distorted even more. It won’t actually give you any more than the original shot. Back away too much, and you lose all sense of what the image is about. Or imagine a nice sharp close-up. Everything in sharp relief. Play that back at the right volume, and all the dynamic contrasts and aural perspectives on the recording are nicely in focus. But back the volume off too much and they lose their impact, and the perspectives get all distorted again.

Backing the volume off a bit doesn’t put you in a seat row further back, it simply destroys the clarity and immediacy of the original. Similarly, turning the volume up too much will put you right in the singers mouth, and from there everything else is lost. If you get the chance to listen critically (not just having the system on in the background) you’ll soon see how easy it is to get that aural image to come into focus, and once you’ve discovered that, a whole new listening world opens up. I’d recommend giving it a go – and as always your feedback is welcome.

Chris Beeching

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