Unlock the Power of your Music: Dynamics, Presence and Tone
Instead of a laundry list of eccentric sonic characteristics, or worse, a checklist of mathematical measurements, I care first and foremost about music moving you.
It’s why we listen to music. And deep down, I believe it’s the same reason we seek fidelity in reproduction. Because music moves us.
So I ask: when in your life has music moved you?
No matter where you are, no matter what the situation, no matter how produced, that’s what music does. It’s a human truth.
It can happen driving down a country road in a convertible, blasting Van Halen’s “Eruption” over the sound of the wind.
It can happen hearing a child quietly singing to herself in a nearby room.
It can happen in awestruck silence, as the echo of “The Messiah” dies away, leaving only the hiss of the audience’s collective intake of breath.
It can happen standing on an empty beach at night, as the susurrus of the waves stirs you to contemplation.
Music can move you anywhere you can hear. After more than 30 years spent in audio, I now believe that the primary end of music reproduction is not to achieve perfect technical accuracy, but to amplify the innate power of music to move us emotionally. And here’s gospel for audiophiles: music can give you that experience independently of system price-point.
However, in order to fully extract the greater musical involvement available from your recordings when played on your music system, it always requires three things from your system:
When I voice systems, I focus primarily on these three key characteristics. This is of course not the only way to voice a system. But it is my way, and my clients tell me it works for them.
Below, I explain what Dynamics, Presence and Tone each bring to the listening experience, and then how I bring them to life.
Key #1: Dynamics
What do Dynamics bring to the listening experience?
Deep, lasting emotional impact. After a listening session the previous night, the next day, we should still feel the music in our souls, the way we do after live concerts.
Graceful and delicate details reproduced to their full effect. Subtle nuances show up: shadings of tone and even soundstage presentation all serve to transport the listener. Whether it’s a harp, a violin, a guitar, or any other instrument, when it’s being played softly, it invokes a sort of hushed reverence. We get greater focus and inner detail, but always serving the musical experience, never at its expense. Musical transitions should flow, not sound mechanical.
Increased energy and effortlessness. We want playback inviting at most settings, not just a narrow one between coming alive and becoming obnoxious or fatiguing. Think of it as a sort of ‘bloom’ on the sound. It’s transfixing and contagious.
How I bring Dynamics to life
Every listening room hides a treasure. If you want your music to enrich you, you have to find it first.
It’s the place where the bass is the smoothest (not necessarily where it is deepest). Sure, it has to do with acoustic wavelaunch, and the angle of this and that. Locations of components play a role, of course. But in the end, it’s about the room itself. Somewhere in every room, the bass comes alive, becoming tuneful, agile and powerful.
So I explore to find that place, a roll of gaffer’s tape in one hand, sometimes my RTA in the other. It usually works like this:
I make a general guess as to where I think the speakers might end up, and move them there. General guesses for speaker placement are good enough at this stage.
I play pink noise. Then, holding my RTA at the height of the listener’s ear, I slowly move back and forth from the listening seat toward the speakers, tracking spots where there are obvious spikes or troughs in bass frequency response.
I pick a spot where the response seems the most level, and mark the floor with tape. That’s where the listening seat goes.
Then I sit and listen, making slight adjustments in seat placement. That’s usually a matter of inches, or less. When it sounds right, I use tape to note the exact seat position.
X marks the spot. It’s the Anchor Point for all else that follows.
Having successfully voiced 800-1000 systems to rooms, it’s always been my experience, unless you get the bass at its smoothest, you’ll never be as happy as you could have been.
Key #2: Presence
What does Presence bring to the listening experience?
A powerful sense of intimacy. I expect to get the distinct impression that the performer(s) are performing expressly for me. If the sound stays over there by the speakers, without enveloping me in the experience, I have work to do.
Palpable, reach-out-and-touch-it imagery. If this isn’t happening, how can I suspend my disbelief enough to fall into the music? In a properly voiced system, human voices are anything but emaciated caricatures of the real thing. This sort of image feels as if it is inhabiting a space in the room with you.
The room disappears, and the musicians take its place, along with the space in which they performed.
For a “we are there” recording, the listener should feel virtually transported into the venue — almost as if he or she can feel the air moving in the hall. Typically this includes recordings made in concert auditoriums, and recital halls.
For a “they are here” recording, there should be the distinct feeling that the musicians have packed up their gear to come to my client’s house to perform a concert just for us. No walls, no ceilings and no speakers. You should feel this way when you listen to live concert acoustic and live concert electronic recordings.
When voiced correctly, the room reveals a vast difference between ‘they are here’ and ‘we are there’ recorded perspectives.
How I bring presence to life
I like to use tracks with interesting or powerful vocals for this work. Human voice is what we connect with most deeply. And when it’s right, you hear the full varied expression of voice, from sustained notes to the merest whisper.
Here, speaker placement is key. Usually, that means moving them further out into the listening room. Think of it this way: have you ever seen a vocal performance where the singer was pressed up against the back wall of the venue? It’s the same for speakers.
Note: If moving them further into the room negatively affects — ahem — domestic harmony, there are several tested and successful techniques (inexpensive & simple to incorporate) to address this issue to the satisfaction of all parties...
I am AMAZED at the amount of musical information that is on my favorite music that I just didn't know was there. I have smiled many times in my music room.
— Client in Houston, TX
Key #3: Tone
What does tone bring to the listening experience?
Heart-stirring sonic density. It’s hard to truly connect with the message of the music without it. Often it’s most noticeable in the sound of plucked strings and especially in the sound of violins, cellos, guitars, dobros, etc. It manifests as an unusually dense harmonic presentation, with a fuller and more prolonged decay time. It will pluck your heart strings with the right music.
Tone & Harmonics. You may have noticed that some sounds are pleasant while others are not-so-pleasant. When an instrument is played, it actually vibrates with many frequencies at the same time. Each of those frequencies produces a sound wave. Tone quality depends on the combination of different frequencies of sound waves — their fundamental frequencies, as well as their harmonics, & overtones.
This effect is perhaps more subjective than Presence. But it is nonetheless vital to get right — for your taste. We will work to get it (as did the musicians on your recordings), and we will use some reference music recordings to get us there. Some people refer to Tone as the general atmosphere of the recording venue, or even the mood of the musical performance. In our case, Tone is all about the timbre of instruments and voices.
I have long thought that — in some installations — Tone can just about carry the entire aspect of musical engagement. When Dynamics and Presence have been addressed, adding great Tone to the mix is a fantastic recipe for breaking through those sound barriers that we all have erected from time to time.
How I bring Tone to life
Once I have Dynamics and Presence in good shape, tone becomes a function of making slight physical adjustments to three characteristics:
Speaker angle. With a few exceptions, they should neither be aimed straight ahead nor pointed at the listener. It’s usually somewhere about halfway between.
Speaker separation. Yes, there are formulas out there people use. So that I don’t appear to be overly negative on this topic, let me say that I prefer to listen and adjust them until they are musically involving, rather than numerically correct but musically boring.
Listener height vs. speaker height. Turns out that both chairs and humans come in different dimensions, and that impacts tone. Easily addressed, often for no expense at all!
When It's All Said, Sung and Done
My clients know that when I voice a system, I work until I’m done. Could be several hours; often it can be a full day – sometimes longer. The good news is that there’s only one goal to reach so that I unequivocally know when the project is complete…
Does the music speak to me? Does it move me?
It’s only when I find myself falling into music that I have heard thousands of times that I know that I’m done.