What Are The Physical Limits Of Sound?

The physical nature of sound is something that we don't really consider too often. And that's not surprising when you think about it – if you're using a virtual analogue synth in a DAW, there is no 'physical' to speak of. It's just fun; turn the dials, you can't really go wrong with it. And anyway, the physics of sound is a dry and technical subject. But sometimes you need to take it into account when you're writing and producing – because ultimately music will played in a physical space. where real people are listening. And if you don't bear in a mind a few key pointers, the track you've slaved over could sound very different to what you intended! So let's run down a few of these main areas that you need to be aware of when mixing and producing...

 

Playing The Stereo Field

It's important to have a good stereo spread when you're mixing down. This keeps things interesting for the listener, and gives the various parts of your track some space to breathe. But in the world of bars, clubs and festivals, the PA systems can vary enormously – sometimes the left and right speakers will be at opposite ends of a room, sometimes even in different rooms entirely! This is a poor arrangement but quite common, and it means that if you've panned something hard, half the crowd won't be able to hear it. This also goes for things that move around a lot, perhaps with an auto-pan – if your spacey FX is zooming from one end of the room to the other, that's great. But your euphoric piano breakdown? Not so much. To avoid any major issues here, make sure the important stuff – kicks, snares, basslines and so on – are panned reasonably centrally.

 

Playing The Mono... Field

You've probably heard this one before, but it becomes especially important to make sure that your mix works in mono if there's a chance your track will be heard out in a bar or club – because again, club systems are unpredictable and are often in mono. You don't want to pick that moment to discover that your bassline disappears when it's summed to mono!

 

Cutting To Vinyl

Talking of summing basslines to mono, it's particularly important to be aware of this if your tune may end up on vinyl. Vinyl doesn't handle stereo bass at all well, and you need to keep it in mono if at all possible. Indeed, pretty much anything below 250 or 300 Hz should be quite central just to be on the safe side. In many cases, a mastering engineer may well just mono the entire mix below 300Hz. So make sure you're happy with the mix both in mono and stereo!

 

Bass – How Low Can You Go?

We're pretty sure that Chuck D wasn't thinking of the frequency response of a club PA system when he wrote that line. But he should consider it next time he's mixing down a tune, because if you use bass notes that are too low, they may simply drop off the bottom of the system. It's all very well going for the deepest sub-bass you can conjure up, but if the sound system in the club can't handle it, the track will just sound like it doesn't have any bass on it at all. And that's pretty embarrassing. So you should make sure that the lowest note in your bassline is somewhere around F1, or about 43Hz. A good system may go below this, but even average systems will still be able to handle it.

 

Summing and Redlining

One of the great things about modern DAWs is that their digital technology means they're incredibly forgiving. The lack of internal hiss means people can get away with all sorts of crazy effects, and the advent of 32bit floating point calculations meant that you could push your channel fader way beyond 0dB and the computer will sort it all out for you – so long as you pull the master fader down. But out in clubland, most mixers will certainly not thank you for this kind of treatment. Redline the channels on a DJ mixer as hard as you might on a DAW and you'll quickly end up with a distorted mess that hurts everyone's ears. We've seen DJs do this who are clearly experienced enough to know better, and it wasn't pleasant. So when playing out or mixing down on a real desk, make sure you keep your gain structure in check and don't smash the channels!

None of these things are hugely complex in their own right, but all of them could have the power to make your music sound poor if you don't give them due care and attention. So make sure you take them into account when you're writing, and your tracks should sound as good in the club as they do at home!

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