DPT: Three Critical Steps To Maximize Musical Engagement

It was about 7 years ago. I was voicing a system to his room for a Get Better Sound owner. Not sure if I had started calling these sessions RoomPlay yet.

Anyway, he had seen & heard me voice his system and liked the results very much. Later that evening, he asked me to identify the steps that he had just witnessed. Amazingly, though I knew exactly the desired outcomes for which I was voicing, I had never thought of discussing a description of them with anyone. Nor had I even assigned a name for them for myself!   

 Sheesh!!! This was after something like 700 systems I had successfully voiced to rooms!

But as I thought about it, I realized that it was actually fairly simple to come up with a descriptor/name (though not so simple to achieve the results in practice). I finally explained to him that I have always voiced for Dynamics, Presence, & Tone (these days, I often say DPT).

Dynamics

Composers & musicians employ dynamic contrasts in music.  Why?  To get your attention musically.  To make an emotional point.

For our topic concerning Dynamics, we will consider the most obvious offender – the boundary dependent bass region (say from 25-250 Hz).

We will consider Dynamics in the room to be built on achieving the best bass performance.  Of course room reflections and other concepts can affect dynamics, but getting the bass as best as it can be will always produce the biggest impact, not so much because bass note irregularities are annoying, but because these colorations have a major impact on musical dynamics…

Therefore, For our purposes regarding Dynamics, “best bass” is not the deepest, but the smoothestWe want to minimize peaks (which mask the true difference in recorded dynamics) and bass suck-outs (which minimize the true difference in recorded dynamics).

(Edited excerpt from Copper Issue 15) “Dynamics are essential in order to have the music “pluck your heartstrings”.  That’s why the current overuse of compression (of dynamics) in recordings is so damaging – but hey, that’s another topic…

Here, we are discussing the effects of bass peaks and dips in your playback system.  The peaks destroy dynamic range as they were never intended to be there.  They mask musical dynamic subtleties in the recording that are meant by the musician to be heard, but you can’t fully experience them, as they are overshadowed by the excessive bass (often referred to as boomy bass).

The same lack of dynamics is true (but for a different reason) whenever there are dips in the bass frequency response.  These dips detract from the music’s intended impact and definitely diminish its intended dynamics, and sadly, sometimes in a major fashion.

I have heard too many systems that – depending on the frequency – were almost missing some bass notes, while other notes were booming away. Both bass anomalies detract from the music’s dynamic contrasts, with a potentially far greater effect than those that may occur elsewhere in the midrange and treble.

Please understand that we are not considering uneven speaker response.  We are concentrating on the room resonances that all rooms have, based on the room’s dimensions.  Peaks in bass frequency response are additive resonances and dips are subtractive.

Of course, various components have varying dynamic capabilities.  But this is not about evaluating components – it’s about transforming the musical effects of the components that you have now.

Since all rooms suffer from these issues, how can we overcome them?  While some may wish to immediately employ electronic EQ and Room Correction (another upcoming topic in this series), I have found that it’s always best to first smooth out the bass response in an organic fashion (meaning working with the room rather than against it), rather than immediately resorting to using electronic EQ and/or Room Correction.

In a recent issue of Copper (#17), I discussed Dynamics & listening position to achieve the smoothest bass.

Presence

 Presence is the next critical issue after Dynamics have been addressed (IMO).

I will say that many audiophiles set up their systems for pinpoint imaging. Honestly speaking I don’t follow that thinking or that path. In my experience, when it is followed as the ultimate goal, it negatively affects Presence & Tone. However, if an audiophile especially values the “audiophile sound effects” capability of his/her system, pinpoint imaging is the better way to go.

When I am voicing for Presence & Tone, and it is finally as good as I can get it, the result is always dramatically more musical satisfaction. In fact, I only stop when I finally realize that I am falling into the music while listening to songs from my voicing playlist that I have heard thousands of times!

 Why would we devote valuable resources to improving our audio systems, only to get a result that diminishes the effort?  I have witnessed this event occur in thousands of systems over the years, almost without fail, unless an “intervention” occurs.  What are the culprits, and how can they be replaced with a musically engaging outcome?

 Our reference needs resetting. 

Whichever component or system that can produce a ‘bigger soundstage’, or more ‘precise imaging’, or ‘darker backgrounds’, or more ‘bass slam’, or more ‘crystalline treble’, or more ‘air’, greater ‘inner detail’ (such as cash registers ringing in live clubs, chairs creaking, performers breathing, or a combination of several of these sorts of sonic artifacts), etc., it becomes the new reference.  But once the audiophile has experienced these sound effects for a while, then it’s off to see if another component or system can do it better.

By the way, I am not criticizing those who follow this path. Indeed, there are similar paths in other avocations. For example, I have known photography hobbyists who owned lots of expensive camera bodies and lenses, but they had no real collection of interesting photos.

For our audio-related purposes, I want to suggest a path that might ultimately be more musically rewarding…

 We will identify three main types of Presence.  Of course, the actual types of Presence could be infinite in number, but when we get these three effectually operating, the effect of listening to music being performed in your room is powerful, intellectually and emotionally.

Although I teach/demonstrate this critical factor in RoomPlay Reference sessions here in Atlanta, as well as voice for Presence on RoomPlay voicing sessions, I admit to incorrectly assuming that everyone knows about it. I should know better, since no system that I have ever voiced reproduced this aspect correctly on initial evaluation.

Really, properly reproduced Presence is continuous and there are no definite types. But in an attempt to simplify it, I break them down into three types – Concert Hall, Recital, and Intimate. When I believe that these three are working, the final listening test I perform to check my results requires that I have nailed the set-up, as a famous performer will move through several Presence types during the recording, and at all times it should seem uncanningly real, as if the performer is literally slowly stepping back some distance and finally turning his head as he sings, looking at the famous female singer as she is about to sing. In other words, the room has transformed into the concert hall – and in an utterly believable manner.

Concert Hall Presence can briefly be described as the eery feeling that vocals or instruments are arrayed at the front end of the room, well behind the speakers. No sound of any kind should appear to emanate from the speakers. It should sound very much alive. Very Present in the room, though distant, as if we have been transported to the hall.

Recital Presence presents the performers on a stage or in an area behind the speakers, but always much closer. It also delineates between the relative positions of the performers, again sounding very much alive and Present. I use the term Recital because it feels as if I’m sitting in a Recital Hall, enjoying a wonderful musical performance.

Intimate Presence is when a vocalist/ performer appears between – and sometimes even slightly ahead – of the speaker plane. It’s as if they have packed up their gear to come over and perform in your room. They are IN your room. The effect is almost unnerving as it definitely sounds as if they are alive and performing between your speakers.  This effect is primarily due to the mic placement that the recording engineer has employed.

As I mentioned above, when I evaluate a system, the ultimate test of properly reproduced Presence in a room is the recording I mentioned above, where the vocalist moves around as he sings, and walks through several layers of Presence as he does so.

When Presence is reproduced correctly, the resulting sound is musically engaging in a powerful manner.  If that is what you want to achieve, read on…

Presence has different meanings for people, musicians especially. So we need to understand what I mean when I use the term here. For me, there are three primary aspects of Presence.

First, Presence in a music playback system is the uncanny feeling that either the musicians have packed up their gear to come play at my house, or else I have somehow transported into their performing venue.

When you encounter this sensation, it transforms your attention to the performance. The loudspeakers are gone, and you are in the midst of this palpable performance.

Second, the music has an ease, an effortlessness, a live quality. In other words, the music itself escapes the confines of a sound system or a room and it is simply suspended in time and space in front of you. This is not the same as soundstaging, but the two concepts are related, in that when you get the presence nailed, the soundstaging comes along as a bonus.

Third, there’s a palpability to the music, and this effect is related to what some audiophiles call focus. In this case, it’s the illusion of being able to reach out and touch the musicians and their instruments.

Increased Presence is most commonly achieved by bringing the speakers further into the room. If there are room aesthetics to be considered, locate & record the optimum speaker location, and use that when you want to experience what you paid for.  And by all means, put them back in place when you are done!  🙂

Tone

This effect is perhaps more subjective than Presence.  But it is nonetheless vital to get right – for your musical enjoyment.

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 mainly about the timbre of instruments and voices.

I have long thought that 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 have all erected from time to time.

Tone usually describes a certain sound or frequency, pitch, or timbre; venue atmosphere; or even the mood and attitude of a person who is speaking, singing, or playing music. All of these aspects—and more—are combined in the tone we want to achieve with our music systems.

For me, great Tone is exemplified by instruments and voices that have that natural weight and richness that we hear live.

Why do we care about it?

Tone seems to be one of the biggest instigators of emotional response. Unfortunately, most systems I hear are notably deficient in this area. It’s always possible to raise a system’s tone quotient—something well worth doing—but not until you have addressed dynamics and presence.

How do we get it without changing components??

Tone is primarily related to loudspeaker placement, separation, toe-in, and often, some form of elevation or time alignment.

Assuming that you have achieved improved Presence, and without going into way too much detail, Tone can be negatively affected by loudspeaker separation.  Too much (often to achieve pinpoint imaging), and the sound thins out, losing tonal richness.

A general rule for separation – depending on the speaker and the room – has shown a good starting point for “Y” to be about 80% of “X”, plus or minus about 5%.  For our purposes, “Y” is the distance from the center of the left tweeter to the center of the right tweeter.  “X” is the distance from the seated listener’s ear to the tweeter.

If you want a little more Presence & Tone, try bringing the speakers slightly closer together.  Listen and make further adjustments to your taste.

Toe-in can make a big impact on Tone – adjust to your taste.

Loudspeaker elevation, listener height, and loudspeaker tilt (where needed – forward or backward) can make a significant effect on Tone.  For that matter, certain room treatments are very effective in this area, though I never install them until I pretty much know where the speakers and listening seat will be located.

That’s my intro to DPT.  Hope you can use it for greater musical satisfaction!

 

Next up – The ACK Attack and You– we will begin addressing some of those Audiophile Common Knowledge (ACK) issues that were listed in Issue #12…

You can read Jim’s work at his website. www.getbettersound.com