3 steps to nirvana

January 8, 2023
 by Paul McGowan

In a recent post, Differing viewpoints, I reported that the difference between two identical systems—Octave’s mix room and PS Audio’s reference room—was big enough that I developed a new mixing routine of listening to both. I start with the closest, most intimate of the two systems—that of the mixroom—and move on to the more distant presentation of the reference room.

Now, I’ve added a third step in the process. Terri’s music system in our living room.

At each step along the way, I hear different aspects of the final product.

Step 1. The intimate view in the mixroom lets me focus on the smallest details while the big picture presentation is more difficult to experience.

Step 2. The big picture view comes into play in MR2, where it’s easier to point my focus like a laser: intimate details or pull back for overall presentation.

Step 3. The mix is finished. We press play on the PST. A glass of wine is poured, dinner is being prepared, and the music is playing on Terri’s Stellar Strata system in the living room.

This is the ultimate pull back distance from the magnifying glass inspection approach. It’s just like what happens when you order an Octave Records release.

Three steps to nirvana.

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56 comments on “3 steps to nirvana”

    1. Spot on. Whilst level 1 is where, as enthusiasts, we spend much of our time, it’s always the most unrewarding place to be. A tool to reach levels 2 and 3 but one that can be difficult to step out of. Because perfect systems, recordings and rooms don’t exist.

        1. In the absence of literal perfection, perhaps ‘audio nirvana’ is the place we should seek to reside in the figurative sense. The point at which we have chosen systems that satisfy, that we feel no need to experiment further with in terms of set up and performance optimisation and so can forget about such things and just enjoy the music.

    2. I enjoy step 2, relaxed listening the most, especially when listening to a familiar song your ear catches something and you think ‘I never noticed that before’ or ‘wow, that sounded good’. The only downside being it rarely happens more than once on any particular track, after that it just becomes normal.

      1. So now we’re commenting about two different passions… being an Audiophile and an Oenophile simultaneously. BTW…Australian wines are really excellent.

        When I lived in the town of Newcastle, a bedroom community about one hour north of NYC, during the winter months I would enjoy having a snifter or two of a vintage Port while listening to some soft, approachable music after a fine dinner. I was quite content to say the least.

  1. I assume you don’t see the 3rd step as a real step to judge the recording but as relaxing with the music, so today’s post isn’t meant literally in any way. Otherwise, I would say that a recording that is supposed to sound best in the background or even from a distant room (all 3 dimensions of sweet spot alignment compromised) would have to be mixed in a way so that it no longer sounds optimal in any other scenario.

    1. Don’t tell anyone Tony, but I really enjoy being hung from
      the ceiling of my basement by chains & leather straps,
      while my wife spanks me hard with a wooden paddle.
      However, listening to good music on a great home-
      audio rig does come in at a very close second.

      1. F R , you are just too much. LMAO. Today’s needed chuckle. Thank you so much,and I hope your day goes well. Keep up the commentary please, I enjoy it immensely.

      2. Martin, did you ever hear the story about the Sadist and the Masochist?

        The Masochist is on his knees, looking up at the Sadist and begging
        “Beat Me, Beat Me”!
        The Sadist looks down at the Masochist, smirks and replies …Nah”

  2. I guess it takes 3 steps to Nirvana…

    Most will never make it…
    They don’t get to mix in the mixing room
    They don’t get to go to MR2 to get some other perspective

    They could playback on a Stellar Strata system while making dinner and drinking wine.

    No need for FR’s – no need for BHK’s – no need for power plants- no need for the MK2 and so on.

    1/3 of the way to Nirvana is as close as most of humanity will get. But we can all take comfort in knowing Paul made it… 😀

    1. Mike, have you ever tried Vedic Meditation? Deep Meditation can bring you to a state of Nirvana that is so euphoric and keep you there even as it takes you to an even higher state of consciousness of almost unbearable happiness. It can be that powerful.

  3. Many of us I’m sure have read about studios using Yamaha NS-10 speakers in their monitor work. The story told was the mastering engineer wanted to hear what it would sound like to the average consumer, possibly even over a car stereo.

    Some folks misread that and took it to be an endorsement of Yamaha speakers. ;^)

    A few models of Yamaha may have been OK, I’m not familiar with any of them. But the NS-10 received poor reviews for home systems.

    Be careful about your reference.

    1. Back when I was supervising mixes for TV, the nearfield monitors were not the infamous NS-10s, but the various nearfield monitors used from one studio to another made me question what we were ultimately putting on tape. Of course, the final mix/balance was judged via notoriously bad speakers, the Auratones (AKA Horrortones). This was the “Terri’s living room” step in the process.

      Anyway, a mixer and I spent an afternoon with 6 different brands of nearfield monitors that his dealer kindly loaned us. I brought along a pair of “audiophile-approved” small speakers designed by a Brit (who shall remain nameless). The audiophile speakers sounded great from one sweet spot (the mixer’s seat), but the frequency response changed noticeably when off-axis or farther back. The problem was that only one person in the room heard the mix with any accuracy. When a producer would inevitably ask for a tweak to the mix, it might be the wrong thing, based purely on his or her position in the studio. (And at many studios, I would make a point to have the producer come up to the mixing desk and sit in the mixer’s seat before making final mix comments.)

      Long story short, we ended up liking Genelecs much better than all the alternatives. We all got Genelecs for our nearfield monitors, and I still like them for film/video mixing.

  4. It reminds me of voicing a concert hall pipe organ. Voice at the factory. Voice on-site listening at the console. Voice on-site listening out in the hall. Each step provides aural insight and is critical to achieving the best overall tone and balance.

  5. Three steps not quite the ‘12’ step program ‘Bill’ espoused but I digress. Paul no intermediary steps… such as ‘cans’?!
    I know FR will demure. Unless it’s an out growth if his bondage passions ; )

    As far as the validity of background music, I’ve always liked the LIAR method I.e., Listening In Another Room.

    And Paul how does your mixes sound in your (((surround sound )))) theater?

    Sound stage etc is fun, but tone, timbre and dynamics of real music takes precedence. Last nite was our symphony’s Nordic music program. It reinforced once again my goal lines of musical reproduction. IMHO.

    From row G it made plain that our stereos can only get us so far. Ymmv

    1. That’s it isn’t it, your last sentence sums it up. I’ve got my system all* finessed and sounding great. Then I go to a live concert, come home and listen again. Somehow the system doesn’t quite cut it now until hopefully, after a few days the equilibrium is restored. Because I listen a lot more at home than I go to live gigs.

      * When I say all I don’t mean completely, because it’s never really finished is it.

      1. The way I see it (and always have) is to enjoy home audio 2 channel, or surround as an entity unto itself. Just a form of entertainment is all it is.

        While the equipment can be all consuming or ear candy – the recordings can be mediocre to great – the music is what we most enjoy.

        If I ever hear a reproduction that I can’t distinguish from live then I’ll change my view point.

    2. Oh my God cvd… I’m still wiping the tears off my face from laughing at your reply, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. You’ve got a real future as the new number one comedian now that George Carlin crossed over.

  6. 3 Steps to Nirvana:

    1. Go to a vintage vinyl store.
    2. Find and purchase a copy of “Nevermind” (without too many scratches).
    3. Put it on a record player (Crosley or V.P.I., it doeth not matter).

  7. Another step: Headphones. No matter how good your system and room are, you’ll still hear things on good headphones that you didn’t catch using speakers.

    1. Nope. A good room system easily outdoes headphones; I’ve never heard anything on headphones that makes me the slightest bit interested in them – it’s very much a lesser experience.

      The big picture is that it’s much harder to evolve a speaker setup to a decent competency; headphones are comparatively easy, because they are so simple, and trivial to drive. Get a room rig working properly, and it’s so superior to anything headphones provide – it’s a slam dunk …

      1. Agreed. I never said that headphones were a better or more realistic experience than good speakers, but they are more revealing of small time domain problems (dropouts, clicks) than speakers in a room. They are also excellent for revealing low frequency problems since they can reach close to 0 Hz. They are a must for a final check before a mix goes out the door.

        1. Burmansound,
          Personally, I don’t like listening to music through cans,
          however, that’s a completely separate issue to using them
          as a tool to detect sonic details, as you have described.

    1. For my taste, analyzing Fone, Chesky and Stockfisch/Pauler as well as golden era jazz and classical recording practices would probably get one where he otherwise possibly arrives decades later..or earlier … or not at all 😉 . Format doesn’t play a role there.

      1. I’ve been collecting Chesky releases for the past several months. David Chesky knows what he’s doing for sure. Not sure about the other two labels but I have a few that I could recommend.

    1. The Buddha was taught by the Hindus.
      By practicing Vedic Meditation, you can reach Nirvana in seconds by wrapping your head around the technique without stress or strain.

  8. Nirvana is when you can interact with the playback just like a live music experience – you can be a foot away from a musician’s instrument, and be ‘drowned’ by the intensity of its sound; or hear someone playing through an open window in the distance, and know it’s the real thing. And also, be 100% engrossed in the subtlety of a single instrument’s contribution to the whole; or, treat it as a chamber ensemble providing dinner music, while you chat with your guests.

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