Holding back

September 23, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

While over the weekend I had the pleasure of spending time in Music Room Two and the IRS auditioning some new Octave releases. The producer and audio engineer, Scott, had worked hard on one particular complex mix and it was sounding amazing.

Then it happened. Buried just beneath the other instruments rumbled in a low synth note. I cocked my head and listened again. There it was buried under the other notes.

“Was the synth an afterthought?” I asked.

“No,” said Scott, “it’s the foundation of the track called Caves. It’s showing the depths of the cave.”

“I can barely hear it.”

“I was holding back.”

For years Scott and other engineers have more often than not been holding back deep subterranean bass notes (no, not the higher frequency ones we hear rattling the cars next to us in modern synth music).

Turns out the reason recordists and mixers held back was the limitations of most playback systems the average track will be reproduced on.

When I told him to forget all that and let it rip, to bathe us all in the glory of the lowest frequencies washing over the room, his face lit up from ear to ear.

“We’re audiophiles!” I explained. “We spend thousands to reproduce all the notes from the lowest to the highest. Do not in any way hold back!”

It’s a real eye and ear opener being in the middle of a recording studio.

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59 comments on “Holding back”

  1. Subterranean bass is not a note. It is synthetic sound. To this listener it is unpleasant as well as being unnatural. My speakers go down to 31hz -3db and that works great for me. Others may like the earth to move.

    1. For those who want to listen to earthquakes or any kind of subterranean bass there are headphones as a Stax SR-X9000 (specified: 5 Hz to 42 kHz) going far lower than any giant active subwoofer tower weighting some hundreds pounds. But maybe it is not about listening but feeling including having the walls and furniture shaking – as commonly found for some car stereo guys?

      1. The manufacturer specified a room average response. I’ve not yet measured myself, as the furnishing is not complete and the positioning hasn’t been done properly.

        1. Ok that’s interesting…I always thought what speaker manufacturers specify is measured response in an acoustically dead, defined test environment, as there’s no average room and even if it was, there’s no average position for the speakers and every variation would give greatly different results.

          Finally you might have earthshaking bass even with a speaker just going down to 40Hz, but being positioned, so with resonances it goes down to 25 Hz. No you might have serious problems with too much bass with a slightly more bass potent speaker on the other hand. Or you might need a sub to even go down to 40 Hz. I just want to say, all matter of room+speaker (of any kind) if you have balanced, too little or too much deep bass.

          1. In their literature they explain that moving the speaker backwards forwards will affect the bass response and soundstage, and my dealer will be coming round to do that. I assume the average room response is measured after their set-up procedure has been carried out.

            I have moved from firing the speakers across quite a large space open at the sides and back to firing down a smaller space that is well damped with books, records, furniture, a rug, suspended ceiling and “Acoustiwall”.

            My initial impressions are that I enjoy the smaller enclosed space. I have a subwoofer that I had used in the past, but there is now no need for it at all.

  2. Others may like the earth to move…Right now Fat Rat and his fellow countrymen not so much.
    Like I wrote a few posts ago, my new speakers go down to 40 Hz. And that’s a LOT of base in MUSIC.
    Certainly more than enough in most average-sized LIVING ROOMS. I’m not talking about concert halls.
    Deeper than that only causes nasty room modes, resulting in very boomy sound. Unless you have a roomful of bass traps etc. But who wants that…?
    Answer : incurable bass addicts. We all know one.

  3. I think the art of a mix or mixing in general should be understood that it can be tastefully done. Some parts have to be subtle and primarily myself being an avid headphone listener if I heard all those little wispy bass notes amped up a bit more in the mix it would eventually get annoying. Honestly, for me it would especially on a headphone or speaker system that has a very bass centric sound signature.

    Overall though I get the appeal, but the true art of mixing is a balancing act and if you lean too much into one side you’ll have to take away or add more to the other to compensate.
    That “holding back” is truly part of Scott’s and Gus’s craft. 🙂

    1. I quite agree. A thundering full on assault can be impressive as as ‘hotel’: shock and awe. But a little subtle finessing can weave it’s own special magic on the imagination. That barely audible rumbling could do more to suggest the stygian depths of the cave in the mind’s eye than an avalanche that would bury it. As you said: “art” and “balancing”.

      Of course, not being there to hear it for ourselves, this is just hearsay. The -say part without the hear-.

  4. Deep bass can be the foundation for a lot of music. It can also be the bane of music reproduction in most home environments, as per jb4’s above comment.

    How was that deep synthesizer bass captured? A whopping huge instrument amplifier with monstrous drivers or a direct box going into the mixing console that no one actually hears except for a hint over the musicians’ session headphones and the studio monitors? And a bit more in Music Room Two.

    I recall someone trying do describe the experience of witnessing the launch of the Space Shuttle. He said imagine the exhaust pipes of a big Harley-Davidson with the throttle rolled all the way back pointed at your chest from about a foot away, only tuned an octave lower. You want bass? Be careful what you ask for. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-hah!

    And so to bed.

    1. Good morning Confused Steven!
      I was very young when I started out producing records for other people.
      But right up to that time, I didn’t really understand what that bass thing was all about.
      But the first time that I got to get upon stage with musicians and superstar singers, I was only a 10 year old boy.
      But when I both heard and felt the bass kickdrum and bass guitar, there was some kind of a rush that came over me.
      But sense that day, I have been trying to figure out how to make any stereo system I got my hands on, reproduce those very low bass notes.
      I quickly learned that some systems can do that job, better then others.
      At the time, I was only looking at the speakers.
      And it was about that time I met the leader of World Class Racking Crew.
      Dr. Dre told me that, “you have to look at more then just the speakers, you have to look at the amplifiers too.”
      At the time, I didn’t know anything about tech specs.
      I still don’t really understand much of that today, 39 years later.
      But I did learn the hard way, the specs don’t tell you much of anything.
      But your ears will, you just have to turn the thing on, and listen to it.
      That’s where the real true story is.

  5. Back in the ‘vinyl only’ days how woeful was the bass response coming out of your loudspeakers because of the limitations of that storage medium.
    Subterranean bass is only going to stress the 5″ mid/bass drivers in your shoebox standmounters, & possibly cone break-up, if you like to play canned music at above realistic sound pressure levels through them; which some listeners do.
    Then buy bigger loudspeakers!

    Paul’s right.
    If you are producing an audiophile grade recording then it is incumbent on the purchaser/listener to have home audio equipment that can reproduce said audiophile grade recording properly.

    ‘jb4′ makes a very practical point about the average Joe’s (hi Joe) room size vs sub-bass notes.
    Because of my 18’x13’x8.5’ size listening room, I really don’t need to go lower than the 32Hz that is quoted by the manufacturer of my floorstanders, especially when you’ve got an amp with a high damping factor that properly controls your bass drivers.

    1. It is a surprise that we have almost exactly the same size rooms and use speakers that go down almost exactly the same level?

      Maybe this recording should have a label on the front: “If your audio system doesn’t go down to 20Hz, don’t buy this product”.

      1. Surprise; maybe.
        Coincidence; definitely.
        Some sub-bass ‘tones’ can go down to 12hz.

        Batsmen are now Batters.
        If only our men could play the game as well as our women.
        Aussie women’s team have won 25 on the trot.

  6. A power amp may have a high damping factor and a “firm grip” on the speakers, but at the same time it does NOT have a firm grip on the resonances that exist in the room and affect (especially) the low-frequency.
    That’s the problem wiht very low bass.
    Oh well, bass junkies cannot live without this rumble.
    IMO they should go into bass rehab….and they’d still have the opportuniy to write a daily post 🙂

  7. At the SPL level you are speaking of and the massive agitation of the basilar membrane at low frequencies it is difficult to say what you are truly hearing.

    And if so for how long will one tolerate such sound presentation?

    Does anyone listen to music?

    Does anyone have interest in the interpretation of music as a function of
    Who is performing?

    From the discussions here my conclusion is :
    Why even plug the system into the wall socket provided you have a receptacle
    That cleans the current !

    After many years I just figured out how I enjoy audio transmission vs gazing on an investment!

    LR

  8. Several responses here, in predictable cognitive dissonance-reducing Boomer fashion, effectively ignored Paul’s points, and instead defended their own personal systems for which they have chosen for reasons of cost or aesthetics not to purchase loudspeakers capable of reproducing the full audio frequency range. Instead of simply honestly acknowledging this they reflexively defend their own decisions, arguing that no one needs to be able to reproduce frequencies lower than [fill in the blank for the -3dB point of their personal, compromised, non-full-range loudspeakers] because anything lower in frequency is “unpleasant,” unnatural,” “nasty room nodes,” “boomy sound,” and requires “bass rehab.”

    One does not have to be “an incurable bass addict” to want to reproduce frequencies below 31Hz, 32Hz, 40Hz. One simply has to be an intellectually honest audiophile to want to reproduce frequencies below these non-full-range speaker specifications.

    1. Good morning Ron!
      I gather, that you didn’t pay too close attention to my post.
      Because if you did, then you would have known that, I spent more then 39 years trying to make every system I got my hands on, reproduce everything that I hear when I’m on stage with live musicians and singers.
      You have to have full range, and I mean complete full range speakers to get all of that.
      I also told you all, that I really don’t fully understand the tech specs on both speakers and amplifiers either.
      But if you have a pare of speakers that goes up as high as 550KHZ and as low as 10HZ, then the only thing to do, is make your amplifiers match up with your speakers.
      But I found that the amps and preamps won’t do it all by themselves.
      You have to have some kind of equalization in order to get to that.
      But also, I’m under the understanding that, most audiophiles don’t like equalizers either.
      But I’ve always wondered why don’t they like them.
      Is it because they don’t know how to set them up properly?
      Or is it the way that equalizers are designed?
      Or else, is there something else going on with them that makes most audiophiles frown upon them?
      Someone on here, please clue me in about this, I don’t care who!
      Please just do it!
      Because, every recording studio that I’ve ever been in, all of them have one thing in common.
      They all use some kind of equalization.
      Trust me, I’ve been in a lot of them.
      Even the ones I’ve worked in, in the UK.

      1. Hi John,

        Your appreciation for recording and reproduction of the very bottom frequencies came through loud and clear! FWIW, don’t believe Ron’s “anti-low-bass” rant was aimed at you! 😉

        Equalizers – Humm, can’t speak for other audiophiles, but I tried a 12-band graphic equalizer for my home audio system for a week 40 years ago (no recording or pro sound reinforcement). After trying to set (by ear) a consistent balanced bandwidth response in my listening room with all of my different genre of music and wide variety of good to bad recordings, I was ready for the Nut House! WAY to many variables to reset for Every cut on Each album! Arrrggggggg #@%^&*!

        Thus, my goal became with Stereo Hi-Fi components, speakers and room acoustics, to get a synergistic natural balance in my listening positions and minimize the distractions and added distortions of equalizer adjustments!

        Ted

        1. Good morning Ted!
          I had to sleep on this subgect before I replied to it.
          But anyhow, here it is.
          I’m kind of wondering, if that 12band eq you had, had any variable gain controls on it?
          Because if it did, perhaps you could have tried turning them down a litttle.
          In the case of my Mcintosh MQ-107 equalizer, I ran in to the same exact problem.
          But when I reduced the gain, I got rid of the distortion.
          Just a thought I came up with, over night.

          1. Hi John,

            Thanks for the info! From what I recall, no, the equalizer did not have variable gain controls. Without the know how, test equipment instruments or experience, I just brought it back to the B&M store for a refund!! 🙁

            1. Good morning Ted!
              I don’t know when you made an attempt to use an equalizer, but I wish I could have been there.
              Granted that, I didn’t use any test tools except for my ears, but I do believe I could have helped you get it all straitened out.
              And then, you would have never bought an equalizer for not.

  9. Drag racing…what’s not to like about it ? Well, everything !
    Why oh why would you go there, to me one of the big mysteries of the world.
    So I guess I’ll never hear “bone ratting bass”. Lucky me. As always YMMV.

    Larry02 :
    FYI, this IS an audiophile site. We are not interested in music. For that you have to go to a music site.
    We just wanna gaze at our expensive audio “investment”. And sometimes brag about it.
    And since you mention it, I, for one, have only 3 receptacles in my house : one for the washing machine, one for the fridge and one for a coffee machine.
    I guarantee you there is nothing better than watch your amplifier (mono blocks double the pleasure) and in the meantime have a fresh cup of coffee, with the deep humming (bass !) of the washing machine in the background 🙂
    It’s so nice to be an audiophile.

      1. Alanjett,
        Seeing as no one else has jumped in to let you know YMMV is an abbreviation for ‘your mileage may vary’ as in you might find differently.

        jb4’s post, as is frequently the case, raises a broad smile, which, for the avoidance of doubt, I see as a good thing 🙂

    1. jb4, I guess I am proving your point about “as always YMMV”. How can anyone not love
      drag racing? The pure competitive beauty of it, you lay it all on the line, whoever gets from one end to the other first wins. Pure and simple!

      1. Yes tonyplachy, you are proving my point, even twice today.
        Drag racing is one and then “I have two S7’s and 750 Watts per channel to drive them”.
        Confirms what I wrote about in my “serious” 6:35 comment (“And sometimes brag about it”).

        1. jb4, You might one to check out my 11:52 AM post. I realize my “S7 and 750 W” was out of line. My definition of an audiophile is someones who loves music and also wants it to sound good when he plays it on his home system.

          1. tonyplachy,
            Since you brought it up (11:39 “I guess I am proving your point”) I couldn’t resist mentioning what I wrote about bragging in my “serious” 6:35 comment.
            But, don’t take this seriously, since I did not mean it seriously. Just kiddin’.
            Like I wrote some time ago, I think you own wonderful audio stuff. I listened to it on several shows.
            Nothing wrong in mentioning that on occasion. Not “out of line” at all as far as I am concerned.
            I am curious and like to read and see (the photo’s) what others have, whether it’s a setup of 1,500, 15,000 or 150,000.
            And fair’s fair, you win. My ML amp only has 600 watt (4 ohm) 🙂
            But right now it’s in the repair shop and I have to make do with a Cyrus class D amp on loan until the ML is back.
            And I do get the bass “thing”, but I also stand by what I said about that in average-sized rooms.
            But if and when the room acoustically is cooperating with the sound, then speakers like (e.g.) yours or Wilson Audio can sound glorious, including the bass.

            1. jb4, ML makes great amps, I hope you get yours back soon.

              You are so right about speaker size and room size. My audio system is in a room that is 9250 cu. ft. It is our living room with an elevated dinning area in one corner. Before I got my current system I had a pair of Audio Physic Virgo III’s and two REL subwoofers. I drove the main speakers with a pair of c-j P12 tube amps ( 140 W per channel ). It was nice but it just always seemed a little weak. I sold the Virgo III’s and one of the subwoofers to a good friend who has them in a room is about 30% the size of my room. He drives them with a 200 W per channel SS amp. They sound spectacular, better than they ever did in my room.

  10. A lot of my music genre contains sub audible bass in the bandwidth of the recorded music (pipe organ, orchestral, some synthesizer). Much of it is the fundamental tones that I feel, making music Real and Live! IMHO, Full Range Reproduction = High Fidelity!!

    Bring on the FR30 and stand Monitor\Powered Sub systems…I want/need the FULL 20Hz to 20K Hz Baby!!! 😉

    Ted

  11. It reminds me of how some of the world’s largest and finest pipe organs sneak in one or two digital stops to expand the tonal range of the organ. For example, the Salt Lake City Mormon Tabernacle Organ, I was told by a local organ service technician, has a deep pedal bass stop that is predominantly digitally sourced and plays through loudspeakers. You won’t find that information in the published organ specifications.

    1. Good morning JosephLG!
      Your post, reminds me of what a worker at Peavey Electronics said to me, over the phone 21 years ago.
      I was asking about the impedance loads that their Peavey 2000 power amp could handle.
      I told him that someone at a loco music store here in Lake City, told me thatt rather you’re running it in stereo, or bridging it in to a large mono block, that you can put a 2-ohm load on it.
      The guy at Peavey electronics told me thatt, “UL won’t allow us to print that in any of our manuals and or on our products.”
      But I thought, “ok, so, how do you expect anyone to use a large bank of speakers on an amp like that, if you don’t really know how stable the amp is gonna be with a really low impedance load on it?”
      Go figure this one!

  12. An especially uplifting post today. It’s getting hard to find good news to start the morning these days…looking forward to experiencing those caves. It matters not if the low note is natural, manmade, synthetic or instrumental if you enjoy it. And those thundering sub frequencies can often be the difference between hearing the music with your ears and having the musical experience thrust upon you through your entire body. Like a concert. I remember attending one of the my first rock concerts that had the body shaking bottom end and thinking “I wanna recreate THAT in my home!” Not quite there, but pretty dang close – close enough the give me those same chills. Under The Sun by Highasakite is my latest go-to track for that chill effect. I’d like to experience that track in music room two. There’s the spine chill, and then there’s the scalp tingle… THAT’s why we do what we do.

  13. Hey! Thank you for this invaluable information. When I saw the launch of the Space Shuttle, someone described the event for me. His suggestion was to picture the exhaust pipes lying flat with the throttle rolled all the way back, set approximately an octave lower. Good bass! sublingual CBD

  14. I am going to suggest ( and I do not mean to step on anyone’s toes here ) that some may be confusing the desire for full extension tight musical bass in their reproduction of music with a desire for what I call typical home theater ( HT ) bass. HT bass often haunts audio shows where you are in one room tying to evaluate how musical a given piece of gear is and in the next room they are demonstrating their Godzilla subwoofer by playing some crash, smash, bam movie with the volume set at 90+ dB SPL. This is not what I consider good audiophile bass.

  15. I’ll never forget exiting Boston Symphony Hall after a wonderful performance of Saint Saens Symphony #3. While walking down the staircase, one gentleman mentioned to another, “I never realized the organ was used in the first two movements.”
    The low notes felt like a relaxing, full-body massage. The hall purred like a giant feline.
    If you’ve never felt it, you haven’t fully experienced the symphony.
    And you have no idea what you’ve been missing.

  16. Odd how Paul’s posts sometimes parallel issues I have, it happens more than one would consider statistically normal. A couple of days ago I noticed an odd sound coming from my left sub. It doesn’t occur with most music only tracks with sustained bass under about 35 Hz. I’ve been too tired to find the problem but this morning my body demanded a day off from pool house destruction so I slept in and I’m currently getting my caffeine level to saturation in preparation for taking the offending unit apart. I suspect damping material has somehow come in contact with the speaker cone.

    One of the things I enjoy doing to non audiophiles is playing tones no one can hear. I put a 20 Hz signal thru my system and watch their faces as they see my subs pumping away but they can’t hear a thing!

    Todays post reminded me of the liner notes for Boston’s track The Launch on their Third Stage Album…remove the breakable objects from tables and shelves before listening.

    FR and jb4 Thanks for the laughs today! I needed them.

    OHT

  17. One of my few times in a Radio Shack store years ago, I asked the sales clerk if he could please turn the volume of the music down, that the bass was deafening and all distorted. He responded, “Can you repeat what you said, only a little louder?” I moved closer to and shouted into his ear: “Can you please turn the volume of the music down? The bass is distorted and killing me.” He then replied, “Really? I can’t even hear it.” I could not stand it any longer and immediately left the store.

  18. Totally off topic. There was a mass shooting event at a Kroger in Collierville, TN near Memphis earlier today. I won’t go into the gruesome details, but shades of King Soopers in Paul’s own Boulder, CO. A 20 year old gas/petrol station attendant in Germany was murdered by an irate customer a couple days ago because the perp refused to wear a face mask as per local regulations. Way too much bad craziness.

    I need some soothing music.

  19. The Greiner & Eggers survey of CDs published in the 1989 AES Journal showed that common genres except organ music have a spectrum with a high pass at 80Hz or above. This actually corresponds to how most music sounds. 80Hz has a 12 ft wavelength, and there are no human powered instruments with a radiating area this large, leading to low coupling efficiency to air in the bottom two octaves. Horns can increase the coupling with a pressure to velocity acoustic transformer, so tubas and bass trombones are a little louder in the contrabass register. Bass saxes and contrabass clarinets have attenuated fundamentals.

    BUT, there are musical signals that are perfectly audible in subwoofer territory: the envelopes of bass notes. Rhythmic bass instruments that start and stop abruptly (rectangular modulation envelope) have frequency components in the single digits, and even lay people can hear when these are attenuated, or more commonly, when the woofer/subwoofer resonance frequency or frequencies (vented) stores energy and releases it. This produces anharmonic response at the speaker resonance, which is rarely in tune with the music.

    To combat this problem (which is rife in vented studio monitors), recording engineers attenuate the bass or reduce the abruptness of bass notes starting and stopping to keep the bass from sounding “muddy”.

    Another frequent case of “holding back” is in the top octave. There are occasional peaks of +18dB there, but 1″ domes with or without horns will not reproduce them. Recording engineers also edit these out by compression, EQ, mixing them down, ‘warmer’ mic (U87, ribbon), pointing the mic off axis, or distancing the mic. etc.

    I love the work of Norbert Rodenkirchen in Sequentia and Dialogos, when he plays a swan bone flute (oldest known musical instrument). It is smaller and sharper than a piccolo, and is an excellent reference for testing tweeters. At one HE Show I requested this in the Weiss Engineering room, they had speakers with all ceramic diaphragms. Having heard Rodenkirchen several times live in medium sized rooms, I can affirm that this was the best reproduction I have heard – and it cleared the room in ten seconds. I grinned at the presenter, and he smiled back – the others weren’t his client base, and he knew he got me.

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