The power of monitors

May 8, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

Not until we got deeply immersed in the building of a state-of-the-art recording label, Octave Records did it occur to us just how important the recording/mixing monitors are to the final outcome.

Consider that every single decision made in any recording is 100% determined by ear. No measurement arguments live here.

If the guitar sounds too bright or loud it is adjusted to sound right. If the vocalist sounds buried in the music the band’s level is modified to sound right.

Every single decision in a recording is by ear.

How it sounds is entirely in the hands of the monitoring system via the loudspeakers and the room they are playing in.

When you listen to a recording you are as if in a Star Trek-style Teleporter. You’re hearing what the mix engineer heard and adjusted for.

While this may be to some so obvious as to be trivial, it is to me a revelation with major consequences.

Octave Records will soon release two new albums: a Spanish-styled acoustic wonder called the Everlasting Dance, and a new compilation, Audiophile Masters VI.

These two new releases will be the first mixed and mastered on the FR30. And the difference between these two releases and all the others is remarkable.

The recordings were made in DSD on the Sonoma as we have done in the past.

What’s different is the monitoring system. Now, with the FR30s, we can hear so deeply into the music that the decisions we make have major implications on the final outcome of the music.

I can’t wait for you to hear for yourself what I am writing about.

We’ll release them in a week or so.

Stay tuned for something extraordinary.

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35 comments on “The power of monitors”

  1. Not sure how easy it will be to hear the effect of monitors when the basis is different groups/music recorded with probably different mic placement and settings, maybe even different mics.

    Can you describe what you hear is different now and why you think it’s related to the monitors?

    The new compilation might be a better case to compare the old and the new mix/mastering, because there at least a direct comparison is possible. Then it just remains a question which EQ choices you made differently due to different monitors used and which just by other intent.

    I think at the end it’s a matter of story, marketing and trust. If we trust you and you describe what happened for you, we get an impression. If we hear ourselves for differences, we don’t know where of the many variables they come from.

  2. “Beam me up Scotty”…ALL of me this time Scotty!!
    Just once I would’ve loved to have heard that in the script 😀

    To my thinking what will be interesting will be how the next two ‘Octave Records’
    releases sound on loudspeakers other than the aspen FR30’s compared to when
    they were monitored on Gus’ ATC – ‘SCM50ASL’ loudspeakers.
    I guess we shall hear the feedback in a month or so.

  3. I’m a little confused at this point.
    I thought all of the latest Octave Records releases were meeting their ‘final approval’ for release on the FR30’s. If not up to snuff, then outright rejected, or remixed / remastered.

    So the difference is that the FR30’s are now set up to do the mixing and mastering? In their new space? …. ( I guess that potentially eliminates the back and forth)

    Why not remix & remaster something from earlier releases? For instance “Say Something” and ‘Things Worth Remembering’ …. Take a few original tracks and follow by the remaster / remix. Offer it as a download only to start. Let those interested compare, plus you get to see how much interest is there.

    Also, not sure why hearing deeply into the music has major implications versus (for sake of dramatic comparison) hearing in the shallows. (Seems to me shallow would have more implications for less than perfect as more would be missed or looked over)

    1. Thanks, Mike. Most Octave releases we approved on the IRSV. Only very recent releases were auditioned and approved or rejected on the FR30s.

      The big difference on these upcoming two releases was that the engineers went track by track between the two rooms. (We did not move the FR30s).

      It was a tedious process. The problem we’ve always had is that the analog mix process hasn’t any automation or way to memorize the mix and return to it. And each mix is unique. So if they mix a track and then move on to the next one without listening on the FR30s, they have to go back and retrace their steps, most of which cannot be duplicated because they were done by ear. So, we set up new procedures that required the engineer to get each track’s mix approved on the FR30s before being printed. That process was utterly amazing in what it revealed to the engineers.

      For the most part, the engineers immediately heard what I heard on the FR30s and went back to the studio and fixed it. Rarely did I have to say too much. They had never experienced anything like it. So revealing are the FR30s that their work was laid bare. I would guess nearly every track was worked over two or three times until it blew us away.

      In future works later in the summer, we will be moving everything to the new studio where yet another major step will be happening. In that evolutionary step, we’ll go from our current standard of 1X DSD to recording in 4X DSD and tracking, mixing, and mastering on FR30s.

      But that’s a way down the road.

      For now, the new releases are mixed on FR30s in a tedious manner, but heck, the trek between the two rooms is good exercise. 🙂

      I do like your idea of maybe remixing the Gabe Mervine release. Might be fun. If only there were more hours in the day. Still, might be fun.

      1. Thanks for the explanation Paul.

        If you’re going to 4x recording then will the latest PSA DAC’s be able to handle that on USB (other than over the I2 buss). Or will the recordings be 4x? and lower sample rates become what is released?

        A very Happy Mothers Day to Terri – hope you both enjoy it.

      2. Does this mean, the advantage of using the FR30 is, that you save time while engineering the recording, less than that the recording sounds different at the end? At least this would make sense to me (although I assumed each engineer is fastest with the speakers he knows best, as long as they are revealing enough).

  4. “When you listen to a recording you are as if in a Star Trek-style Teleporter. You’re hearing what the mix engineer heard and adjusted for.” That, obviously, is only true if we are listening with the exact same gear and in a room identical to that of the mix engineer. It also assumes our ears match those of the mix engineer.

    1. Ummm, yes and no. Maybe my words were too literal.

      What I intended to be understood about the time travel comment was that you’re being presented with the exact output of what the mix/mastering engineer heard on their monitors when they worked on it.

      1. Yes, I think we are both correct. What I think you are saying is that the final digital file that the engineer produces listening to his equipment and monitors is the exact same file, bit-for-bit and format-wise, that we are buying. And what I am saying is that we can input the exact same file into our systems, but we won’t hear the exact same sound that the engineer heard because our processing equipment, speakers and room are different. Even though the engineer’s outgoing bio-file of Captain Kirk is identical to the recorded bio-file we receive, Kirk won’t look and sound the same in our rooms as he did in the engineer’s room. 🙂

  5. For over 30 years I’ve been calling this problem the “Audio Uncertainty Principle.” No one knows what a recording is supposed to sound like, including the recording engineer, because what’s on the tape or in the file has to be played back through monitors in a studio, altering the sound in a thousand different ways. Mixing and mastering engineers might have very experienced ears, and might understand all the decisions that went into making the deliverables for final release, but they don’t really know what the tracks actually sound like. No one does. Neutral, more perfect monitors are critical in making better recordings.

    1. The Audio Uncertainty Principle is the driving force of the entire High-End industry. Consider that all (or many) of the variables on the recording side of the industry are mimicked or replicated on the audiophile playback side. Audiophiles get to tinker to their ear’s delight (and the demise of their pocketbook) in pursuit of what they think the recording industry has actually encoded on their recordings, or what music ‘should’ sound like in their rooms. Personally, I’d pass on a ‘neutral’ or ‘perfect’ monitor in favor of one that makes the music really move me. I suspect that for many, if not most, that is a more easily achievable goal at a far lower cost.

      1. Yes! Uncertainty drives everything. I just looked up my first missive about the Audio Uncertainty Principle — an overly long and earnest letter to the editor of Stereophile in 1989. Here’s an excerpt, where I started talking about a “purist” recording engineer trying to capture a lifelike sound:

        “… The engineer moves the performers around, moves the microphones around, adds baffles, maybe a few spot mics, and somehow comes up with that magical, mythical, ‘accurate’ recording. How did the engineer make that determination? By listening through headphones or a pair of studio monitors in the control room. With different monitors, or even in a different room, a different mic balance may have been judged more accurate. Or maybe not, because the engineer probably gave up long ago on absolute accuracy in favor of plain old good sound.

        “Do you see the epistemological problem here? We can never really know what’s on the recording because we have to monitor it through electronics and speakers, which necessarily alter it — unless, of course, they’re perfect. How can we know if they’re perfect? Only by knowing what the recording is like without them. Catch-22.

        “So far we’ve been talking only about accuracy in recording. We’ve yet to deal with a separate but related issue: the faithfulness to that recording of our hi-fi components. If we can’t really know how accurate the original recording is, can we use that recording to judge the accuracy of our playback system? The same Catch-22 applies. We may as well be discussing how many angels (or subatomic particles, to update the example) can dance on the head of a pin, because we literally can’t be sure. The metaphor here, which happens to be the most powerful and most useful metaphor of the 20th century, is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which I’m loosely interpreting as: The measuring instrument changes what we’re trying to measure.

        “Think about how this relates to audio reviewing —and, by extension, to our own amateur listening sessions….”

        And it goes on and on. Maybe the letter was a little pretentious, but I think it holds up pretty well 33 years later. 😉

        1. I quite agree, eat. And the Audio Uncertainty Principle is an important concept. Being aware of it can cause one to spend or conserve massive amounts of money. 😎

          1. Lp,
            This is why we, as listeners, can only say that we
            either like the recording/production of a particular
            album or we don’t…it’s personal/subjective.

  6. +1 eatapc
    And in the end one never gets the sound that was in the recording room/studio/arena. One gets the sound that the recording engineers thinks sounds the best. Which is a good thing.

  7. Paul and Scott,
    O erhaps a DSD sample “beta tester’s” link with the promise of feedback from the same? A download link with NDA if required.

    We all have differing systems and rooms.

    This could be done in your “spare time” 😉

  8. I believe the Star Trek teleporter is a bad analogy. Although I am not a Trekie, I know enough that the holo-deck introduced in the second generation series is probably a better analogy.

    I wonder if the next step in eliminating all influences that distort from the original mix recording will be re-creation of the room in which it is mixed. Have FR30 customers started asking Paul for detailed dimensions of the PSA music room, along with the positioning of speakers and seating? From an audio standpoint, that would be the closest we could get to a Star Trek holo-deck.

    “Live long and prosper, y’all!”

  9. Paul I’m surprised you were caught off guard about the importance of recording/mixing monitors. Have you since brought in someone with experience to do the mixing? It also seems to me the people best qualified to know if a particular instrument sounds as it should are those musicians who played the music. Why is the recording engineer playing around with it making it sound the way they want it to sound? Just record it the way it was played by the musician. At least when it comes to tone and frequency. The recording engineers main job is to take what is played by the musician’s and put it all into a soundstage.

    1. Thnaks, Joe. If only it were so simple. The recording engineer does his/her best to capture as perfectly as possible the instruments. That’s a given. But putting it together in a mix that plays on a system properly is really an art. It’s not much to do with tonality but more about levels of each instrument relative to the others. Then you have to factor in that the musicians themselves didn’t do perfectly, etc. It’s really quite an art that is made easier the better one can hear what’s going on.

    2. There are times when you want to bring an instrument to the front to emphasize what that instrument has to say – to hook the listener – because what is being played is important and worth listening to.
      The use of dissonance (dominant) to build tension, instability, or a feeling of being unresolved followed up with consonance (tonic) to get the feeling of “going home”. Its the art of hooking the listener and the recording engineer has a lot to do with it.

  10. Whilst the explanations are interesting (kind of) and to some extent, what these posts are about, from the consumers point of view it’s somewhat hypothetical as we have no control at any stage of the process.
    An audiophile label like Octave that takes care and pride in recording really is a wonderful thing but ultimately, no matter what the source, we buy it, we listen to it, we like it or we don’t.
    I don’t want to sound harsh but to my mind this is the reality.

    1. Doesn’t sound harsh to me Richtea. More like reality.
      I always have to appreciate the music 1st. After that a great recording is a bonus.
      I’ve tried reversing the above scenario, and no matter how great the recording, if the music doesn’t “ring” with me the amount of play something gets diminishes to almost zero.

  11. Revolution had the most distortion of any Beatles recording. They plugged the guitars directly into the mixing console. The signal was routed through two microphone preamps while keeping the amount of overload just below the point of overheating the console. Story goes that some people tried to return the record because they thought the distortion was some form of defective studio recording. I think this would have been near impossible for the recording engineer to pull this off without monitors.

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