Recording Basics – Level Matching (Ears Part 1)

This article on recording basics is relevant for anyone who is trying to record music in their homes, but may be a bit lost.  A big deal of what I will write in these articles comes from a thread on the Reaper forums, by user Yep, called “Why do your recordings sound like ass?”, the other parts, from my own experiences.

Before begining, let me remind that this is about basics, and I intend to keep it centered around technique, not gear or recipes. Notes about possible pieces of equipment will be present, but when you see it, remember that I am not saying that it is the best possible solution, but a viable option.

What do I need?

The first thing you need to understand is that all you need to use in order to make good recordings are your ears. You may need to learn how to use them well, yes, but your ears are your best tools to deal with audio.

So let’s learn a bit about our ears if we are going to be working with them, shall we? Human ears are amazing devices, they can hear sounds over a wide frequency range, and also with wide dynamic range. You can identify sounds mixed within tons of background noise, even decode spoken language in such poor conditions.

But because of the way our hearing evolved, there is a couple of factors that can work against our needs in this specific context, some that can really mess up a well intended person trying to learn.

In this first part, we will deal with loudness. Our hearing is not linear. In such way that, depending on the intensity of the sounds we are hearing, a couple of effects happens, for example how we hear the mid-range sounds. Also as intensity increases, we start to perceive less variations of it on the sound we are hearing, the dynamic range is “compressed” on the perception side.

Louder = Better

What this causes when dealing with audio is that it transforms louder into better, and this can really throw your decision-making in the trash.

For example: Let’s say that you are recording vocals. You did a take, listen to it, and then you think “Hum… this could be more bright”.

So you apply the EQ of your choice, and boost the highs. Sounds better.

Now, it could have more bottom end. So you dial in more lows, listen back. Sounds better.

Maybe some midrange now, to make it sit more upfront in the mix as people say, dial it in on the EQ, and you know what? Sounds better.

And you keep on this process until the vocals sound like the voice of God would be. Bright, Deep, Clear, all those qualities you seek on vocal line…

However next morning you turn the stereo on to take a listen to the recording you made, while eating breakfast, and for your surprise, the godly voice you dialed in the night before became a shrill, distorted and strange thing, and you wonder what the hell is going on with your gear.

And the truth is that nothing is wrong, that’s exactly the sound that you went for the night before. If we consider what we are doing with the EQ it is easy to understand what happened.

When you boost the highs on the vocals, you are making the highs louder, and therefore, the vocals itself louder.

When you boost the lows, louder. When you boost the mid range, louder.

So all that time you were thinking you were evaluating the effect of the frequency boost, you were actually just making the track louder and louder. It was not better, just louder. So instead of improving the tonal quality of the vocal lines, you totally messed it up.

And it’s not something that only we mortals have to deal with, everyone has the same problem, this is part of how our hearing behaves. With a lot of experience and training, you may learn to hear past the effect, but the effect itself will always be there.

Level Matching

So instead, if when you were doing the EQ you were also lowering the resulting volume so that it did not became louder, you would be on a much better position to make the decision on what was really an improvement and what was not. A good practice when using EQs is trying to subtract instead of adding (cut instead of boost), this way the change you do to the sound will not make it louder, not allowing you to do this kind of mistake.

The lesson we take from this is simple, whenever applying effects and making decisions, level match so that you hear both the before and the after in the same loudness levels. And this is not the loudness that you are seeing on meters, not the loudness calculated in the DAW program, but how loud you actually hear it. And this will be called Level Matching on the following articles.

This is Level Matching, taking the perceived loudness out of the equation when comparing results, to evaluate if there was an improvement because of the modifications you did, rather than just the difference in loudness.

Written by Felipe Carvallho

About Felipe Carvalho

Singer and voice teacher in São Paulo - Brasil
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