Dealing with bass-heavy recordings


#1

In another thread, there has been discussion of the tone controls, the intention of engineers, etc. This prompted me to ask a question that’s been on my mind for a long time.

In my system, most acoustic recordings (classical, folk, jazz) sound fine, as do some pop tracks. In many pop or rock songs, however, there is way too much bass. With an album I was listening to last night, if I turned the volume up enough to hear the singers, it was really unpleasant to listen; if I turned down the volume so the bass was tolerable, the singers were at such a low level that no details could be heard.

If recording engineers know what they are doing, why do they put in so much bass? Do they think that most people will listen on bass-shy cheap speakers or headphones, so they dial up the bass?

Or do other people not have this problem, that is, it’s my room/system? But if so, why does acoustic music and some pop music sound OK? On a Beethoven symphony, for instance, at a place where the cellos and basses are prominent when I am in a concert hall, I get the same effect at home, balanced the same way as when I hear it live.

My speakers are closer to the back wall than is ideal, which may be contributing to the problem. I have bass traps on the wall, and these do help; if I remove them, with all types of music the presentation gets muddier and details are obscured. But it’s not enough to deal with the bass overload on some songs. The area where I sit to listen is small, but it is acoustically open to the rest of the ground floor of the house so I don’t that that standing nodes are the issue. (And with the recordings in question, there is too much bass throughout, not just a couple of frequencies that pop out.)

Any suggestions, short of buying a larger house?


EQ the sound system
#2

I would certainly agree some (emphasis on some) engineers are manipulating pop/rock recordings. The prime evidence is the “loudness wars” that have been going on for a while. This, I believe, is a matter of compression which is a mastering engineer thing. Given my experience, and many others here, on how live pop/rock concerts have an over abundance of bass, why wouldn’t they add a little extra “boom” (or “sizzle”) to the recording too? This observation is not a generalization, just my thought on some recordings that I have. Luckily this is not as prevalent with acoustic music.

As for dealing with it in your room, a simple test, if you haven’t done so already, is to run a frequency sweep and measure with a sound pressure level meter. This could help identify any serious bass peaks that could be emphasizing the problems on your recordings. Moving the speakers around can change the peaks and valleys of response (not always for the better), so it is possible a different positioning will reduce the issue to an acceptable level. I have a similar issue and have learned to live with it, though I sometimes wonder if it makes it harder to hear those little improvements everyone else talks about.


#3

You know all my arguments for at least one component in a system to have an optional compensation of such problems from the other thread, so I don’t need to repeat here.

To your question: Engineers do this because they design their sound for ideal rooms and speaker placement, where you wouldn’t have such problems to this extent.

There are extremes in recordings, but I guess you’re having such problems with more of them, so I assume you have typical room resonance problems.

Pmotz is completely right, first choice would be to determine resonances and modify speaker and listening chair placement.

If this as well as acoustic room building works is no option, I just see the following besides choosing smaller speakers with earlier bass roll off :

Closing your bass reflex channels with rags or kind of foam on such recordings as quick help (with other major disadvantages in bass playback)

Buying 1-2 active subwoofers with parametric EQ to compensate resonances at least up to around 40Hz.


#4

It can be a frustrating and is a common problem. Some pop music (for example, rap and certain genres of rock) are produced with an emphasize on bass energy. People want and expect the thumping this provides. What you and I think of as excess bass is precisely what is intended and desired.

(As an aside, most people like this - especially in clubs and during rock concerts where the front of house sound is EQ’d to add tremendous amounts of bass energy. Also, as people drink they need greater volume for the same affect and their ability to hear high frequencies fall off. Thus, the FOH engineer adds more volume, and changes the EQ as the night goes on.)

But for those of us who like clean, crisp bass this can be a problem as it excites bass nodes in any less than perfect room (as almost all of our listening spaces are). Bass traps, speaker placement, subs, etc. all properly set up helps a great deal.

The same room problems exist when listening to classical, but we tend not to notice it as the notes change ( :slight_smile: ) and the amount of recorded bass is well balanced to begin with.

A great test is to listen to the opening bass notes on Rebecca Pidgeon’s performance of Spanish Harlem. (I suggest this recording as it is an audiophile favorite.) Each note has exactly the same intensity on the recording, but rare is the system and room which presents these notes as equal. Almost always, the notes vary in intensity. It is a tough, unforgiving test.


#5

How does Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories sound on your system? This is a superbly recorded pop album.


#6
pmotz said The prime evidence is the "loudness wars" that have been going on for a while. This, I believe, is a matter of compression which is a mastering engineer thing.
I admit to being ignorant about the technical side of recording. I imagine that one could compress the overall dynamic range of a song without necessarily emphasizing the bass, but maybe not. If they want a song to sound loud, to grab the listener's attention on the radio or whatever, I suppose putting in more bass is an easy way to accomplish this.
As for dealing with it in your room, a simple test, if you haven't done so already, is to run a frequency sweep and measure with a sound pressure level meter. . . . so it is possible a different positioning will reduce the issue to an acceptable level.
A while back, when I began to learn more about room acoustics, I made some measurements; it didn't enlighten me much. I'll try your method. Because of my space, there isn't much room to experiment with speaker placement (although I know that small changes can sometimes be very noticeable).
I have a similar issue and have learned to live with it, though I sometimes wonder if it makes it harder to hear those little improvements everyone else talks about.
Interesting question! I suspect that room/speaker issues affect soundstage more than other aspects of reproduction. For instance, I have no trouble hearing the differences between various firmware versions of the DS or following the breakin of a new component. My equipment is reasonably revealing, so this is as it should be. But I don't get a big soundstage, partly because the speakers are too close to the wall (I think). But that doesn't bother me much.

#7
jazznut said To your question: Engineers do this because they design their sound for ideal rooms and speaker placement,
Yes, I suppose so; but then would the recordings that now sound good in my setup be bass-shy if (let's say) my speakers could be further from the walls, to alleviate the excessive bass on other songs? This might also be an issue with using smaller speakers.
Closing your bass reflex channels with rags or kind of foam on such recordings
I tried this a while back; I should try again since I have moved things around. The ports on my speakers are on the front, not the back (a consideration when I bought them, since I knew they would need to be fairly close to the back wall). The speakers are reasonably small and don't have tons of really low bass (again, a deliberate decision).
Buying 1-2 active subwoofers with parametric EQ to compensate resonances at least up to around 40Hz.
I've been trying to avoid subwoofers, partly because there is no room to place them.

#8
Elk said Also, as people drink they need greater volume for the same affect and their ability to hear high frequencies fall off. Thus, the FOH engineer adds more volume, and changes the EQ as the night goes on.
I had no idea -- interesting! (Even if, IMO, it's a bit sad that it's considered necessary).
The same room problems exist when listening to classical, but we tend not to notice it as the notes change ( :) )
Is there a reason for this failure to notice?
A great test is to listen to the opening bass notes on Rebecca Pidgeon's performance of Spanish Harlem. . . . Each note has exactly the same intensity on the recording, but rare is the system and room which presents these notes as equal.
Thank you -- I have the Chesky sampler with this recording, but haven't listened to it in a while. I will dig it out. I can think of a couple other songs where, for instance, there is a descending bass line and one or two notes are less prominent, so I know what you are talking about. I tend to avoid anything "punk" 107_gifbut I trust your recommendation so I may try Random Access Memories just for kicks.

#9
magister said Is there a reason for this failure to notice?
While the bass line is critically important in classical, it rarely sits on the tonic or any other note, or repeats measure after measure. The amount of bass is also typically very well balanced, both as the music is performed and as originally written. For example, the string basses often drop out when the only other instruments are a couple of winds. The 'cellos then take over the bass line. For all these reasons, the bass rarely is boomy or dominating in classical. If anything, a little extra in playback can be nice.

Pop is often purposely dominated by the bass line and is often as much as the hook as anything else. It provides propulsion, harmonic structure, often rhythm. A lot of pop tunes, including rock, we easily recognize by the bass line alone.


#10

Hi, I just looked up your speakers, the VS VR4-Jr you have listed. Did you put the shot in them?

Much can be learned reading the two reviews linked below. I had the same problem in my previous home. I have Legacy FOCUS with three 12 inch per cabinet. I had plenty of room to move the speakers around, but it took 5 homemade bass traps and some acoustic panels, about 16 inches wide by 6 feet by 4 inches deep. The frames were 2x4s filled with insulation from a roll, with backing on one side, then covered with burlap. These were mounted on the wall, one behind each speaker. I used brackets so they stood off the wall by about 4 inches. I have rear firing ports that I plugged with foam rubber. That all made a world of a difference.

And you don’t really lose proper recorded bass, it just seems to deal with the overload. Any bass that was overloading the room.

But if you haven’t done what is described in the two reviews, start there .

http://www.enjoythemusic.com/magazine/equipment/1204/vonschweikertvr4jr.htm

http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue17/vr4jr.htm


#11

The solution is to get a piece of gear that can add equalization to your system, preferably in the digital realm, but if not, in the analog. The loss of tone controls from audio equipment has put us at the mercy of the engineer who controls each recording. Some mix for a good system, some to sound good to a teenager in a car.

Any losses of transparency in the few perfect recordings will be more than made up for by enjoyment of the many imperfect ones. If the tone controls are digital, there’s no loss at all.

This is not to say that listening rooms don’t need bass traps and acoustic treatments. They do!


#12
mike48 said Some mix for a good system, some to sound good to a teenager in a car.
I have yet to see/hear a mix deliberately produced to sound its best in a car, deliberately sacrificing sound in other reproduction environments.

However, every pop mix should translate well to sound good in a car, as well as on a full system. The converse is also true; if it sounds bad in a car it will also sound bad on a full range system.

Intriguingly, a mix can sound good on a full range system, but not on a portable player with ear buds or in a car. Tweak it to sound palatable on a portable player and typically sounds even better on the full range system. That is, a car or other “lesser” playback environment is a great reality check to hear how well the mix folds down.

Many mixing engineers keep a pair of “shit boxes” or “grot boxes” on the meter bridge for this purpose. The Auratone 5C (referred to in the industry as “horrortone”) is the classic grot box. When Michael Jackson’s Thriller was in mixdown, Bruce Swedien mixed to these little speakers and only checked the mix a few times on his big Westlakes. Quincy Jones, the producer, refers to the Auratones as the truth speakers. Does anyone here claim Thriller does not sound spectacular in both a car and at home?


#13

Thanks for discussing this matter, this is really helpful.


#14
mike48 said Any losses of transparency in the few perfect recordings will be more than made up for by enjoyment of the many imperfect ones. If the tone controls are digital, there's no loss at all.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, this is untrue. Digital EQ exhibits the same artifacts as analog, including phase shift/timing (linear-phase equalizers and minimum-phase equalizers sound different), pre/post filter ring, harmonic content, etc. Filter phase in particular can have a tremendous impact on the sound.

#15
jeffstarr said Hi, I just looked up your speakers, the VS VR4-Jr you have listed. Did you put the shot in them?
Jeff, thanks for checking this out. I did put in the shot. (I had never been in a gun store in my life before -- that was interesting.) I put in 25 lbs each; maybe the 50 lb maximum would help.
. . . it took 5 homemade bass traps and some acoustic panels, about 16 inches wide by 6 feet by 4 inches deep. The frames were 2x4s filled with insulation from a roll, with backing on one side, then covered with burlap. These were mounted on the wall, one behind each speaker. I used brackets so they stood off the wall by about 4 inches.
This is very interesting. I have two bass traps from RealTraps (see here), which are similar to what you describe making -- 4" deep, recommended to be placed 4" from the wall, but about 4' tall. I may invest in a couple more of these. It sounds like I was on the right track in getting them, but I need more absorption.

#16
Elk said
mike48 said Any losses of transparency in the few perfect recordings will be more than made up for by enjoyment of the many imperfect ones. If the tone controls are digital, there's no loss at all.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, this is untrue. Digital EQ exhibits the same artifacts as analog, including phase shift/timing (linear-phase equalizers and minimum-phase equalizers sound different), pre/post filter ring, harmonic content, etc. Filter phase in particular can have a tremendous impact on the sound.


I have no experience with equipment to change EQ, but have always been under the impression that it is not sonically benign. I will try adding more bass traps and, if that isn’t enough, then investigate an EQ solution.

#17

Fixing the room is always best.

A great source for traps, etc. Clicky


#18

Thanks, Elk – that is a good source! The RealTraps site also has a great deal of info about acoustics and test tones you can download as well as info about their products.


#19

Ethan is also wonderfully opinionated and a hoot. He is a bit more expensive.


#20
magister said
Elk said
mike48 said Any losses of transparency in the few perfect recordings will be more than made up for by enjoyment of the many imperfect ones. If the tone controls are digital, there's no loss at all.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, this is untrue. Digital EQ exhibits the same artifacts as analog, including phase shift/timing (linear-phase equalizers and minimum-phase equalizers sound different), pre/post filter ring, harmonic content, etc. Filter phase in particular can have a tremendous impact on the sound.
I have no experience with equipment to change EQ, but have always been under the impression that it is not sonically benign. I will try adding more bass traps and, if that isn't enough, then investigate an EQ solution.
I won't get into arguing with those who claim the cure is worse than the disease. I can only assume they are looking for different things in sound than I am. But I suggest you read all the rave reviews of Sigtech, Devialet, DEQX, miniDSP, Holm, Lyngdorf, and TacT equipment that corrects in-room response. Many, many professional reviewers have felt that the improvement is huge. So given that, my recommendation is just a drop in the ocean.

I will also say that having EQ in my system lets me enjoy many recordings that are way too boomy or screechy for me to enjoy otherwise.

There is an ART graphic equalizer on Amazon that a fussy audiophile friend recommends. It’s less than $200. It would be a relatively cheap way to find out if EQ might be for you. A fancier option would be an Accuphase DG-58 for about $8k.

Mike

P.S. As I said in my original post, I also think acoustic treatment is important and constructive. My room has products by ASC, RPG, GIK, and Vicoustic. I have acoustic panels on order now from ASC, for the ceiling. Taken together, acoustics are the most expensive component in my system (except for the purpose-built room). But to correct the deep bass, an electronic approach is a necessity. You just can’t do it practically with conventional bass traps.