Are you wanting to record a song for an album, a string quartet for a film score, some software or hardware synths for a sound design for a game, dialogue for a podcast, a piece of sound art? When you’re creating a piece of audio, you generally follow a chain of 4 somewhat distinct stages. Each stage has a different focus and a different set of skills.
Stage 1 - Creation (Planning, preparing, designing and composing):
Here is where you decide what you’re going to do and how you want to do it. This might mean writing song lyrics, chord changes, plotting out sounds for a film sequence or setting up electronic instruments to put out the sounds you want. Key factors at this point are creativity, construction, and preparing to achieve the desired quality of performance on whatever you are using.
Stage 2 - Tracking (Recording and arranging the elements):
This is where you actually record the parts that build to realizing your ideas and arrange them. Key factors at this point are creativity, quality of instruments/performers, recording equipment on hand, the qualities of the space you’re recording in and the skills to make the most out of all of these. You can record all at once, or build up your piece, layer by layer on separate tracks. The idea is to focus on the tones you are recording and the quality of performance, making sure it has been recorded well.
Stage 3 - Mixing (Making all the elements blend, balance and work well together)
Now you have a bunch of elements arranged for your piece, you need to adjust and mix all of the elements the blend together in logical and pleasing ways. At this point, you will adjust the volume, the timbre/tone, the range between softer and louder parts, and the positioning of sounds in stereo (left and right, such as for a set of headphones) or surround sound (such as 5.1 sound for cinemas and home theatres). The key here is making sure that each part, especially vocals and dialogue, can be easily heard within the greater context, while still having the blend sound pleasing as a whole.
Stage 4 - Mastering (Polishing the whole)
This is where you look at the resulting final blend of all your elements as a whole, as a single entity unto itself. Usually requiring special equipment and training, and highly engineered listening studios, this process focuses on making subtle but important adjustments to the whole’s overall timbre using such processes as equalization and compression, to give the best possible polish to the final blend.
Often, the stages do overlap, depending on the workflow of the person doing it - sometimes folks compose while recording, and/or do a bit of mixing as they record their tracks. Still, each process requires looking at what you’re doing in their own specific focus and this is a system that has been adapted to various mediums, tried, tested and true for decades. Happy recording!
Audio Dynamics and Dynamic Range and Why It is Important.
Dynamics is a term borrowed from music that is used in audio to describe volume or loudness and is usually measured in some flavour of decibel’s (which is abbreviated as dB. The dynamic range of a piece of audio is the range of volume from softest to loudest,). Some dynamic range is good, as not everything has to be, or even should be, at the same volume. But one may have to adjust that dynamic range, perhaps by increasing the volume of the softer bits or turning down the volume of the louder bits.
One important factor about volume and dynamic range is the idea of thresholds or degrees of loudness. Our hearing has thresholds that vary from person to person, and vary over a person’s lifetime:
- the threshold of hearing is the point where the softest sound can be heard by a person’s ear…any thing softer than that cannot be heard.
- the threshold of pain is when a sound is so loud that it causes pain (and damage!) when heard
So the dynamic range of human hearing lies between these two thresholds. Just to make it even more complex, some parts of our hearing are more sensitive than others. When looking at things from a bass (like a low rumble) to treble (like a high-pitched screech)
- for example, we are most keenly sensitive to the range of pitches/frequencies that a baby’s crying usually is situated in.
Audio devices also have their own thresholds. A microphone might only start to pick up sounds above a particular minimum softness - anything softer than that simply won’t register. Microphones can also only handle a certain level of loudness - sounds that are too loud might start to sound distorted or harsh through the microphone as the sound is too loud for its components to handle for the purpose for which it was built. Other devices, such as preamps, instrument amplifiers, mixers speakers and so on have their own thresholds. And each device will also add just a bit of noise (like the sound of static) to things - usually devices are engineered to add the least amount of noise possible but it can sometimes be a consideration to make sure the desired sound (the signal) is audible above the noise. A key part of good audio is the relative balance of signal (desired sound) to noise (undesired sound) and is often expressed as a signal-to-noise ratio.
And too, when you’re listening to audio in a room, the background noise of air conditioning, appliances, outside traffic, other people speaking, moving or even breathing can create a secondary threshold of hearing - any sound that needs to be heard, must be louder than that background noise.
Dynamic range is important when presenting audio to others. If the volume of a piece of dialogue is too soft to be heard, a person might turn up their headphones to be able to hear it…but the next line of dialogue might be a shout, and so be too loud, perhaps painfully so, at that new volume. One can’t expect the listener to constantly adjust the volume on their playback device. There are devices called compressors that compress that dynamic range of soft to loud, by reducing the volume of just the too-loud bits only when they happen, allowing you to bring up the volume of the whole piece of audio so that the soft parts can be heard.
Dynamics and dynamic range are very important to media production. Aesthetics and listenability of your work aside, distribution and broadcasting companies and organizations have set requirements for how loud things can be - you have to make sure that all of your dialogue averages at a particular range of volume level, that things never get louder than a certain point, and so on.
There are other aspects to dynamics that we will touch on in later articles, such as how to measure it, how to adjust it and work with it, and the standards one should look at meeting in one’s work.
Microphones photo by Neil Godding on Unsplash