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mega's Thread of Basic Questions

Discussion in 'Sound Science' started by megabigeye, Aug 23, 2019.
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  1. megabigeye
    I recently realized that I'm full of potentially stupid questions. Each time I think of a new question, I think maybe I should start a thread! but then I don't do it because a) I don't want to inundate this sub-forum with a thousand inane questions, and b) I'm a little embarrassed to not know already. Some of my questions are about music, some about audio reproduction, some probably about something else.

    Well, I'm going to swallow my pride. And I'm going to put my questions in one thread so that I don't tie up the rest of Sound Science. If others have equally basic questions, feel free to ask them here. And if you're really embarrassed by your lack of knowledge, you can PM me with your question and I'll repost it anonymously. Unless it's really, really stupid, in which case I'll mention your name so we can all point and laugh.

    First question: What are the steps and who is involved in recording and publishing music?
    I've heard of mixing and mastering and re-mastered mixes and remixes and production value and producers and engineers, but I don't actually know what any of them are or what they do.
    Maybe the best way to answer that question is to start at the beginning and to work toward the finished product. If you're personally involved in that process, I'd also love to know which step you are / have been involved in, if that's not asking for too much personal information.
    Steve999 likes this.
  2. megabigeye
    Here's another potentially silly* question:

    Over the course of reading Head-Fi and other audiophile sites I've come across and eventually dismissed a whole bunch of the lingo and jargon. One of the worst words/ideas I've come across is "transparency," (a.k.a. "hear-through," "wire with gain," "sounds like nothing," etc.), which I've seen applied to just about any piece of equipment and media format I can imagine.
    To me, though, it seems like a fundamentally flawed term because it's based on a flawed idea: that a piece of equipment can be compared to the lack of that piece of equipment. You can't reasonably say an amplifier, for instance, is "transparent"— or, more specifically, "sounds like nothing"— because an amplifier in general can't be eliminated from the equation of audio reproduction. You can compare solid state to tubes, DACs to CD players to turntables, and copper wires to silver wires, but you can't compare any of those things to nothing. The only equipment that I can think of that don't fall into that problem are extension cables and EQ... and possibly some defeat-able sorts of software.

    HOWEVER! After reading around Sound Science and watching one of bigshot's linked Anthony Winer videos (well, I watched half of it, anyway. It's like a freaking hour!), I've seen mention of things being "audibly transparent." In fact, Mr. Winer dismisses a whole bunch of audiophile terms and then goes on to use "audibly transparent," as if it's not a glaring epistemological mistake! At first I scoffed at his hypocrisy, but then I thought, well, maybe there's something to it.

    Is "audibly transparent" the same as "hear-through" or "sounds like nothing?" Is it something that actually exists in practice, or only in theory? If so, what is it, how do we know when it's present, and what does it apply to?

    *I realize that this is potentially a pretty complex question and that I'm already breaking my rule of stupid questions, but I also feel like it's a pretty fundamental question and one that a lot of people probably take for granted.
    Last edited: Aug 23, 2019
  3. sander99
    Maybe this is a suitable description: An audible transparent device doesn't audible change the audio represented by the output compared to the audio represented by the input.
    That can be confusing if the representation of the audio on the input side and the output size are totally different, like analog and digital.
    But maybe it helps to think of a the combination of two devices such that the end output has the same form as the start input. For example a combination of AD converter and DA converter.
    If the AD converter and the DA converter are both audible transparant, then you could not hear a difference between a given analog signal direct, or that analog signal converted to digital and back to analog through that ADC and DAC combination (in a level matched controlled blind test of course).
    TronII and megabigeye like this.
  4. bigshot
    I'll leave the first question to Gregorio. He will be sure to have an interesting answer.

    Audibly transparent means that the fidelity of the sound reproduction meets or exceeds human ears' ability to hear. If you have sound that is degraded, and it gets better incrementally step by step, you can hear the incremental improvement up to the point where your ears can't discern a difference any more. That is the threshold of transparency. Beyond that point, the sound may be measurably better, but you can't hear a difference because your ears can't discern it. If you can hear a difference, one or more of the components is said to have coloration. There are a million different flavors of coloration, but only one of transparent.

    Technically, you can't say that the signal is the same going in as coming out, because an amplifier increases gain. The signal is changing. The audible fidelity should be the same though.

    The way to test for transparency is to compare a variety of things to see if any of them sound different. Today just about all DACs, DAPs, players and amps are designed to exceed the threshold of transparency. So in theory, they should all sound the same... perfect to human ears. So you do a controlled listening test (level matched, direct A/B switched, blind) and see if you can discern a difference. Most of the time, if there is a difference it's going to be an error in manufacture. Or perhaps a design that is deliberately colored, like a tube amp. Listening tests make it easy to sort it out.

    Whenever I buy a new piece of audio equipment, I do a quick controlled listening test to make sure it sounds the same as the rest of my system. I have everything carefully calibrated the way I want it, so I don't want one piece of equipment that sounds different. I'd need a different calibration whenever I used it if that was the case. Thankfully in the past couple of decades, everything I've bought has been audibly transparent.

    The things that aren't audibly transparent are transducers... headphones and speakers and turntable cartridges. Those are the wild card in any system. The room also makes a big difference with speaker systems. You calibrate to correct for that and the rest of the system is transparent- passing along the signal as clean as your ears can possibly hear it.

    Does this help? There are no stupid questions.
    Last edited: Aug 23, 2019
    megabigeye likes this.
  5. megabigeye
    Great answers! Thank you both!
    I guess part of my confusion stemmed from the fact that I see "transparent" in reference to so many things, including transducers, turntables and tubes, while at the same time people seem to think that those "transparent" equipment sound different from one another. My general understanding of audible transparency led me to equate it with "sounds the same," but that's at odds with the audiophile ethos of constantly seeking "better."

    Also, @bigshot, I've seen you mention before your "quick controlled listening test" for new equipment— would you mind describing what that test is?

    And, yeah, I agree that there are no stupid questions, but I wanted to make a thread that's un-intimidating to other potential posters with questions.
  6. bigshot
    I have a little pile of stuff in the closet... various interconnects and preamps, recordings of tones, reference music, etc that I drag out to the kitchen table to compare things. I also have equipment in my systems that I can quickly pop out to use as a reference for transparency. The specifics of how you do it is different depending on what kind of component you are trying to compare. If you'd like to set up a simple listening test for yourself, I'd be happy to help you do that. The equipment isn't generally all that expensive... a fella here compared DACs and was able to do it for around $50. It just takes time and a friend to help switch inputs. It isn't hard at all. Everyone should do tests. That's how you figure out what matters and what doesn't.

    Of course whenever you do something like this and talk about it in a public forum, there's always a platoon of armchair experts who will tell you that you aren't stringent enough to live up to their clinical standards. But their standards are usually so stringent that they are unable to do any controlled tests themselves. If you test for your own information and education you can cheerfully ignore those who talk out of their butt, and you'll know for yourself what you need to know and they will never know.

    I don't have the ability to directly compare transducers. I use those as the wild card and adjust other things to suit them.
    Last edited: Aug 23, 2019
    megabigeye likes this.
  7. BassicScience
    Here's a starting point:

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  8. gregorio
    1. The article posted by @BassicScience is essentially correct. Although these days it doesn't necessarily follow that order, for example the arrangement is commonly altered somewhat or changed entirely during editing or mixing and it's common to jump back a step or two, say in the mixing phase it maybe decided to write and record some additional part. The article also doesn't entirely cover who is involved, for example the Music Producer is in charge of the whole recording/mixing/mastering process and has anywhere between some and all of the artistic decision making authority. Obviously we also have the songwriter (or writers), the musicians, the recording engineer, the mix engineer and the mastering engineer. Some of these roles may be the same person and in some cases all these roles might be the same person but that's very rarely the case with commercial music releases. There are also sometimes some ancillary roles, for example there maybe a specialist midi or drum programmer involved in certain recordings. Music publishing is a different kettle of fish, which actually has little or nothing to do with publishing. Music publishing is essentially the legalities and manipulation of who owns the copyright/Intellectual Property (IP). This is complicated by the fact that the song/composition and the recording of the song are two different IP entities. "Who is involved" is therefore mostly managers, agents and lawyers.

    2. The previous explanations are good but another simple way to think about it: Anything that audibly changes the sound can be described as a "colourisation", the sound is "coloured". "Transparency" is therefore no colour. Glass for example can be tinted (coloured) or completely transparent (no colour).

    Last edited: Aug 29, 2019
    megabigeye likes this.
  9. megabigeye
    1. Wonderful, thank you! And thank you, @BassicScience, for the article! Very helpful! I realized as I was writing that question that "publishing" was perhaps the wrong word, and that it involves another process and people. I'm mostly (for the moment) interested in how music is made from concept to product, which you guys have answered.

    2. I guess part of my point in asking is that, so far as audiophiles that aren't privy to measurements are concerned, there's no real way to know if something is colorized or not. Yes, equipment might be audibly transparent by all measures, but most audiophile companies don't make those measurements available; and as a result there's no real way (that I can see, anyway) to know if one amplifier is colored or the other. If you're testing two amplifiers and amp A has accentuated bass and treble relative to amp B, and amp B has attenuated bass and treble relative to amp A, without having access to measurements, it's impossible to know which is colored and which transparent, if either is.
    I guess one way might be to compare to a third amplifier that is known to be measurably transparent, which is what @bigshot mentioned. That seems like an obvious answer and I'm a little embarrassed to not have thought of is sooner. I guess that's how "obvious" things work sometimes.

    Anyway, I'm kind of just thinking aloud here. I was skeptical/confused about audible transparency, but you guys have helped clarify that.
    Last edited: Aug 24, 2019
  10. gregorio
    There's an even easier way conceptually. Compare the input signal to the amp with the signal output by the amp. If the difference is below audibility, the amp is transparent! There's a common and relatively simple test for this purpose, a Null Test.

    BTW, even quite cheap amps are transparent, the only exception is if the amp's designer has deliberately lowered it's fidelity (by colouring it's output) or if you're using the amp inappropriately, for example using an amp that is designed for lower power or higher impedance than the load (speakers or headphones) requires.

  11. megabigeye
    1. Is there an easy / easily accessible way to do this? At first blush, it seems like it'd be well beyond the ability of most audiophiles or casual users.

    2. Yes, I've seen this claim made many times, here and elsewhere. I'd like to believe it, but my lizard brain insists on clinging to the notion that more expensive and fancier is better... Logically, I know that probably isn't true, though. (And as I hinted in another thread, I wonder a little if that notion might have some merit (i.e., input from four of our senses having a physiological effect on our fifth sense).)
  12. bigshot
    That's what they're banking on. Until you apply research, critical thinking and common sense practicality to your decision making[, it will be always be in favor of the house. It takes a little effort to move beyond that and take control yourself.
  13. gregorio
    1. To be honest, it does seem to be well beyond the ability of most audiophiles. Many/Most audiophiles don't even seem able to level match when they're comparing different gear, so a Null (or pretty much any objective) test is beyond them. In practice it's not difficult but you do need an ADC, although it doesn't need to be an expensive ADC and once you have one, you can do a Null Test on just about any piece of gear. Once you've recorded the input and output, you then just need a couple of pieces of free software, which firstly automatically time aligns and level matches the two recordings (to eliminate these differences) and secondly, automatically "nulls" them (sums them together with a flipped polarity), analyses and displays the differences. You can even get some free DAW software and spectrally analyse the difference (see what specific frequencies are different). This all sounds more complex/difficult than it is.

    2. Yes and not only is it true but it's been true for many years, even going back as far as the 1980's.
    2a. Your "notion" is supported by a great deal of scientific evidence. When we say "audible difference" we mean a difference in the sound waves that are entering your ears which is at or above the threshold of what is humanly "hear-able". It's of paramount importance that we differentiate an "audible difference" from a "perceivable difference" because if, for example, our eyes see a difference, our brain expects a difference and will alter what we think we're hearing in order to satisfy that expectation. In other words, given the right circumstances (a conflict between what we see and what we hear, for example) we can/will "perceive" a difference where there is provably no audible difference. Not understanding, accepting or appreciating this fact is the root cause of many/most of the conflicts between audiophiles and science/the facts and as bigshot stated, is the area exploited by audiophile marketing. A particularly good/obvious and enlightening example of the brain creating a difference in aural perception, where no audible difference exists, is the "McGurk Effect".

  14. bigshot
    Controlled tests may be difficult for the average person to do to clinical standards, but you can certainly do listening tests with tight enough controls to decide whether it’s worth upgrading your home audio equipment or not. Doing listening tests also gives you a grasp of the proportions of the things people are talking about. It’s easy to mistake molehills for mountains if you have no clue what the differences sound like.

    I’d never discourage anyone from doing informal controlled tests. That is the best way to learn the lay of the land. Even if you’re off by five or ten percent, you’re still far ahead of the pack.
    Last edited: Aug 25, 2019
  15. megabigeye
    1. Speaking only for myself, I often don't bother level matching or doing blind tests for a few reasons: first, it's so infrequent that I buy new gear that it hardly seems worthwhile to bother figuring out how to set it up. I very rarely switch gear. Second, I don't particularly favor one "signature" over another and I buy more for features than anything else, so so long as whatever I'm buying has the features I want and people are more or less in agreement that it sounds good, then I trust those opinions. Third, when I read science-y (yes, "science-y." I'm not always as discerning as I wish I were) things, I generally think sounds legit and then leave it to the experts. Fourth, I often think science is kind of hard and doing science-like things are kind of beyond my purview, so, again, I leave it to the experts. I just don't know how to do it. So I do sighted tests that aren't perfectly level matched and I realize that, e.g., 256kbps MP3 and ALAC are close enough for my purposes, and I leave it at that. Oh yeah, and sometimes I even think I might possibly hear slight, subtle, might-be-imaginary-but-might-not-be differences between cables.
    I guess this is a longwinded way of saying that I probably fit with the "many/most audiophiles" you describe, but it's not because it's (totally) beyond or below me.

    Although... Now that I know something about null tests... I do "need" (as much as an audiophile ever needs anything) to get a new portable headphone amp/DAC... and I do happen to have an ADC for ripping my vinyl... do you happen to know if you can do null tests in Audacity? I'll look into it...

    2 and 2a. (By the way, I like your way of numbering your points in your replies, so I'm stealing it from you. At least when I reply to you. You pack a lot of info into your answers!) I think one of my main points is that I wonder if hearing and perception (and our biases) are really separable? I know that in theory there's a difference between an "audible difference" and a "perceivable difference," but does it really make a difference in practice? It seems to me that the theory of that difference operates on the assumption that we can separate ourselves from our biases, that we can somehow operate in a perceptual vacuum.
    I feel like there's some aspect of the argument that I'm probably missing here, but... well... I'm missing it.

    3. Another basic question! Is there such a thing as "as the artist intended?"
    Dr. Dre said it about his Beats and the audiophiles all scoffed and laughed in unison; Neil Young said it about the Pono Player and everybody oohed and aahed. Like "transparent," it's a term that's applied to a lot of things, and, in fact, in some cases the terms are probably interchangeable... but I don't think the concepts are quite the same. Is there any one sonic vision that an artist (whoever that may be) has that can be replicated by the listener?

    PS— I can't tell if the first half of this post comes across as me being defensive, but I'm too tired to try to fix it right now. I'm not feeling defensive. Trying to explain and defend myself, yes; offended by what you said, not at all.

    PPS— Heeding @bigshot's advice, I changed the title of the thread. No longer stupid. Now Basic. Like a Pumpkin Spice Latte.
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2019
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