Network: My Technology: Heard and not seen
OMD's Andy McCluskey sings the praises of the humble loudspeaker
Monday 21 September 1998
Effectively, speakers have remained the same since they were invented but the technology that drives them and puts the sound in them has changed again and again. The basic principle works, but they have modified and improved; it will always look the same and act the same.
We all know that aircraft have transformed life, but they are so huge you can't miss them. The humble loudspeaker has been overlooked in the roll call of life achievements. If you pardon the pun, `let's hear it for the loudspeaker'.
The speaker in itself is not a very sexy object to look at. These days they compensate through being over-designed boom boxes, from ghetto blasters to fancy-fronted grill devices, you never see the speaker you are listening to.
Loudspeakers are available in any number of watts. Speakers with thousands and thousands of watts are the big black box ones at the side of the stage which obscure your view. Without them you wouldn't hear ear-snaring guitar and thumping bass.
To see a PA crew set up in a venue and hear them sound-check the speakers is frightening; it sounds like a tornado coming through your head. One of the interesting things about every speaker is it's a bit like a pair of glasses - it actually distorts reality.
Every speaker has a different frequency response. In the studio one of the biggest problems when doing a mix is whether to trust the speakers. It's a mundane job, but you have to rely and trust that the speakers are even, otherwise you can get an over-flattering or an unflattering picture of the sound.
The problem is made worse because every studio sounds different. It's like how every person's stereo sounds different. I always cringe when I hear my music for the first time in the real world after spending time in the studio. But short of everyone setting up their stereo to the same bass and treble, it is inevitable.
What we do is think most people listen to music with the loudness as a priority, full boost bass and full boost top. It's not the way you make it in the studio, but you vary it on those lines.
In a studio a lot of people consciously mix on not very good speakers. Their theory is if you can make it sound good on those then it will sound good on everyone else's. But if you do it on a super dooper one you have no idea. It amazes me.
I go into a top studio and they are checking the sound on a crappy speaker. It's a real reality check, what it will sound like on the road. But it's such a contrast to all the money and technology in the studio that the acid test is what it will sound like on a crap system. But I don't really worry myself about that. I hate being in recording studios. It's like pulling teeth for me to start worrying about whether they are being true, flattering or colour heavy with too much bass or too much top treble.
I use my computer every day for writing songs. I didn't used to, but it's so common nowadays that most music is computer-generated, apart from guitar music. With the advent of samplers it means you can play anything. I have 94 different tracks of sound and 124 different other instruments available through a midi-controller.
It's just scary how the technology for making music has changed. When we started, the synthesiser sound was cutting edge. Everything was played by hand. Our first hit was played on a synthesiser bought from Kay's catalogue. So much for cutting edge.
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