Ethan Winer - Busting Audio Myths And Why Dave Pensado Was Tricked

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Ethan Winer is well known in the audio industry with his many articles for major sound magazines as well as with his book The Audio Expert (Check it Here). Ethan has also been active at AES with, for example, his popular Audio Myths presentation (Check it Here)

In this interview, we discussed some common topics and misconceptions that are commonly seen around audio forums on the internet, such as what sample rate is better, how much can cables affect the sound, converters, why Dave Pensado was tricked, the need for iso pads for your speakers as so much more. 

Enjoy!

 Ethan's first console build back in 1972. Photo by Kevin Byron

Ethan's first console build back in 1972. Photo by Kevin Byron

High Definition Audio, is 96 kHz better than 48 kHz?

No, I think this is one of the biggest scam perpetuating on everybody in audio, not just people making music but also people who listen to music and buys it.

When this is tested properly nobody can tell the difference between 44.1 kHz and higher. People think they can hear the difference because they do an informal test where they play a recording at 96 kHz and then play a different recording from, for example, a CD. One recording sounds better than the other so they say it must be the 96 kHz one but of course, it has nothing to do with that. To test it properly, you have to compare the exact same thing, i.e., can’t sing or play a guitar into a microphone at one sample rate and do the same thing at a different sample rate, it has to be the same exact performance. Also, the volume has to be matched very precisely, within 0.1 dB or 0.25 dB or less, and you will have to listen blindly. Furthermore, to rule out chance you have to do the test at least 10 times which is the standard for statistics.

Is that a specific measure you use in statistics?

Yes, you have to get it right 10 times and hear the difference in sound 10 times, blindly, where someone else changes the sound for you. However, people don’t do that, they play it ones and think that’s fine. I blame the professional magazines and web bloggers because people are either lying to the benefits or their advertisers or they are themselves clueless.

Is there any point where, for example, 96 kHz is better?

In plugins, because some plugins can process audio better at a higher sample rate. For examples, plugins that remove clicks and pops, if those can sense higher frequencies they can better tell if it’s a click rather than something that’s a part of the music. However, plugins that need that and benefits from this, they upsample internally and then downsample back again. It’s done automatically so there’s no reason to record it at that sample rate. 

Power and microphone cables, how much can they actually affect the sound?

They can if they are broken or badly soldered, for example, a microphone wire that has a bad solder connection can add distortion or it can drop out. Also, not that all wires are good enough, for example, speaker and power wires have to be heavy enough but whatever came with your power amplifier will be adequate. Also, a very long signal wire, depending on the driving equipment at the output device, it may not be happy driving 50 feet of wire but any 6 feet wire will be fine unless it’s defected. 

Furthermore, I bought a cheap microphone cable and opened it up and it was soldered very well, the wire was high quality and the connections on both ends were exactly as good as you want it. You don’t need to get anything expensive, just get something decent.

I’m also working on designing an audio device that will compare microphone cables and proof beyond doubt that a $3 dollar cable is as good as a $2000 cable. It’s coming out soon.

Is there any reason for people to spend several grand to upgrade their power cables?

Never power cables, audio doesn't even go through that. That’s the worst scam when it comes to cables.

There’s also a really big misconception that you need to keep your power cables as far away from your microphone cables as possible (to avoid noise, hum, etc.) so, I tested this. In this test, I used a power cable powering a 600 W halogen bulb, so there was a lot of current going through, and I wrapped it around a microphone cable and coiled them in a loop, like a transformer, to make the coupling as tight as possible. So, they weren’t just near each other they were actually wrapped around each other. For the microphone, I used an Audio Technica condenser microphone with the maximum gain on the pre-amp, then I turned the light switch on and off, not a click nor hum or anything. That was not a Star Quad microphone cable that was just normal $20 microphone cable. 

I saw Dave Pensado raving about how he updated all his power cables in his studio and people who are a fan of him or anyone else, are gonna think you need it too.

I feel bad for people who follow Dave Pensado and believe this nonsense because it really is nonsense. It’s a shame with people that have that much influence are bamboozled by themselves. He was tricked but I’m sure he believed it and that he didn’t took a $1000 under the table to say that. I know some of these people, for example, one of my customers who is a famous mastering engineer believes all this stuff and believes every wire and device has a sound and thinks that Monster cables are not overpriced because it not expensive enough. He is really good and his ears are really good but he doesn’t understand the limits of his own hearing.

(Check out the episode below on Power Cables with Dave Pensado)

Room treatments, what’s the best way to get the best bass response and what do people usually get wrong about this?

The main thing is that people don’t think they need bass traps or other acoustic treatments. When you are mixing or making music you need to hear the music accurately. If you look at a typical room response it will have around 4-5 peaks and nulls all below 500 Hz. It will be +10 dB here and -20 dB there, only 10 Hz apart. It’s a rollercoaster response, and this will make you do bad EQ decisions. For example, if the bass player plays an A note at 110 Hz and you have a big null there you will boost it with your EQ, but when you play it in your car or in another room that doesn’t have that problem it will be really bass-heavy and too much build-up at that frequency. 

Furthermore, I see people putting treatment in all the wrong places, I see this at least as much in high-fi rooms as home recording studios. If you look at ads, for example, from Auralex, there’s always a whole lot of foam behind the speakers but that’s the last place where you need treatment, your speakers face the other way. Having said that, bass frequencies come out of your speakers omnidirectional, so really thick bass traps or absorptions on the wall behind the speakers is not wrong, but putting 1-2 inch of foam is. The wall behind you is much more important because that's where the sound will reflect from the speakers and back at you. That’s the reflection you want to stop. 

I also see people not putting enough treatment in because they don’t want a dead room. But you do, because a small room sounds terrible and the ambience you get from a small room is not pleasant. What you want is a neutral room that doesn’t have any strong reflections, echoes or extended reverbs at certain frequencies.

 Ethan's home studio.

Ethan's home studio.

Converters, how much of a difference is there in terms of quality and how much money do you need to spend to get a good one?

When buying converters, the most important thing is the features and price. At this point, there are only a couple of companies that make the integrated circuits that actually do the conversion and they are all really good. If you get, for example, a Focusrite soundcard, the pre-amps and the converters are very, very clean, the spec is all very good. If you do a proper test, as explained above, you will find that you can’t tell the difference between a $100 and $3000 converter/sound card. 

Furthermore, some people say you can’t hear the difference until you stack up a bunch of tracks, so, again, I did an experiment where we recorded 5 different tracks of percussion, 2 acoustic guitars, a cello and a vocal. We recorded it to Pro Tools through a high-end Lavry converter and also to my software in Windows using a 10-year-old M-Audio Delta 66 soundcard. I also copied that through a $25 Soundblaster and we put together 3 mixes which I put on my website which you can listen to and try to identify which mix is through what converter. 

Check it out the experiment and do the test here: http://ethanwiner.com/converters.html

The average result is that nobody can tell which mix has gone through a high-end converter or not. 

 The making of Ethan's converter test.

The making of Ethan's converter test.

Analogue summing, can this create width and depth to a mix?

There’s nothing that summing can do to effect width and depth, those are a function of timing differences, reverb, echo or EQ differences between the Left and Right channels. A summing box will not do that. It might be adding a little distortion, but a clean summing box will do nothing and have no effect. That’s the placebo effect, because when somebody spends $3000 on one of these things that got tubes and they have to wait 6 weeks for Vintage King to get it for them, of course, they are gonna think it sounds better. They are not going to admit even to themselves that they threw away all that money.

On a console you can have phase differences between channels at certain frequencies, is that why people can experience added width and depth by going through a console?

Depends on what frequency the phase shift occurs. Phase shift by itself, on a mono source, is not audible. However, if you have stereo material or a mono source going out through left and right speakers and there is a differential phase shift on left and right, yes, that will affect the width. However, in audio equipment, the phase shift is down to 10 - 20 Hz or 10 kHz and above, at the extremes, because of the capacitors used in the circuitry. In order to get these effects like the stereo synthesisers, you can EQ the sides differently or change the phase at midrange frequencies, between 300 Hz - 5 kHz, because that’s the range we are most sensitive too and where most musical content is. 

Iso pads/pucks, are they necessary for your speakers?

Nobody measured this stuff. They put their speakers on these platforms and it raises them up 3 inches, and yes that changes the response you hear but it’s not because of the isolation pad, it’s because the tweeters are now closer to your ear level. The companies that sell these things measures the amount of isolation, for example, they will have a speaker on the table with a vibration sensor on it and they will measure with and without the pad. However, they don’t actually show how this changes the audio, they never do that, which is all that matters. 

Why do you think the placebo effect is so common with using certain audio gear?

The way we hear is not very reliable and some days you will hear a song and it will sound great, but 10 min later, or the next day, it will change and not sound good anymore. Of course, you can hear the difference between a cassette and a good clean digital recording, on a vinyl you can hear the clicks and the pops, but the subtle differences are very hard to hear. People will change their capacitors on their mixing consoles and they will say, “Oh man, I can hear that cymbal ping more clear now.” Probably not, you just never noticed it before. It’s the unreliability of our hearing and our hearing perception, it’s not a great sense. 

What is the most common piece of useless gear you see people spending their hard earned money on?

Probably speaker isolation or replacement power cords. Also, one of the biggest mistakes I see is through my company, RealTraps, where usually someone will call and they have a lot of great and expensive equipment with a nice room, but it really needs treatment. However, they never have the budget to treat it because they spent it all on gear. It’s not because I’m in the business but the room matters more than anything, more than the converters or preamps you use. 

What do you think about the various audio myths, have you ever fallen for one of them? Let me know in the comments below!