Norman Varney Interview Part 1:"There are still things we can hear that we can’t measure..."

In the first part of the interview with Norman Varney we will talk about rooms and why acoustic adaptation of rooms is so important. We will try to answer the question why today we are increasingly omitting room microphones during mixing, we will consider whether each room can be adapted to the needs of working with sound. We will also talk about the sound itself, its properties, the materials used to shape it, and how knowledge of acoustics influences the perception of music in everyday life....

I've been wanting to interview my today's guest since I talked to him for the first time. In fact, from the moment I met him, I knew that he couldn't be missing from the Studio Knowledge Magazine guest list...

 

Norman Varney is the owner of AV RoomService, an acoustic design company that also offers a few acoustical products. Having been in the noise control and sound quality industries for decades he has earned awards for acoustical products and room designs while working for A/V RoomService, Kinetics Noise Control, Owens Corning Science & Technology Center and MIT. Norman Varney has presented white papers to the industry and written articles on acoustics for numerous publications over the years,

as well as participated in seminars and panel discussions. He is an active member of ASTM (Committee E-33 on Building and Environmental Acoustics), Acoustic Society of America, Institute of Noise Control Engineering, AES, NAMM, CEDIA, etc.

 

He is one of the people with whom should start every planning of the acoustic space intended for the recording, mixing, or mastering studio. He is one of the people we all should learn from, gain knowledge and experience and today I have the honour and great pleasure to introduce you to the first part of my conversation with it...

Adrian Lucas Witaszczyk: Hi Norman, thank you so much for finding the time to talk!

Norman Varney: Hi Adrian Thanks for inviting me here!

 

Norman, looking at your activities on different websites and forums, you can get the impression that you know almost everything about sound.... about sound waves, about their specificity, characteristics... is the science about it a field that can be fully recognized, or is it a field in which there is still room for exploitation?

 

I know more than most because I have been studying sound reproduction for many decades. I learn something new nearly every day. The more I learn the more I learn there is to learn. Understanding sound, like other sciences, continues to evolve. We didn’t have Time Delay Spectrometry (TDS) analysis until 1967, and it wasn’t until 1980 that the technology was affordable and available to other professionals. In the last ten years we have expanded our understanding of the relationship between perception and emotion through new technology around biology, etc. There are still things we can hear that we can’t measure, and/or can’t quantify into relatable units. We typically talk about audio with very ambiguous and subjective words.

How much does it change the way you look at music when you have the knowledge you have?

I certainly appreciate a good recording because of it, but then I can still enjoy a bad recording, if the music is good.

Can you say something about the acoustics of the room in which the recordings were made just by listening to the records?

Certainly when they are recorded in a supporting acoustic space. However, most of today’s recordings are direct or close mic’d, leaving the room acoustics out of the recording. I love recordings where the band plays together- there is an energy and there is interplay among the musicians that gets lost when recording separately. It is fun to hear the acoustic environment to, which requires the playback environment to be controlled. It is tough to hear the acoustics of the Concertgeboouw in a garage. The more control of the playback, the closer to accurate reproduction.

Yeah, you touched an important thing. Why do you think we have this tendency to skip room microphones today?

Is it about money? The lack of availability of suitable rooms or just.... Easy access to equipment, lack of time, development of home recording?

My guess is because most music today is not recorded in a space or not in the same space, so room acoustics would not apply. When musicians are playing together, the room can be supportive and contribute to the sound. When not, it needs to be eliminated to avoid confusion and add artificial reverberation. I think is kind of a lost art right now. Hopefully it will return. For certain music, it can add beneficial ambiance to recording giving it a unique feel or sound.

You are also a drummer, and what we are talking about here affects drums in particular, right? More and more albums have samples instead of real, organic drums recorded in a real room.... What do you think about this kind of VST instruments, sound banks, arranging drums in midi.... What do you think are the pros and cons of such solution?

Pros- VST allow you to work out concepts ahead of recording, can allow non-musicians to play and write in place of actual instrumentalists, and/or are too complex for available musicians, save cost of musicians.

 

Cons- does not allow much human element to be conveyed. Good phrasing (timing, dynamics and tonal textures) is very, very difficult to program convincingly. The sounds are getting more realistic, but without the human touch, still sounds sterile and uninteresting. We need personality to make emotional connections.

Let's go back to the things connected with room acoustics...

 

How far does your knowledge go, your competence ... do you have knowledge about, for example, the placement of microphones? Their types and sound?

Some. I graduated from Sherwood Oaks Experimental College for Recording in 1978. That was a weekly year-long course with top engineers in studios around Hollywood, like Capitol, A&M, etc. I have been making recordings since I was four years old. I have recorded all kinds of music both live to two-track and over-dubbing with multi-track, analog and digital. Built a basic home recording studio when we built our house in the early 80’s with a 16-track board and 8-track R2R. I recognize different microphone characteristics and placement. I especially enjoy making purist-type recordings.

Do you deal only with acoustics or also with power design and issues related to studio voltage? I'm asking this because poorly designed also generates some kind of unwanted noise.

Yeah, quality power is very important. Not only to control unwanted noise, but also to deliver high instantaneous current, and low ground impedance. In 1995 I engineered the multi-million dollar electrical layout for Sky Walker’s scoring stage.

It included not only a powerful separately derived AC system, it was balanced and incorporated a signal reference grounding grid. In addition, we isolated analog from digital and recording from playback. That was very innovative back then.

I think it may still be the quietest recording studio on the planet. Depending on the project limitations, I prioritize the electrical design to fit the goals.

Why is proper acoustic adaptation of the room so important? I have an impression that today it is an element that is increasingly omitted in home studios ? 

Great question. I believe there is a hierarchy for acoustics for optimal playback.

 

1. Physical set-up. The listener and speaker positions should be optimized in relation to each other and the room in order for proper playback. For example; a stereo boom box would not be stereo if the listener was too far away and off to one side.

In addition the boom box playback would not sound natural if it or the listener we placed against a wall.

 

2. Calibration. If the electronics are not calibrated, nothing is optimized, nor consistent.

 

3. Acoustics. This would include treatments to control room modes, first order reflections and reverberation times. If things are not “normalized”, there will be a lot of unnecessary frustration.

If we were to stop for a moment at the points you mentioned... Can you develop them? 

To me, all three of these things are for one goal, it’s just that there is a hierarchy to achieve it. The goal is to have a neutral playing field so that what was intended artistically can be experienced by all, studio to studio, and ideally, room to room.

Can every room be adapted to the recording studio today? For example, such a typical bedroom in an ordinary house...

 

Of course, when recording direct and monitoring with headphones, you can make it work. Otherwise, the room acoustics will have unique influence on both the recording and the mix, by being picked up by the microphone, and adding to the direct sound waves from the loudspeakers. As you know, room modes, reverberation and ambient noise floor are big influencers to the sound. Most rooms can be controlled, but there may be limitations like size: A small bedroom will not support low frequencies and may be too dead for some types of recordings. On the other hand, a room that is very large may have too many reflective surfaces for some recordings. There are always constraints like; real-estate, budget, construction, shape, décor, time, etc. that cause you to compromise. No room is perfect.

Materials for acoustic adaptation of a studio are quite expensive .... where to start shopping? 

Some are, some are not. They should be considered the most important component in the studio. The fundamentals are so important. If you don’t have them under control, you aren’t going to get far. Great equipment cannot sound great in a poor environment. Don’t forget that physical set-up and equipment calibration must be in place before you can start working on other issues. If your studio has room mode issues or the reverberation times are not controlled (uncontrolled rooms have unique RT curves, as unique as our voice or signature), your material will not translate well in other studios or rooms.

Bass traps are an element that many home recording and mixing engineers install at the very beginning. Perhaps because they are simple to understand, it is worse with diffusers, what is the responsibility of the diffuser what are its types and how to place it properly to fulfill its role? Does its shape and thickness matter?

The diffuser is to scatter the sound energy back into the room. For recording rooms, they help to disperse the sound energy more evenly around the room, smoothing “hot spots”. For playback rooms, they can be used to control first order reflections, enhance the soundstage, add some air or sparkle, etc. The location and orientation is critical to its performance.

Its size characteristics are directly related to its frequency response.

So, what sizes, roughly speaking, correspond to what frequencies? If we could determine roughly... you know, low, low mids, high mids, top....

Not only the size of the diffuser will determine which frequencies will be affected (see attached), but also the angle of incident, and for number-theory well-type diffusers, the distance from the diffuser surface (before it is effective) matters.

Differences between Diffusor and Absorber? If you were to explain to a complete beginner what these elements do in a relatively simple language, when should they be used?

An acoustic absorber will transform sound energy to thermal energy. An acoustic diffuser will scatter or reflect sound energy back into the space.

Why do you think people still underestimate the acoustic adaptation of a room today?

Lack of experience and understanding. Most people don’t realize how much influence acoustics has on the performance.

With poor acoustics, the money you spend on equipment will never match its potential, your mixes will never sound the same anywhere else, and the music will likely not have the emotional impact it would otherwise. Most people have never experienced controlled acoustics. Those that have understand how important it is. Sound doesn’t have to be left chaotic. Sound can be organized.

Norman Varney and I will meet again twice. In the second part of the interview, which soon will be available here, we will take a closer look at Norman's biography, look back to his first steps in the industry, find out the reasons why he decided to deal with the acoustic adaptation of rooms. We'll talk more about his company and the Av RoomService products, we'll also talk more about designing the perfect recording and production studio envirnoment....

 

More information about Norman Varney, AV RoomService and their products can be found at: http://avroomservice.com

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