Norman Varney Interview

Part 3:"People often spend too much of their budget on equipment and wonder why it doesn’t perform as it should...."

In the third and final part of the interview with Norman Varney, we will go deeper into room acoustics and talk about issues like, how to adapt the ideal studio, in the context of a mastering studio. We will also talk about the relationship between listening monitors and room adaptation. There will also be issues related to monitors and room calibration, home studio, vst reverbs and modern technology....

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.

In the second part of the interview with Norman Varney (link here) we went back to the beginnings of Norman's professional path, went down an interesting journey through the development of technology

and looked at AV RoomService headquarters to make some in depth talk about products for room acoustics. We also talked more about designing the perfect recording and production studio environment....

Today we will go deeper into room acoustics and talk about issues like, how to adapt the ideal studio environment, in the context of a mastering studio. We will consider whether the acoustic adaptation of the room can influence how we perceive the sound quality of plugins. We will also consider which songs are worth using when calibrating the monitors and the room. There will also be issues related to home studio, vst reverb's and modern technology....

Adrian Lucas Witaszczyk: How to adopt an ideal mastering studio? And if you could explain to my readers what makes the acoustics in the mastering studio different from the studio in which we mix, if at all… 

Norman Varney: I would say that a mixing and mastering studio would have the same acoustic criteria. It’s all about hearing just the sound waves from the speakers with just a little controlled reverberation from the room. Ideally about 0.25-0.40 seconds from 125 Hz. and up, with a little longer decay below 125 Hz, depending on room size. This is a psychoacoustic requirement, otherwise our brain becomes confused that what we see does not correlate with what we hear. I’ve had people feel nauseous being in a fully anechoic chamber because the reflections are not there. Note, we don’t feel weird listening outdoors or with headphones.

Which commercial recording studio has the best acoustics in your opinion?

When asking me, I would answer with whatever studio sounds the most neutral. Certainly, studios can have unique and desirable resonances or reverberation times for a particular type of music or sound. Ideally the studio is neutral.

This way you have complete and consistent control. The end results have a better chance of sounding good everywhere. Studios ought to be laboratories for sound to be created - remove the variables. Don’t fight the sound, be comfortable and confident. You’ll have quicker and better results and your clients will be happy, they will return and they will recommend.

A question one of my readers once asked me... better good monitors and poor room adaptation or good room adaptation and cheap monitors?

 

Quality equipment cannot sound good in a poor environment. Mid-fi set up right in a good environment will beat state-of-the-art equipment in a poor one every time. Set-up, calibration, acoustics, equipment is the hierarchy. People often spend too much of their budget on equipment and wonder why it doesn’t perform as it should.

A way to deal with the so-called standing Waves?

1. Room dimensions for optimal mode distribution.

 

2. Room construction materials and methods to help absorb the modes.

 

3. Listener location within the room to avoid the existing modes.

 

4. Speaker location within the room to avoid the existing modes.

 

5. Interior acoustic treatments to further smooth problem modes.

 

6. Electronic equalization when needed.

 

The way to get a great vocal box at home?

A clothes closet can work great. Building an isolation booth can sometimes sound funny on the low-end when they are too small. Creating a small one around the microphone in the middle of the room can be very effective and easy.

 

People who deal with room acoustics, who can adapt rooms aren't so many.... You don't talk about these people as often as about those who sit behind the console, you don't write long articles, but it's people like you who start the magic of sound, the whole adventure... Why is it so little about these issues today?

 

I think because acoustics is unsexy, intangible, too complicated, and not instantaneous. Equipment is all of those things, so they gravitate to equipment.

In a way you connect all these worlds, it is in you that all the lines of the world of sound production meet....

Acoustics is about audio, so for music, it is in the center of it all.

You have to be a big fan of music? Are you a music fan? What records do you consider to be the best recorded?

Yeah! I have over 5,000 LPs alone. 90% all of them were purchased before the nineties. I like a wide variety of music styles.

I have many favorite recording engineers, recording mixers and masters. For the most part, the ones I favor are the ones that let the sounds of the musicians and instruments come through. Sometimes a live recording is impressive when the balance between the venue and the musicians creates an “I’m there” experience, like with most any Reference Recording.

Sometimes a electronically created space is magical. Sometimes it consists of several created spaces together that create the magic, like with BT, Billie Eilish, Tool, etc.

You mentioned Tool, do you have any theory about why this band is so popular with science professionals?

I don't know if you knew it, but many physicists, mathematicians, university lecturers, acoustics and studio designers declare their love for Tool. Do you think it's because of the structure of their tracks? Changes of tempo? Time signatures?

I was not aware of this. I don’t know.

Do you have any records you use to check the results of your work? 

I created a CD that I use when I “voice” systems with the room. It contains a large variety of music that I am very familiar with. I’ll start out with a few piano recordings because they give a quick overall idea of the sound. If I had to pick one recording to use, it would be The Beatles “Martha My Dear”. It has most everything you need to judge the sound.

 

That's interesting! What elements of this song are useful in the context of calibrate the studio? Can you tell me something more about the qualities this song has that are so special?

“Martha My Dear”, the MFSL LP version. It seems to have everything included; It starts out with just piano (a Bechstein Grand), which gives you so much information regarding timbre, harmonics, attack and decay, even micro dynamics.

Next we have Paul’s voice along with an eight member string section. They are panned; piano left,

Paul center and strings right. These three were likely recorded with Neumann U47 microphones, which is a large diaphragm condenser microphone with excellent upper midrange and clarity, as well as good bottom end.

Next enters a seven member brass section that begins to push the song forward, starting out first with tuba and trombone presenting nice, what I call ‘blat’ from the brass- you can hear their lips moving against the mouthpiece. There is very little reverberation added up to this point. Next is a short little flugelhorn solo and now we start to really pick it up and drive the song with the added drums, guitar and bass guitar. The next refrain has no vocal and the brass take over the melody with added reverberation (from actual chambers) and hand claps. The brass is now spread out and you can even hear echo blended into the stereo mix. Finally we return to the beginning section once more to end it. Recorded at Trident Studio with Berry Sheffield as engineer. Simply well done. Note that this number was recorded and mixed inside of 24 hours.

So it has it all: frequency breadth, soundstage width, instrument separation, and all kinds of texture, harmonic content and dynamic range. Add to this, it has drive, which is hard for most systems to reproduce.

How we can learn to recognize songs that are suitable for this purpose?  How do you choose them? 

What to look out for?  What is the methodology of choosing such works?

Well, as I said earlier, when voicing, I use a voicing CD that I put together that has well-recorded pieces that I’m very familiar with. Each offer particular characteristics of music for reference such as; soundstage depth or width, bass extension, voice, choir, acoustic guitar, brass, organ, orchestra, big band, rock, even good electronically produced music.

But mostly, I’m after acoustic instruments that have been recorded live in great acoustic venues. There are heavily produced exceptions, but simple live stereo recordings are hard to beat. They capture the information and energy without losing the subtle details that give the music its soul. Yes, I have “Martha My Dear” on it too.

 

So, there are two important concepts that your reference material should incorporate:

 

1. Some recordings that are natural sounding, as in acoustic instruments recorded in acoustic environments.

Of course, not all your material should be acoustic, but acoustic will remove the many variables and offer a more focused target. Electronic and heavily processed music will be tougher to tell what is ‘real’ or natural sounding.

 

2. Recordings that you are very familiar with, and how they should sound, and how well can you hear the DNA of the instruments themselves and the space around them.

 

Can you focus on all of the instruments easily one by one and hear into them? You can probably distinguish the sound of a Stratocaster from say a Les Paul, but can you identify the position of the five-way selector switch for the three single coil pickups? A good recording will allow the bite, the rich harmonic tone, the dynamics, and the space to come through,

making it easier to hear these things. You might even be able to identify the string gauge, pick gauge, bottle neck material, amp model, selection of microphone, pre-amp, compressor, etc.

There are certainly rock recordings that I’ve used over the decades because I know how they should sound.

I’ve heard them played over hundreds of systems. Maybe there are recordings that you produced yourself that you know exactly how it should sound; the bass, the just-off-center percussion, the balance of the mix, where the oboe is located,

the sound of the hall, etc. It’s the low-level details that are difficult to resolve if the physical set-up of the listener/speakers within the room, the calibration of the equipment and/or the acoustics of the room (noise floor, room modes, first order reflections, reverberation times, etc.) is not correct. As you listen and are familiar as to what to listen for, you are able to recognize the problem and therefore how to resolve it.

 

An important tip: It is good to keep your yourself calibrated. Meaning, listen to acoustic instruments in acoustic environments often to keep your listening skills fresh and accurate. This is your control or reference. In addition, there is so much more content to hear in such experiences than can be reproduced over a playback system in a room. I am always amazed as I listen to the space, the dynamics and the harmonic content and how glorious live sound is as it propagates freely around me. Hard to reproduce, but inspirational.

Today there is no shortage of youtubers, portals, books and publications on the acoustic adaptation of a home recording studio ... You are certainly browsing through this type of information ... is there anything you never talk about on this type of portals?

I stay away from talking about cables and digital vs. analog. I feel that if you can’t hear the difference, you either don’t have good hearing, haven’t learned how to listen, don’t have a decent acoustic environment, and/or don’t own decent equipment. With good conditions, you should be able to determine differences most of the time.

There is a certain correlation between the acoustic adaptation of the room and the sound of the plugins.... I mean, proper treatment of the room, somewhat improves the quality of sound achieved by plugins. In the sense that the material recorded in a well-adapted room is easier to mix later by plugins. So the acoustic adaptation is somehow combined with the efficiency of the In The Box environment. 

Yes, always true. The truer the room, the truer results. Again, I don’t think many people realize how much the room influences us and our gear. We adapt to the sound of our environment really well and quickly. This does not mean it is ok.

Just the opposite. And then we are compensating for it without even realizing it. For example; suddenly the AC turns off, and you didn’t even realize it was on. Left uncontrolled, the room’s unique reverberation times, room modes, vibrations and noise will mask the details and influence the truth.

What is your opinion about all these very popular headphone mixing applications? This type of software is advertised as an effective remedy for the disadvantages of acoustic room adaptation. Waves has recently released another plugin of this type…

Personally, I don’t like headphones, nor any manipulating electronic algorithms. I only wear headphones when required.

What do you think about plugins like ARC2 from Ik Multimedia? Is it possible to adapt a room with them?

I have never cared for them. They each have a unique sound. They cannot address most room issues. I’m bothered that they are often called “room correction” devices.

What do you think about software such as Altiverb from the perspective of your profession? How would you rate them in terms of fidelity to their sound in terms of room acoustics?

It is hard to beat the real thing, but such tools are simply amazing! They allow creations that are otherwise impossible,

and they do so easily, affordably and well. When applied to a dry-recorded instrument, you’re unlimited. I can remember the days of incorporating spring reverb. Better studios had plate reverb. A few of the best studios had a reverberation chambers.

Then Lexicon came out and I could have most any room reverberation I wanted at my fingertips, wherever I was.

The newest verb plugins are really smooth sounding and even more variable.

The phenomenon of the sound of Abbey Road Studio Two?

 

Wow, I don’t know, but there is a vibe there, it may just be in my head because its history is so important to me.

The acoustics are great. The room is very big, and you have a some control of the reverberation times.

What is the most important element in the adaptation of a home studio? 

Proper set-up and calibration. You shouldn’t go any further until this foundation is addressed.

After all these years, are you still learning something in your profession?

Yeah Adrian! Almost every day! The more you learn, the more you discover that there is more to learn.

The best, most effective acoustic adaptation you've created, designed?

 

When the budget and space allows, I have been able to hit the high-marks for acoustic goals many times; for example: noise floor (<RC-20 (N)), reverberation times (0.25-0.4 sec. from 125 Hz and up, little more decay depending on room size below 125 Hz.), dynamic range (>87 dB (A) SPL), frequency response (per manufacturer’s spec), first order reflections (10-15 dB down from 500 Hz. and up), room modes (within a specified articulation criteria), Speech Transmission Index (Excellent), output levels (within 0.1 dB), subjective soundstage and timbre, etc.

What do you think about the sound of music today, the direction of the audio industry?

I have several of answers for you:

1. If you’re asking me about what I think about music that is popular today, I would say we are going backwards.

We are increasingly composing music with juvenile constructions, we are constantly removing the human elements, leaving music that is lifeless, tough to connect with emotionally, and is boring. I believe that dynamics are as important to music as phrasing, both of which are missing in most of today’s hits. I enjoy musicians playing live together. There is an energy, a chemistry of creative juices that happen with their interplay. The best music is the uncontrived music. As a drummer, the best music happens when everyone is playing together in a groove and the music plays you.

 

2. Today’s top hits are very homogenous. I was just reading about how the unit sales required for a #1 hit today are now much lower. I also just read that the re-release of “Abbey Road” is #1 on the UK charts. I think both facts say something regarding today’s music interest. There is not near the talent making it to the forefront as there use to be.

Yet, there is more talent on the planet than ever. The populous just seems to thrive on show, rather than actual musicianship.

I think the major record companies have done a con-job on the public over the years. The top-hit formulas are simpler, and so are the productions. Sound quality can be great, but who cares if the composition and musicianship is lacking?

The record companies don’t spend near what they used to to produce the recording, they spend it on PR for whomever is currently trending. They no longer develop artists. Think of Pink Floyd- they would never have produced one of the most successful albums of all time if they were treated the way artists are treated these days. They would have been dropped several years before they created "Dark Side Of The Moon".

 

3. I live for newly released music from the old musical artists I love. There is very little new artist music that I connect with.

I have never been a “pop” music fan, but the Grammy Awards now is pretty pathetic. I’m sure there is a lot of music that I would love, but it is hard to find. The “if you like this, then you may like this” algorithms on the internet never seem to work for me. I still rely on friends who know my tastes to turn me onto new music.  

 

4. I don’t like the over-priced equipment manufacturers, I don’t like manufacturers who don’t back their claims, and I think the number of channels for consumer playback is out of control. It is unnecessary and increases the chances of playback error.

It just sells more equipment for the manufacturers.

If you were to point out the best source of information about acoustic adaptation of rooms in your opinion? Some one book on this subject... You would recommend....

One book? I own so many and they cover different areas of acoustics; noise control, mechanical, architectural, recording applications, treatments, testing, etc. I do recommend to people wanting a good basic introduction to acoustics to get “The Master Handbook of Acoustics” by F. Alton Everest.

Any professional challenges? dreams? aspirations? 

Develop more products, teach more people, develop new ASTM acoustic lab testing standards that need to be updated, research and study acoustics in the lab, and also conduct jury studies to develop value perceptions.

Some tips for those who read our conversation…

It all starts with the foundation. If the foundation is not stable, you will be forever chasing your tail in frustration trying to compensate without success.

Work of which you are most proud? If you were to point out the work of your life, would it be? 

 

I would say that I am most proud of the research I did at Owens Corning’s Science & Technology Center where I proved through bi-feedback tests that acoustics can control our emotions. We built two identical control rooms and treated one with what was then a precursor the FRP acoustic system. With a selected jury, we found that while watching a 7 minute clip of “Das Boot” in the acoustically treated room, heart rate, respiration, etc. was elevated. By removing the audibility of the room, the experience was more involving.

Thank you very much, Norman! It was a very inspiring conversation! 

 

Thank you Adrian, it was a lot of great questions!

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

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