A Geek’s Guide to Creating the Perfect Music Experience
Is there anything that goes better than geeks and quality music equipment?
Of course not!
Music gear, from headphones and guitars to speakers and MIDI keyboards, naturally invites obsessive geekiness. Barring the simplest of equipment, most music gear is technically complex. Small differences in construction – such as the way a coil winds around a magnet in a turntable cartridge – can yield big differences in performance.
So if you’re a geek, what can you do to maximize your listening pleasure? I’ll share some answers below.
Choose Headphones with a Flat Frequency Response
A headphone’s frequency response range defines which frequencies it suppresses, which it amplifies. A headphone that over-emphasizes high frequencies (i.e. the “treble” range) will have a sharp, even shrill output. If it emphasizes low frequencies (i.e. the “bass” range), you’ll get a loud thump on every beat which can even be unpleasant.
Most commercial headphones are designed to play mainstream songs. Since the latter usually emphasize the beat and melody (which occupy the bass and treble ranges, respectively), commercial headphones typically overinflate the high and low frequency ranges.
The frequency response range for commercial headphones, thus, often looks like a “smile” curve.
A smile curve in Ableton’s EQ 8 tool (Credit: MIDINation/Ryan Harrell)
While this might create a punchy and exciting listening experience when you first try the headphones, you eventually end up missing out a lot. Much of musical complexity takes place in the frequencies commercial headphones don’t emphasize – the mids.
Thus, you might get a thumping bass, but you’ll miss out on a track’s effective use of background guitar riffs, saxophone melodies, and subtle drumming tricks on the toms.
Pick headphones with a flat frequency response range.
As the name suggests, these headphones don’t emphasize any frequency. The bass, mids, and trebles are all equally flat.
This helps you get the listening experience the artist originally wanted you to have. You don’t lose any of the subtleties; every instrument, every sound shines through equally. If you truly care about music – as any geek would – you’ll get a far more pleasurable listening experience.
In fact, all musicians use headphones with flat frequency response (called “studio headphones”) when producing music because they don’t want to miss any sounds.
Some top headphones with a flat frequency response are Sennheiser HD280, beyerdynamic DT770, and Audio Technica ATH-M50x.
Acoustically Treat Your Room for Better Speaker Performance
Have you ever invested in an expensive pair of speakers and felt just…underwhelmed?
The problem wasn’t likely the speakers; it was your room.
The physics of sound is incredibly complex. Like water, sound fills any space it is in. Some of it leaks out, some of it is absorbed, but most of it bounces back off hard surfaces such as walls and furniture. How much, and how far this sound bounces back depends on the geometry of the room and type of materials used in it.
This is why sound echoes in large halls and open churches, and why your voice sounds better in a tight, reflective space such as a bathroom.
When you use speakers in a normal, untreated room, you have no control over how the sound will interact with the room. There might be thick curtains and carpets in the room that absorb much of the sound. The room might have an awkward corner or sharp ceiling edges (such as in an attic) that can bounce off much of the sound, creating a strange echo.
An example of a soundproof anechoic chamber (Credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons)
Hence, for an optimum listening experience, you should consider acoustically treating your room.
Acoustic treatment involves two elements:
- Diffusers: This is a hard surface that bounces sound off it, i.e. diffuses The purpose of diffusers is to control the acoustic energy of a space and divert it in the right direction. Wood, plastic, even polystyrene are common diffusers.
- Absorbers: These are soft surfaces that absorb or soak up sound. The purpose of absorbers is to act like a sponge that takes up all excess frequencies, leaving only the pleasurable sound behind. Absorbers are usually made of acoustic foam, though even thick cloth (such as heavy curtains or carpets) act as good absorbers.
Absorbers and diffusers work together to create a better listening experience. You’ll use the former to soak up shrill sounds and excessive echoes. And you’ll use the latter to divert the rest into the right direction.
To acoustically treat a room, you have to first understand its acoustic properties. An informal way to do this is to clap loudly while walking around the room. Make note of how your claps interact with the room, especially around corners and walls.
- If the claps echo loudly in a space, add absorbers to it.
- If the claps are muffled, add diffusers to that space.
Professional producers use commercial grade soundproofing panels and diffusers, but you don’t have to go through that much effort. By strategically placing curtains, carpets and cushions in your room, you can create your own makeshift absorbers. Similarly, consider adding hard, reflective surfaces – such as whiteboards, plywood panels, etc. – to act as diffusers.
Do this and you’ll find that the performance of your expensive speakers will be much better.
Over to You
There are countless nuances to creating a pleasurable music experience. From the format of the audiophiles to the frequency response of the headphones, small things can create different listening experiences. Use this guide as a starting point in your musical journey.