The arguments between objective versus subjective are very common among professionals. We are always striving to be as objective as we can.
When you listen to audio in a room, though, what is the first thing you think of?
When we send an invoice, for instance, would you rather it be an objective invoice or a subjective one? I think most people would want to know exactly what they are paying for, and the cost associated with what is being billed.
In acoustics, objectivity is crucial. Yet, we find ourselves in the world of subjectivity often. Just start with the word “acoustics.” Objectively, it is defined as the branch of physics that deals with the study of all mechanical waves in gases, liquids, and solids, and covers aspects such as vibration, sound, ultrasound, and infrasound. In other words, it is the study of waves, and how they interact in their given environment.
Those are very objective ways to look at acoustics.
Subjectively though, what comes to mind first?
You may think of acoustic guitars, or maybe you might think of loud or quiet.
When you listen to audio in a room, though, what is the first thing you think of? Generally, the words that you come up with tend to be subjective terms, ones that often relate to how it makes us feel.
I would argue that to define sound or acoustics objectively takes practice and requires a deliberate effort.
An exercise that I used to put myself through, was to listen to a room and write down objective and subjective words to describe what I was hearing.
It was much more difficult, than one might think.
Sound generally gives you a sense of feeling, when you encounter it. The guitar might be really “warm,” or a hi hat might be “harsh,” but rarely do we talk about the real objective terms that these subjective terms equate to.
Why does this matter?
The answer is that most of the time, it doesn’t.
Most of the time if I say that a kick drum is too boomy, you are going to basically know what I mean. Or if I say, that a guitar tone is very bright, you know generally that there is too much high end in the tone.
Problems arise, though, when two people interpret a particular comment in differing ways. This often happens with the word, “bad.” To different people, that word means very different things. Each may agree that a space sounds bad, but one can reach by asking for more low-end, while the other may want less.
One of my favorite subjective terms that I hear often is “live,” as in “The room is so live man!”
I have to be honest, I have no idea what this really means, even if I always wonder exactly what I am going to find, when I hear that as a response.
Studio recording, electronic percussion, keyboard and live sound gear company Alesis defines a “live” room like this. “Overly live room acoustics will impart that twangy coloration to the original music, making it sound blurred and ill-defined…”
If you are like me, that didn’t really clear it up either.
I can only seem to think about how Conway Twitty performing in a room would make it “live.” All joking aside, I bring this up, to show not only another definition that has subjective terminology, but to show again that these are hard to define succinctly and accurately.
When I hear the word “live,” I always follow up by asking about the room materials. For example, is there an exposed concrete floor, metal ceiling, hardwood walls, plain drywall, etc. I want to know if they are saying “live,” because there is no absorption in the room, or because they are experiencing high amounts of reflection, or both.
The answer can actually change a course of treatment.
What is the inverse of “Live”? Dead! What is a “dead” room? This one I hear a lot. It’s something I hear often, because there is a strong belief that if one simply throws up some panels on the wall, they will be fine.
In fact, by doing this, one may make the problem worse.
“Dead” can mean that the room has so few reflections that it sounds unnatural. In artist terms, the “mojo” is gone.
It could also mean that the room is overabsorbed at high frequencies, making it difficult to get the clarity out of the vocals that you are looking for.
Our brains expect some level of liveness out of a room. It expects to hear some reflections and some abnormalities in the sound from time to time.
Objectivity is what takes a subjective conversation and gives it real meaning. Behind every subjective term is a history that a person is taking into account, that may be different than yours.
In acoustics, a course of treatment cannot be determined by subjective measures.
We objectively need to understand what areas are causing issues and what you actually mean by subjective descriptors.
Understanding that objectively describing an issue can be tough, we have routinely crossed to the subjective side to have meaningful conversations, followed up by a deeper understanding of the issues you face.