Critical listening

Headphones are something of a necessary evil. For listening to playback, nothing beats good bi-amped nearfield monitors in a near-anechoic chamber. I look back fondly on the nights I used to spend in UTEMS listening to my work on a pair of Genelec 1030a nearfields. Genelec stopped making the 1030a last year–something kind of sad about that (underscored by Coltrane’s recording of “Lush Life” which just popped on as I write this). The Tannoy Dual-concentrics we had in the MIDI room weren’t too bad, either. Tannoy, a Canadian company, came up with the idea of placing the high-frequency driver right in the center of the low-frequency driver. This creates a single point source. Neat idea. But the Genelecs are a dream; the Finns know how to do good audio.

So what if you don’t have a quiet room–no outside noise, no worries about your sound leeching out and bothering people (a concept I’ve tried in vain to explain to my downstairs neighbour for the last four years)? Well, then it’s time to slip on this cans. So, I like the Finns for their powered speakers, but when it comes to microphones and headphones, there’s only one place you need to visit, and that is Austria! A good pair of AKG cans, mine are the K240s, are as ubiquitous in studios as an old Strat, a pair of Yamaha NS10Ms, or a coked-out groupie. And for good reason. First, they are beyond comfortable. They actually feel good on your head. That’s important for when you’re doing a 10-hour session. Second, they sound good. It’s too bad they discontinued the 600-Ohm version of the 240. Only professional equipment can drive it to loud levels. At least that way, you can only burn your ears out on good-quality audio.

Cans have one legitimate, important, use in audio, and that’s in quality checking. You more easily hear detail on them that can be masked by nearfields. Unless you have your nearfields running at a crushing SPL. Bad edits, small clicks, pops, weird vocal noises, all these tend to leap out at you on the cans.

But cans can also give you special treats. You can sometimes hear comments, jokes–audio Easter eggs–especially during count-ins and fade-outs. This morning, I heard something I had always missed on a song that I’ve heard a million time before, which is what prompted this little foray. On “Back in Black”, on the final upbeat before the first E Major chord, you can hear someone way in the background say, “four”. I’m not sure why, but there’s something special to me about that.

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