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Why do so many recording sound bright or "harsh"?

Feanor

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#1
Folks, maybe most or all of us would agree some, (not all but too many), recordings sound overly bright, especially on the top highs. Why is this? And what can be done about it?

As for why, one explanation often offered is "close micing", i.e. microphones place very close to the performer. Is that a big factor? Seem plausible as a factor to me. If the microphone is too close to the performer, (a) more high frequency harmonics might be captured that are typically hear from an audience member position, and (b) echos are presumably not captured that would typically be heard in the audience.

I don't know if "close micing" is all or part of the problem, but if it is, one wonders why recording engineers persist in the practice. A few years back a professional recording engineer on another forum told us that recording engineers prefer close micing because it is easier and quicker than minimal microphoning. The latter requires 'way too much attention to the recording venue acoustics and placement of the performers.

As for the remedies for brightness or "harshness", that seems to me to a long and complicated history. (But before I start, I'm going to link to discussion of Steve Guttenberg's recent video ... https://www.audiosciencereview.com/...n-your-audio-system-be-too-transparent.15425/ ).

I seem to recall 'way back in the days when LP's where the only medium for recording other than tape, that I and others agreed that some recordings simply sounded better than others regardless of equipment. True that some recordings might induce sibilance due to cartridge mistracking but others were just too bright. Tone controls or HF filters were commonly used to roll off highs.

When CDs came along, very many people insisted that digital was per se "harsh" and reverted to vinyl -- there are plenty of those folks still around, (though maybe fewer than there used to be). About the same time tube equipment became came popular again. The principal reason for the continued favor of vinyl and tubes seems to be to counter brightness and harshness.

Another, let's say more modern, approach is to roll off highs is digital equalization. It seems almost universal that folks sculpt their equalization curves to lower HF below flat response.

Anyway, it would be nice if all recordings sounded nice, not bright or harsh. Many sound great, why can't they all?
 

ahofer

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#2
As for why, one explanation often offered is "close micing", i.e. microphones place very close to the performer. Is that a big factor? Seem plausible as a factor to me. If the microphone is too close to the performer, (a) more high frequency harmonics might be captured that are typically hear from an audience member position, and (b) echos are presumably not captured that would typically be heard in the audience.
I think this must be part of it. I've been listening to some re-masters of older symphony recordings - Bernstein, Bruno Walter, and they have that lush, sound. A couple of modern labels that seem to do it better - Chandos, Telarc - use pretty minimal mic setups, I believe.

If you listen to strings in very near field, they can be pretty harsh, and the dynamic spikes are probably more challenging for recording.
 

pozz

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#4
One important reason is compression. It has two effects: with heavy compression the difference between a loud passage and a some one is lessened, so you get to hear all of the textures. It is applied to individual tracks and globally. Compressed vocals usually have to be run through a de-esser given the way sibilance is emphasized. The second effect is the addition of nonlinearities which are part and parcel of the way compression operates.

Combine that with the recordings, render and final mix all at close to 0dBFS and you have a recipe for sharp, energetic aggressive sound. In certain genres hard limiting and clipping is considered part of the aesthetic.
 

sigbergaudio

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#6
I increasingly find the opposite to be true, almost no modern recordings sound bright on my system. I find that many older recordings (80s and earlier) are lacking in bass, and may sound "bright" as a result, but not necessarily because they have too much treble. Depends a bit on what genres you listen to as well I guess. Some rock genres (and periods) tend to be pretty bright.

I also don't agree that compression / low dynamic range necessarily must mean harsh sound.

Note that I have a system that is intentionally emphasizing the low end, not a flat response.

Speculation: If you find many recordings to be too bright, the balance may be a bit off in your system - do you simply have loudspeakers that is too bright for your liking? Or possibly the room have too many hard surfaces, resulting in excessive reflections and too much information in the top end as a result.
 

Blumlein 88

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#7
I think it is a combination of factors. One is I think the over-use of LDC microphones. Large Diaphragm Condensors on vocals, and other gear. They inherently have a rising response in upper-mids and treble. It makes a voice or instrument stand out a complex mix. Of course if everything is like that then it gets rather bright. Then there is close miking on top of it, and most of all compression.

Ribbon mics or SDC's help some on the front end, but if someone does enough processing nothing can help all that much. Why it is popular? I don't know. Seems since the advent of CD with a truly flat response too many recordings get bright in the end.
 

MakeMineVinyl

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#10
A lot of it is that engineers are molding the sound to the lowest common denominator, so that the recording will sound "good" on even the cheapest rig. There's also a need to make the sound a bit bigger and brighter than in real life so that in a home environment where the acoustic space is quite different than the original venue, the result will sound "real". In addition, some listeners simply like bright, compressed sound and expect that.

If a recording is made of an orchestra in an auditorium using perfectly "flat" microphones and no EQ, the resulting sound will be be quite "dead" when played in a home. So microphones for this use usually have a tip-up in their frequency response in the high end to make the recording have more "air". The harsh recordings are the ones which over-do this.
 

Robin L

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#11
There's plenty of reasons why most recordings have treble elements that can be called "exaggerated", though this really boils down to taste The obvious solution for you is a tone control. Does tube gear roll off the upper octaves? A lot does, particularly vintage gear. Can you have gear that rolls off the top? Modern gear is usually more accurate on top, meaning you will hear more top, bad or good. Older, tape-based recordings, had "soft limiting", the frequency extremes would be rolled off as level increased. And sometimes, like with most of Columbia's reissues of pre-Dolby records, issued in the 1970s, there's a unified decision to make the sound "brighter". In any case, it all varies from recording to recording. If this sort of thing bothers you, you need tone controls.
 

pozz

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#12
They sound the way they sound because the recording, mixing, and mastering engineers liked it that way.
The main word I've heard used to describe the end result is competitive. That, and it should take account of the most common speakers/headphones around. So everyone is trying to please an indefinable crowd that isn't themselves specifically. Similar to any kind of high-pressure work gig. Hard to navigate these practices once they become artistic convention as well.
 
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Feanor

Feanor

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Thread Starter #13
One important reason is compression. It has two effects: with heavy compression the difference between a loud passage and a some one is lessened, so you get to hear all of the textures. It is applied to individual tracks and globally. Compressed vocals usually have to be run through a de-esser given the way sibilance is emphasized. The second effect is the addition of nonlinearities which are part and parcel of the way compression operates.

Combine that with the recordings, render and final mix all at close to 0dBFS and you have a recipe for sharp, energetic aggressive sound. In certain genres hard limiting and clipping is considered part of the aesthetic.
Very interesting. For my part I listen to mainly Classical music where compression and high mix levels are used to a much less extent. Nevertheless "harshness" is very common; it's a notable problem for violin, brass, soprano voices, and the like. The best recordings I have, at least for large scale works, the mix levels are very low compared to Jazz or popular music recordings, or even chamber music recordings.
 

Robin L

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#14
Very interesting. For my part I listen to mainly Classical music where compression and high mix levels are used to a much less extent. Nevertheless "harshness" is very common; it's a notable problem for violin, brass, soprano voices, and the like. The best recordings I have, at least for large scale works, the mix levels are very low compared to Jazz or popular music recordings, or even chamber music recordings.
What you're hearing is probably not compression. I've recorded "Classical" music, the microphones used for those sorts of recordings tend to be mostly small diaphragm condensers, they tend to be bright.

What are your loudspeakers, headphones? Does your gear have tone controls?
 
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Feanor

Feanor

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Thread Starter #15
I increasingly find the opposite to be true, almost no modern recordings sound bright on my system. I find that many older recordings (80s and earlier) are lacking in bass, and may sound "bright" as a result, but not necessarily because they have too much treble. Depends a bit on what genres you listen to as well I guess. Some rock genres (and periods) tend to be pretty bright.

I also don't agree that compression / low dynamic range necessarily must mean harsh sound.

Note that I have a system that is intentionally emphasizing the low end, not a flat response.

Speculation: If you find many recordings to be too bright, the balance may be a bit off in your system - do you simply have loudspeakers that is too bright for your liking? Or possibly the room have too many hard surfaces, resulting in excessive reflections and too much information in the top end as a result.
As I said in another response, I'm mainly a Classical listener. For Classical at least, I agree that newer recordings tend to sound better with respect to brightness and also for resolution and transparency.

It's clear to me that resolution doesn't require brightness, and I have many fine recordings that prove it.

I think my system is pretty well balanced, and my speakers are very capable of distinguishing subtle up-stream differences. Again, many recordings sound just great so I don't have an overall problem with respect to balance.
 

Blumlein 88

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#16
There is a big microphone shoot out over at gearslutz. Dozens of microphones recording a vocalist, and vocalist in a mix of instruments. When I go thru and pick the one I like the best on the vocalist it isn't the one where the vocalist sounds best in a mix of instruments. A mic with that upper end emphasis really does let a voice "cut thru the mix". So when you are listening to various mixes in the studio that brighter one will get picked. Probably better if there was a discipline to pick the more accurate one.

There is a much more complicated circle of confusion both in performance and target result in recording than there is on playback.
 

Dimifoot

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#17
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Feanor

Feanor

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Thread Starter #18
There's plenty of reasons why most recordings have treble elements that can be called "exaggerated", though this really boils down to taste The obvious solution for you is a tone control. Does tube gear roll off the upper octaves? A lot does, particularly vintage gear. Can you have gear that rolls off the top? Modern gear is usually more accurate on top, meaning you will hear more top, bad or good. Older, tape-based recordings, had "soft limiting", the frequency extremes would be rolled off as level increased. And sometimes, like with most of Columbia's reissues of pre-Dolby records, issued in the 1970s, there's a unified decision to make the sound "brighter". In any case, it all varies from recording to recording. If this sort of thing bothers you, you need tone controls.
I have used and still use so roll-off of highest frequencies -- it helps a little but rarely gets rid of problem. That is, I think there is something more to it than merely an upward sloping response curve on the recording.
 
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Feanor

Feanor

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Thread Starter #19
Have you measured your room/system interaction?
Yes I have at least in a crude way. I have used my Dayton OmniMic system to measure my speakers near-field and away from reflecting surfaces; I have also measure the response from my listening position.

My room does have a major effect but it isn't to exaggerate the highs, if anything it rolls them off a bit. However there are mid-range bands where the response is cut or boosted. However my current strategy is to leave the mid-range unadjusted -- my speakers are pretty flat as measured in the near field. I think approach gives me the most transparency and 'air', (though maybe I'm self-deluded).
 

Sgt. Ear Ache

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#20
I have used and still use so roll-off of highest frequencies -- it helps a little but rarely gets rid of problem. That is, I think there is something more to it than merely an upward sloping response curve on the recording.
How old are you? Age-related hearing issues could play a part. I seem to be a little more sensitive to some frequencies than I was in the past.
 
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