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Friday, November 9, 2012

Should sound be described in hertz and decibels, or boom, snap, scoop and smack?

The new Stagescape M20D live sound mixer from Line 6 allows novice users to shape sound in subjective terms rather than scientific measurements. Is this a good idea, or does it merely ring-fence ignorance?

by David Mellor, Course Director of Audio Masterclass
Should sound be described in hertz and decibels, or boom, snap, scoop and smack?
Line 6's Stagescape M20D is a novel product in that it displays an image of the performers and instruments. Touch an instrument, and you can adjust its various parameters. As a live mixing console without faders, this is truly a ground breaking idea. Whether it is a good idea or not will only be discovered through real-life experience, but it will be interesting to see how well it catches on.

One of the features of this mixer is that it is intended to be easy for novices to use. One way this happens is in the Quick Tweak mode. The operator is presented with a rectangular X-Y display with a 'virtual joystick' that can be positioned anywhere within the rectangle.

For example, when quick tweaking a bass guitar, the display sets the corners of the rectangle to 'boom', 'snap', 'scoop' and 'smack'. The joystick can be positioned to optimize the sound of the bass guitar in these terms.

Clearly, the question arises of what these terms actually mean. I would guess that boom is low bass, snap is high frequency, scoop is a midrange cut and smack possibly high midrange. I'm just guessing, as any operator would have to. (Yes there's a manual. But how often does a live sound operator get to see that?)
These terms, by the way, change according to the instrument being quick tweaked.
I can't see the advantage of these subjective parameters over good old-fashioned hertz and decibels. When you understand, and get a feeling for hertz and decibels, they apply to all audio. All instruments, all ensembles, vocals, choirs, speech and sound effects. Everything. There are maybe thirty or so different musical instruments in common use. How does it make things easier if they each have their own subjective terms?
And if you want to see a more complete list of instruments (and be amazed), then check this page at Wikipedia. It's worth a look.
I'm going to have to nail my colors to the mast and say that I'm a hertz and decibels kind of guy. Line 6's Stagescape M20D fortunately does provide proper terms in their 'Deep Tweak' mode. But I fear that newcomers to live sound will remain in a permanent state of bafflement.
Want more confusion?
Line 6's subjective terms for bass guitar, as stated earlier, are these...
  • Boom
  • Snap
  • Scoop
  • Smack
On the same day that I first heard about this piece of equipment, I also received a 'helpful' chart of instruments and their frequency ranges. It includes subjective terms for a range of instruments, including those it suggests for bass guitar (the same instrument!)...
  • Rumble
  • Bottom
  • Pluck
  • Pop
For me, hertz and decibels it always will be!

by David Mellor, Course Director of Audio Masterclass


  1. If you press the deep tweak button on this mixer you get a parametric 6 band eq with frequency (Hz) gain (dB) and width (Q).

  2. So the simpler description for an xy control like this would be:

    From the lower right corner to the lower left one the frequency goes from 80 to 350 Hz with an increased ratio of -3dB to -10dB and a Q of 0.3 to 3. when the upper quadrants from the leftft to right are approached this morphs to a high shelf with a frequency from 3kHz to 10kHz and a gain from 0 to 10dB on the right and a low shelf from 3kHz to 80hZ with 0dB to 10dB on the left while the second parametric low low cut band remains where it previously was.

    Is that more descriptive and a good text to put on the screen ?