This is a guest post by Joe Gilder at Home Studio Corner. You can find him on Twitter @joegilder, Facebook.
Spec Sheets vs the Real World
“Well, it says here on the spec sheet that this microphone goes to 30 kHz, but THIS one goes to 40 kHz.”
“So the second one is better, right?”
“Can you even hear 30 or 40 kHz?”
“Well…no, but the second one’s gotta be better.”
Does that conversation sound familiar? Have you been on one end of a conversation like that before? I have. When I worked in audio retail, I used to have those types of conversations all the time. It was always the same type of customer, too. He would research for weeks, even months, before buying anything.
I’m all for some good ol’ research. I’ll usually take an hour or so to research a particular piece of gear before I buy it. The difference between me and Mr. Techy-pants is that I look for real-world advice, not a bunch of technical measurements.
Do Spec Sheets Matter?
Of course they do. They can be a valuable tool for evaluating a piece of equipment…but to be completely honest, I rarely ever look at them.
It’s nice to know the frequency response and polar pattern of a microphone, but I’d rather know how it sounds on a female vocalist, or a kick drum, or an acoustic guitar.
All I look for on spec sheets is the practical stuff. Does this preamp have EQ or compression? If so, how much control do I have? Does this microphone have multiple polar patterns? If so, which patterns are they?
That’s about it for me. I want to know details about how I can USE the gear, not how it specs out on paper.
Is “accuracy” what you want anyway?
If you read through the microphone section of a catalog, you would think accuracy is the holy grail of audio recording. Every manufacturer brags on their microphone’s flat frequency response. “It’s the most accurate microphone you’ll ever use. Compare our microphone to any of our competitors, and you’ll see that our frequency graph is much flatter than theirs.”
Umm…okay…but how does it sound?
The point here is that sometimes accurate isn’t the goal. I want something to sound amazing on my voice. Perhaps that means it needs to be flat and accurate, or perhaps that means it has a nice little bump around 200 Hz and a nice little dip around 3 kHz. Accurate? No. Great-sounding? Yep.
Certainly you want accuracy when it comes to monitoring (studio monitors, headphones, D/A converters, etc.), but other than that, don’t get caught up in all the hype and perfectionism.
An over-driven guitar amp is not accurate at all. It sounds nothing like the incoming signal. And I couldn’t care less what the spec sheet says.
But it sure does sound good…
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
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There is one thing that people do forget when looking at specs, particularly on speakers. Going beyond the range of human hearing is good in two ways:
1) Things tend to work less well at the edges of their performance envelopes.
2) Harmonics with tones outside our range of hearing do affect the realism of a sound.