Building The “Perfect” iTunes Beast, Cont’d.: Is The World Supposed To Be Flat?

Aug 29th, 2007 // 21 Comments

flat.pngLittle did I know yesterday, when I dashed off a quick post about the allegedly “perfect” iTunes graphic-equalizer setting, that I’d be setting off a comments-box firestorm; quite a few people not only bristled at the suggestion that a one-size-fits-all setting could be implemented for music (especially given the lossy nature of MP3s, crummy speakers you’re listening to said lossy files through, etc.), but a lot of people were offended by the idea of tweaking the EQ settings at all. Bad-album-art tipster extraordinare Lucas Jensen, who makes and records music, hit me backchannel with an explanation for that rationale that, in these terms, pretty much makes sense:

“The perfect setting equals no setting, just good quality rips and good speakers. People work HARD to get stuff sounding the way that they want it to–we don’t just mix any way we want. I think bass and treble knobs are plenty. Put it this way: If you don’t like the colors in a movie, you don’t adjust the tint in your TV. You just don’t like the color. It’s not totally analogous, but it’s the choice of the director–or the musical artist–however misguided, to make that sound the way it is. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Admittedly not all speakers are made the same, so compensations can be made. But a perfect setting–theoretically–is a flat one.”

Earlier: Building The Perfect iTunes Beast: Can It Be Done?

  1. schwnj

    If record companies and broadcasters didn’t compress music to increase its volume, this would be true. But I think a lot of the reason I fiddle with the EQ is in an attempt to artificially bring back some dynamic range to the music.

  2. Anonymous

    It depends on who produced the record. As SCHWNJ said, a lot of commercial albums feature very heavy compression, because people apparently want their music to be “louder.”

    Also, not everyone can afford a great speaker setup. But you can double the effectiveness of a middle-tier speaker setup with good equalization.

    The idea that there could be a one-size-fits-all setting is moronic. You think poetry readings and funk songs are using the same pitch ranges? The user who created the so-called “perfect” settings is probably using either his built-in laptop speakers, or a set of computer speakers.

    Oh, and as for Jensen’s comment about how “you don’t adjust the tint in your TV,” maybe YOU don’t, but a lot of people with knowledge of the filmmaking process do. It’s a way of compensating for the loss/distortion of color that occurs when a film print is digitally scanner, compressed, and then played on a (comparatively very low-rez) TV screen.

  3. nsxlane

    The word flat really isn’t the right word. The word being looked for is “transparency.” The general idea is that the most transparent playback of a piece of music is the one that most matches the original recording when played live. If I were sitting in a small bar, for example, listening to Jewel sing Who will save your soul live, and bought her CD to listen at home and replicate the experience, then the more transparent the playback, the more it will feel like I was actually in the bar listening to Jewel. Perfect transparency would be sitting in a room with both Jewel and a stereo system, closing your eyes, and not being able to tell the difference.

    The more transparency you want, the more expensive stereo and speakers you will be paying for. There is a scale though, 80-90% transparency is fairly easy to achieve for a few hundred dollars, but every % point of transparency above 90% costs exponentially more. The most expensive stereo and speaker systems in the world have the highest levels of transparency – in the high 90s. If ever wondered why someone would pay $1000 for a 3 foot speaker cable, transparency is the reason.

    If transparency is what we’re seeking, then, for the recording to sound most like the original – then whatever equalizer setting made the recording sound most like the original would be the preferred setting (that may or may not be flat). In fact, this be highly likely to change from song to song, especially on an MP3 because of its lossy nature.

    Outside of the concept of transparency, people certainly have the right to modify music to their own preference. The whole concept of “artist’s intent” is a bit over-played. If I could change the color scheme of a movie to make it better, I certainly would consider doing it. With music, that’s even more true. I like more bass in my music, and typically adjust that up – ignoring transparency.

  4. Lucas Jensen

    @TheMelange: I used the word Flat because that’s what iTunes calls it.

    And, sure, there’s a little loss of color in the digitalization process, but when do people adjust the tint on the TV like they abuse equalizers? I just don’t know anybody who does that, include film major types.

    What I’m arguing is that the artists (hopefully) intended for you to hear the music the way they intended, so at least give ‘em a shot before jumping into some ridiculous one size fits all scheme.

  5. Lucas Jensen

    @nsxlane: I completely disagree with the assessment that transparency equals Jewel in the room with you (gulp!). Why is the live experience what’s sought after? It’s called the studio and it is different than live. Most of the music I listen to and or record could not be replicated live very easily.

  6. okiedoke

    Jewel, babe … could you get out of the way of the center speaker and fetch me a beer? Oh, and grab the bong on your way back? DO NOT touch the equalizer. Then you can put on the Dead and spread! Thanks, honey.

  7. spinachdip

    @Lucas Jensen: People don’t adjust the TV set because if they’re watching, I don’t know, Ben Hur or some shit, even if the colors and contrast are off, they can still see Charlton Heston just fine, listen to the dialog, and follow the storyline.

    But with music, the sound is all there is. And like audiophiles like to complain, I listen to music on tinny speakers and lossy formats because, shit, I have to pay rent. And because I listen on cheap equipment and formats, I have to compensate. If that means I’m not listening to the same thing the sound engineer signed off on, then so be it.

    If you want to take it back to the TV analogy, it’s like watching Ben Hur on a cheap TV-VCR combo. Yeah, it’s intended to be watched in superfucking wide aspect ratio, but I’d rather have it reformatted and lose about half the frame than try to watch a tiny letterbox screen on an 24-in TV. I really don’t care that I’m not watching exactly what the DP framed.

    I respect the artist’s intent, but ultimately, art is whatever the audience makes of it and fidelity is only a tiny part of what I listen for.

  8. AcidReign

        I actually listen to lossy stuff on my computer with a flat eq. That’s not “flat,” as in out of tune or bad, but “flat,” as in no curve. Ifn it ain’t broke… Yeah, there’s a software equalizer on my Intel hi-def built in sound, but I’ve never really fiddled with it. It sounds decent fed into my Creek headphone amp, which has exactly one knob: volume. (Let’s hear it for volume!) On the other hand, my 1990 model Sony receiver in the living room desperately needs to have the bass and upper mids punched up, and I have to move the virtual sliders every time the power goes out. Grrrr.

        I think equalizers are fun toys to play with. You paid for the CD. You can listen to it with any freaky settings you choose. Everyone’s ears are different.

  9. skepticalglasses

    @TheMelange: Yes, you might calibrate your monitor to neutral, based on your lighting situation and the phosphors, but do you really change the colors for everything you watch?

  10. beta.rogan

    @sf_reader49: Pretty much as I would see it as well. (if you’re going to have the equipment and set it up correctly) You EQ for the room and the system, rather than to what you think sounds best. This is exactly what is done in concert venues with live performances (proper ones anyway) so that they can elliminate room resonance from the equation.

    I still believe that ideally an EQ should be left flat just about all of the time, and decent speakers can be had for only a few hundred dollars a pair, if you’re interested in good sound with minimal EQ. Remember that speakers, as a transducer, are the MAIN component in how your system sounds, rather than the amplifier, CD player, or the source. (assuming the source isn’t complete crap)

  11. nsxlane

    @Lucas Jensen: I see the error in my phrasing: Transparency is still the right word, though. In your case, what you want is for the music to sound as close as possible to how it sounded in the recording studio. Again, this may or may not be a “flat” setting. Whichever equalizer setting made the music sound the most like the music’s point of origin (in your case a recording studio) would be the one achieving the highest level of transparency. In that case, Transparency actually mesh’s directly with Artist’s Intent

  12. nsxlane

    @spinachdip: Right on, brother.

  13. Pterror

    I completely agree with Lucas Jensen, and refrain from ever changing things in the equalizer. It’s almost always completely “flat” on iTunes. I feel like if I change the settings, then I’m not really listening to the song the way it was made, I’d be listening to it the way I want to hear it. I guess some people prefer the latter, but I much rather appreciate the work that the record producers and stuff put into it mastering the song than picking my own settings to listen to it on.

    But sometimes it is fun to hear a song with more bass and stuff like that so, whatever. Whatever makes you happy at the end of the day is what counts I guess.

  14. saifrc

    The only time I use anything other than a flat (“transparent”) EQ setting is in the car — unlike at home, you will NEVER get optimal acoustics in a car. (At least not in any car *I* could afford.) With all the road noise and the odd shape/materials of the cab, the EQ is like compensation. Unfortunately, there are some things, like the masking effect of the road noise, that EQ just can’t overcome. I could conceive of a “perfect” EQ setting for the car, but for the home (or any other controlled interior space), I’d agree that no EQ is the best EQ.

  15. Fuchal

    I would agree in theory that an equaliser setting should be left flat (thus representing what the engineer/artist/producer intended), however such an approach in the real world does not make sense.

    The speakers I am listening to a piece of audio through are not the same as the audio monitors used by the recording engineer, mixing engineer and mastering engineer: in fact, all three engineers used different speakers.

    But let us assume that we are trying to reproduce the sound the same as the final and, IMO, best engineer in the process intended: the mastering engineer. The mastering engineer is using professional audio monitors (which run at a higher voltage than even the best home monitors), and is listening to their audio through digital to analogue converters which cost more than most people have spent on their entire home-theatre set up. What is more, the mastering suite they are working in is completely different to 99.99% of listening environments a consumer will listen in. Their room is engineered to not allow first order reflections, and is designed so that there is a perfect sweet spot for mono, stereo and/or surround listening. Contrast this with your listening environments: an office, a study, a lounge room, a pair of headphone/buds on a train.

    In short, environmental and hardware aspects mean that you are almost ensured to miss our on a whole range of frequencies, your stereo/surround image (the soundscape) will be squashed and un-even, and the dynamic range will be reduced due to your increased noise floor from background noise, MP3 compression, and the fact most home amps/portable listening devices operate at well below 30% of their capacity (which means they are not driving themselves enough to avoid further signal noise). Actually, that was not a short conclusion. This is: your listening experience is stuffed before you even start.

    But don’t be disparaged, because good use of equalisation CAN take a crap listening experience and make it not only good but can even get closer to accurate if you so desire.

    If your speakers don’t reproduce low end frequencies very well, then there is nothing wrong with experimenting with increasing some of your low end. If your speakers and environment are producing too much mid range (the range of frequencies humans are most sensitive to), and it is drowning out other instruments, then experiment by pulling out a couple of dB in the mids. And so on, and so on. Use a few different pieces of music which you not only know well, but that represent the styles of music you listen to most often. Experiment with them, until you a setting (or even 2 or 3 settings) which will work best with your music taste. And remember, your ear should be the last judge (not a number on a computer screen).

    Now, there is a difference between just ramping up the low end and the highs because it sounds better, and experimenting with your EQ so that you get an optimal reproduction for most forms of music. The former is generally just done to make the music sound ‘good’; the latter is done because you want it to sound ‘accurate’.


  16. sf_reader49

    The equalizer is designed to give you that ‘transparent’ experience you’re talking about, and not by setting the sliders in a neutral position. Properly used, it compensates for the bias created by your equipment.

    To adjust the equalizer properly you need a source of “pink noise” (unlike “white noise”, “pink noise” is *not* random; it has equal volume at each octave), and a spectrum analyzer.

    You play the pink noise in your system, and knowing that there was originally equal volume at each octave, use the spectrum analyzer to see what volume you are actually hearing at each octave. And then you use the equalizer to restore equal volumes to each octave, letting you hear the music the way it actually was recorded.

    Once you’ve got your system set, then there *is* one ideal setting for your equalizer for all music – the one that resets each frequency range to an *equal* value – hence the name “equalizer”.

    Of course if you get a new set of speakers, or you move from a room with hardwood floors to one with carpet, you’ll need a new range of settings, but that’s why you’ve got an equalizer, isn’t it?

  17. Sergei Muller


    I bought some 2.1 speakers for a small gathering at my place a while ago and all it was plugged straight into the Mac without an amplifier or fancy treble and bass knobs :)

    The only way I could then get the most out of the speakers was to EQ the settings.

    So… I think that in an ideal world, flat settings are fine, but there are times when you’re forced to tweak it a bit.

  18. dgaughan

    Okay guys. . . for the rest of us out here who AREN’T wearing blue Best Buy polos:

    Can we get a definitive answer on this shit? I’m starting to feel like the guy who walks out on Don Cheadle in the stereo store in “Boogie Nights.”

  19. KinetiQ

    @dgaughan: Just make sure you have at least three or four quads per channel.

  20. AaronGNP

    @dgaughan: If you have less than stellar speakers (Stock computer speakers, laptop speakers, cheapy headphones), I’d say it’s safe to use the EQ to compensate for the inadequacies of your speakers. If you’ve got decent speakers you should limit your EQ usage, except for material that isn’t produced very well. I’ve got a decent rig (used for recording) and generally, I don’t touch the EQ except when I’m listening to some local artists that do not know how to make a proper mix (eg. too bassy or too muddy). If you’re primarily listening to major label releases, you’re probably safe leaving things flat.


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