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How do spaces affect your music?

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Published byRob MacFarlane

How You Hear Room Sound In Your Music

Something I was consistently surprised by in my early years working as a sound engineer, was just how important the recording room is to the sound of whichever record I worked on.

I am reminded of this fact every time I play drums, with how fundamentally sound is shaped by the environment it’s played in. The drums can sound tight and focused like a ready made disco record, or huge and expansive like the intro of a Led Zeppelin record, depending on where I place the microphones; the more of the room tone I allow into the microphones, the greater the sense of scale. Every record has had this sense of space carefully controlled by the producer, tuned to convey the artist’s intent as accurately as possible. There’s evidence however to suggest the venue has an even more fundamental affect on our music. To explain why, let’s explore the difference between types of music, and why Mozart was accused of using ‘too many notes’.

What is Reverb, and Why Does It Matter?

Sound takes hundreds of thousands of routes before it gets to your ear. The most obvious path is from the source directly to your ear but this is far from the only thing you’ll hear. The sound will also hit every wall, ceiling, floor and piece of furniture and then get to your ear; sometimes you’ll hear it once it’s done this multiple times. This complex web of reflections is called reverb. In your average living room it’s pretty hard to detect as anything other than a shift in the tone. The long, booming sound in a cathedral however, is hard to ignore. This is because the sound takes more time to get to you, due to the larger room, this is what we call a ‘long reverb’.

Why A Stadium Rock Feels Like A Church

This length of time that sound echoes around a cathedral, has a tendency to smear notes in time. This makes percussion sound cluttered and changes in pitch difficult to navigate without clashing with whatever note you sung last. Looking at the nature of traditional Christian music, we see how this has shaped the way the music has been composed. Long, flowing notes with imprecise timing and a simplified harmony to avoid clashes with any preceding notes. The very writing of the music has accommodated the size of the space and length of the reverb. Stadium rock follows a similar pattern with it’s simple, four chord choruses and vocal melodies; an octave above the guitars, so crowds can clearly pick it out through the long, booming echo of the space.

The World’s First Rock Star

Earlier classical music designed to be played in a large concert hall exhibits the same characteristics with its slower tempos and longer note lengths. But, as the aristocracy of Europe started to host musical evenings, music moved into drawing rooms and orangeries and the world welcomed a whole new style of classical. With it came Wolfang Amadeus Mozart. The smaller venues he spent his hours writing in the parlours and music rooms of Vienna had afforded him a smaller reverb. They allowed for more notes in each bar than his contemporaries were daring to jam into their larger theatre performances. Which arguably, could be the root of Emperor Joseph’s complaint of ‘too many notes’.

Cool Cats and Hi-Hats

For the best example of how an environment can shape a genre, we need look no further than Jazz. As the crowd wanted to dance for longer and longer, the bridge sections of songs became looped around again and again, stretching the time between melodic choruses. As this became monotonous, band members would start to improvise over the looping chord progressions. But the high volumes meant only the louder instruments could really be heard to make an impact. Thus the trumpet, saxophone or drum solo became staples of the genre, and to this day still ring loud over any amount of flirting, shouting or dancing a crowd can muster of an evening.

DO Try This At Home!

The size and shape of a room affects how music sounds, but to see how clearly it affects the way music is written can be pretty astounding. Now most consumers are listening to music on headphones, what direction have we seen music take? The most obvious trend is a move towards lower and lower bass sounds and a flatter dynamic range. There’s nothing worse than having to constantly play with your volume control when listening on headphones. At IRIS we see our role in that dynamic between music and the space a listener experiences it within as a hugely important responsibility.

Next time you listen to your collection, keep an ear out for what aspects of it may have been influenced by the home it found itself written for.

Try the free IRIS Listen Well App to hear this new dimension between the music and the listener. Available on both App Store and Google Play.