Audio Clarification 101: The Science of What the Ear Perceives

audio clarification Ever since I began my career as an audio engineer back in the 70’s, noise and sound quality have always been a focus mine as an audio expert. I remember when my interest first started back in the day when records—those twelve inch round black things—would play at parties and the background  noise was never a point of focus. But today as vinyl is making a comeback, audio philes all over the world are starting to collect vinyl again. Last week, in fact, The Who released a 10 inch vinyl record to celebrate National Record Store day, but I digress…

There are several things that I do with almost every audio recording that needs to be clarified. Step one is to listen to a good portion of–if not the entire–audio recording and make observations about the noises that I feel can be removed. The second step is to determine what tools I have available that I can use to remove those unwanted sounds.  Lastly, I begin the process of noise reduction in the steps of audio clarification.
Almost every software program that’s available has a noise reduction program in it. Once you learn how to use that noise reduction program, you first select the audio file you are working with and begin by removing unwanted noise. You’re only going to be able to remove one type of that unwanted noise, so my advice is to try different settings within the noise reduction program. Then, the next step is to use equalization to first remove additional unwanted sounds and then use a second equalization process to increase the desired or wanted sounds. When that’s complete, the last step of the restoration and clarification process is compression. Compression basically helps to make all of the remaining sound even so that if what you’ve done so far has, for instance, decreased the volume of the digital file to such an extent that the volume is very low, the output of the compressor plug in will help you raise that volume to a more desirable level.

Also, if it is an audio recording that you are trying to hear a conversation of, the playback of what you have done with all of these tools is almost as equally important as the entire clarification process is. I have found that listening to a very hard to hear audio recording on different devices helps my ability to create a transcript or to hear all of the sounds more clearly. For example, if I am restoring an audio that has bad or hard to hear conversation on it even after I have finished the restoration process, I will then burn that file onto a CD and listen to it, for instance, on a boom box or on a clock radio. Because both devices will play that recording back differently, my physical sound perception will pick up those sounds differently and aid in the transcription process.

This whole process is all about the science of what the ear perceives. Because the perception of sound is different from person to person, it is important to listen back to the hard to hear conversations, music in the background, any other sound that you’re trying to identify (gunshots, screams, etc.) on more than one playback device. The main reason is because headphones and the various types of playback devices that have external speakers will reproduce that sound differently based on each device that you’re listening to the sound on.

So in conclusion, follow the steps that I’ve outlined above as you are using your software program and do the best you can with the tools that you have to work with when restoring your audio file. It is also almost as equally as important to listen to it played back on multiple devices, which will help your clarification process out.

photo credit: Faders via photopin (license)

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