Reviewed by Jon Chappell
There is a veritable galaxy of books and book-and-media packages that will help you advance your knowledge of audio and music production. Many of these are written by accomplished and respected members of the industry. But none are as credible as Winer, who has made a crusade of debunking myths and other fanciful notions about on internet forums, and has tirelessly sought to set the record straight and urged musicians to examine their own critical methods. Winer has brought this same refreshing style to the long form in The Audio Expert—Everything You Need to Know About Audio ($24.95, 667 pages, published by Focal Press), and has produced a comprehensive manual and reference book suitable for a range of musicians, audio lovers, and seekers of truth in the scientific method.
The Audio Expert assumes some audio literacy, and is targeted toward the intermediate to advanced recordist, or to a dedicated beginner who might have to look up a term or two, but will hang with the author and his engaging narrative. If you’re interested in a career in recording, or if you want a deeper understanding of all things audio (and I mean all things), this telephone-book-sized guide should be your bible.
Most books on audio are much more specialized than The Audio Expert, focusing on, say, mastering or effects. But TAE is different in its sheer comprehensiveness. It covers the entire gamut of audio topics, including definitions of technical terms (decibels, frequencies, waveforms), specs and test equipment, room acoustics and treatments, hearing and perception, gear and technology, analog and digital recording, recording workflows (tracking vs. mixing), signal processing, and the sound-production mechanics of musical instruments. A look at the book’s Table of Contents reveals its scope (see Fig. 1). It’s organized in six parts, each of which has an average of three to four chapters (23 chapters total). The text is divided up neatly with subheads and is richly illustrated, enabling you to read long passages without fatigue.
An excerpt from the The Audio Expert’s Table of Contents showing one of the book’s six parts and its chapters.
Winer’s writing style is engaging and well-supported with carefully presented evidence and real-world experience, which makes reading TAE easy, whether you’re doing a linear read to generally edify yourself or using the book modularly, to find insight into a specific issue.
But it’s not solely the author’s cogent writing that makes things so clear. Winer has liberally peppered the text with online references to author-created sound files, videos, software demos, spreadsheet calculators, and links for further reading. This makes TAE a true multimedia experience, and all the files are organized by type (video, audio), chapter, and with the files named correspondingly to the text reference. The navigation between the text and the online supplemental material couldn’t be clearer. It took me just a couple of minutes to download all the audio examples in the book (over 65), as they’re conveniently grouped in .zip files by chapter. Here’s a tip: when you buy the book (and you should), take a few moments to download all the rich media files onto your laptop or mobile device. You will then be set up for the complete multimedia educational experience offered by TAE.
The material in TAE is presented in a logical sequence, making it sensible for musicians and audiophiles with no specific agenda to start at the beginning. You may understand many of the basic concepts in the early parts of the book, but even experts will find the material so thorough and artfully presented that they can take away something that will be useful (perhaps as a way to teach or present to others). This especially true when a concept is simultaneously explained and any associated misconception are corrected.
In fact, debunking ingrained audio myths is a passion for Winer, and it has earned him a reputation as a skeptic and contrarian on audio forums. But let it be said that this reviewer looks forward to reading Winer’s posts, as he is a refreshing splash of cold water on the heated passions of myth-making that often go on in online forum exchanges.
One passage that exemplifies both Winer’s command of audio principles and his penchant for stripping away hype occurs in Chapter 3, in a discussion on artifacts, jitter, and distortion:
Since many people don't have the tools needed to prepare a proper test, I created a series of CD-quality wave files to demonstrate the audibility of artifacts at different levels below the music. Rather than try to artificially generate jitter and the many different types of distortion, I created a nasty-sounding treble-heavy noise, and added that at various levels equally to both the left and right channels. The spectrum of the noise is shown in Figure 3.2. Since this nice has a lot of treble content at frequencies where our ears are most sensitive, this biases the test in favor of those who believe very soft artifacts such as jitter are audible. This noise should be at least as noticeable as distortion or jitter that occurs naturally, if not more audible. So if you play the example file containing noise at -70 dB and can't hear the noise, it's unlikely that naturally occurring jitter at the same volume or softer will be audible to you.
To make the noise even more obvious -- again favoring those who believe very soft artifacts matter -- the noise pulses on and off rather than remains steady throughout the music. In all of the example files, the noise pulse is about 3/4 second long and restarts every 2 seconds. The first pulse starts 2 seconds into each file and last for 3/4 second. The next pulse starts at 4 seconds in, and so forth.
The “noise.wav” file is the noise burst by itself, so you can hear it in isolation and know what to listen for when the music is playing. The level is at -20 dB rather than 0 because it sounds really irritating. I don't want you to lunch for the volume control to play it at a normal volume level!
The “concerto-40.wav” file is a gentle passage from my cello concerto with the noise mixed in at -40 dB. Since this passage is very soft, mostly around -25 and peaking at -15 dB, the noise is only 15 to 25 dB below the music. Everyone will easily hear where the noise starts and stops.
The files “concerto-50.wav, “concerto-60.wav,” and “concerto-70.wav” are similar, with the noise mixed in at -50, -60, and -70 dB, respectively. In the -70 version, the noise is 45 to 55 dB below the music. Note that a slight noise occurs naturally this piece at around 8 seconds in. I believe it's the sound of musician turning page of music during the recording. The noise is in the original recording, and at this low-volume it just happens to sound like my intentional noise.
The file “men\\_at\\_work\\_1-40.wav” is a section from one of my pop tunes, “Men at Work,” with the noise mixed in at -40 dB. I had planned to create other versions with the noise at ever-softer levels as above, but it's barely audible (if at all) even at this relatively high level, so I didn't bother.
The “men\\_at\\_work\\_2-40.wav” file is a different section from the same pop tune that's more gentle sounding, which potentially makes the noise at -40 dB a little easier to notice.
Some people believe that correlated artifacts, such as added harmonics or IM products, are more audible than uncorrelated artifacts like random noise. Jitter can be either correlated or not, depending on its cause. But if the jitter noise is more than 100 dB below the music, which is always the case except for HDMI audio, it's unlikely to be audible, regardless of its spectrum or correlation to the music.
It's clear to me that the burden of proof is on those who believe jitter is audible. This subject has been discussed endlessly in audio forums, and someone will inevitably insist audibility tests such as those presented here are not conclusive. So I always ask them to make their own example files using any musical source and any distortion or other soft artifacts they believe best makes their case and then post it for everyone to hear. Nobody has ever risen to the challenge.
This is emblematic of a majority of the book: A concept is explained, evidence is presented (with clear instructions as to what’s being demonstrated), conclusions are drawn, and the example is placed in context of practical applications—often with analysis as to how the facts negate misconceptions (if any) surrounding a given subject. And often the author enables—and invites—you to re-create the experiments yourself.
Though TAE deals mostly with universal concepts, applicable under any circumstance or with a variety of gear, Winer often is quite specific with the tools he uses to illustrate his points.
In the chapter on room measuring, Winer treats the reader to, essentially, a small-diaphragm mic shoot-out, as he tests 10 mics for their frequency response—an important factor in choosing a mic for evaluating a room. It’s not meant to be exhaustive, but at one time he performed a side-by-side test, saved the results, and now reproduces them for the reader in the appropriate chapter. A photograph and a schematic of the test setup are provided, along with extensive graphs of the results. All the microphones used will be familiar to readers, and Winer’s summary is especially practical and helpful. This is one more example attesting to the book’s philosophy of being rooted in the real world, providing solid data based on experimentation, and providing conclusions drawn from the data.
A big part of The Audio Expert—and its appeal—is the personality of the author and his penchant for debunking audio myths. By his own admission, Winer devotes a fair amount of ink to tearing down misguided and fanciful ideas about the way audio works. This comprises some of the book’s most entertaining and informative passages. But the book is overwhelmingly positive and constructive in presenting information and using evidence to support that information. The insights Winer draws from this approach reveal the real nature of audio, technology, and our experience with it as fallible but feeling humans.
The book succeeds in both its ability to explain audio concepts straightforwardly (but no simpler than is necessary), and to bring the theoretical explanations into practical applications. This—and the book’s massive wealth of solid information, broad scope, and rich multimedia support—make The Audio Expert a must-read for any recording musician at any level.
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).