Being a Monitor

Thanks to those who suggested alternatives to the HD25 headphones, which are now repaired thanks to the lovely people at Richmond Film Services. But this debacle has illuminated an interesting angle on things.

Yes, there are headphones that are ‘better sounding’ than the HD25s. Yes, noise canceling is really great, and the HD25 doesn’t do that (relying instead on a vice-like grip that glues your earlobes to your skull, which I hate). Most assuredly yes, there are more comfortable cans than HD25s.

My HD25s are audio monitors. I don’t want them to make things sound good, I need them to tell me what things sound like (Behold, the sound of a stable door being bolted over an empty void).

Ditto video monitors. I can buy a very very nice TV set for the price of my modest 15″ monitor, and it will display beautiful video images. But it’s not showing me what I’ve got, it’s showing me what I want to see. My interlace rant is a good expample: if you don’t check your interlaced footage on an interlaced monitor (CRT), you may never see the horrors of field dominance errors – usually from motion graphics inserted into a DV edit, or DV and higher end formats on the same timeline.

Analogy time. If your doctor took an X-Ray of you, and the X-Ray display device sort of fluffed your bones up and made them look nice and hid some imperfections in the internal organs, it wouldn’t be much use.

So we need to understand why we pay more for a less flattering result. The only trick is knowing how to spot a high quality monitor from a poor reproduction unit. Apart from peer review, sadly it seems to come down to the weight of the price tag.

Analogue Audio, now there's a thing!

In the virtual local pub that is the interweb’s many forums, a few of us gathered to pontificate about HDV audio recently.

Of course, DV audio is all nice and dandy, and HDV has a little taint about it because it is compressed. Oh, I can feel hackles rising and feathers fluffing from here. Purists want ‘anything with pretentions of broadcast or film-out’ to have separate sound recorded onto a proper device. Now, I’ve got no problem with HDV sound for voice, on the basis that I usually record HDV audio at a little higher level than is considered polite for DVCAM (e.g. I allow levels to simmer around -12dB rather than the more conservative -18dB). But then again, we all know that most people set the level in any format so that the little red dot doesn’t get lit. Whatever.

Lots of beard stroking about dynamic range, frequency response, preponderance of ear wax, and so on. But just before it all got too boring and sounding like a pitch shifted playground conversation, somebody piped up that today’s HDV camcorders have audio systems with dynamic range that supersedes Nagras of a decade ago. And yet Nagras are still insanely popular and make great recordings used on the silver screen to this day.

There’s more to good sound than its recording format. In these enlightened times, lots of boxes in the chain (radio mic transmitters, receivers, mixers, camera inputs, ingest methods, audio out in edit, compressed audio in final output) can do lots and lots of helpful things to prevent you from buggering up your audio, but at the same time, their automatic helpfulness can sometimes hide big problems under the virtual carpet. Alarm bells don’t ring, but the audio sounds muffled because… oh. Right. Now you remember – you lent your wireless dongle to somebody who’s upped its levels for mic use, and now you’re plugging in a quiet line level from a sound feed. Sounds a bit fluffy – must be the feed.

No. It was the limiters in the wireless TX. Working hard to make sure that the cloth-eared wouldn’t notice that it was being fed the equivalent of molten lava and passing on pure spring water.

And hopefully my HD25 cans will be repaired soon. Monitoring sound on iPod ear buds is like monitoring video wearing cheap scratched sunglasses.