Meters and Analyzers and Scales - Oh My!

Once in a while, we (mastering engineers in general) get accused of being “pompous” or “elitist” (for lack of better terms) when we suggest that RTA (Real Time Analyzers), phase analysis meters, loudness meters, etc., aren’t as handy as simply listening and using your ears. Recent posts on a particular forum inspired the following rant about using the right senses for the right job - and saving optional analysis for when it’s needed.

Toward the end is a pair of metaphors that explain the traditional role of the mastering engineer in the recording production process (as it might relate to other vocations). For those who are ‘new to the game’ it might clear up a few things...
(Original intro deleted - would confuse the casual reader without knowing the back-story)

We (referring to a collective of mastering engineers at the forum where this was originally posted) don't have a "bias against analysis tools" here - We (well, many of us) just don't use them for what people think we use them for / as companies market them.

No chef I know will chemically analyze a soup to find out if there's too much salt in it - He'll taste it. He's not going to send a dipping oil to the lab to find out if he put enough garlic in it - He'll dip a chunk of bread in it and taste it.

If he chooses to find out exactly how much salt he used in the soup to make it taste the way it does, he could certainly have it analyzed to find out precisely how much salt there is in that particular batch of soup -- But knowing "how much" salt there is isn't going to make it taste any different to the person eating the soup.

No painter I know will make a graph to figure out how many square inches of red paint he used on a painting vs. how many square inches of blue. He'll take a step back and look at the painting to see if the colors are to his preference.

If he'd like to, he can scan the painting and select different colors and find out what percentage of the area any particular color takes up in the painting. But knowing that percentage isn't going to tell him if the painting looks the way he wanted it to.

The chef isn't starting his day out by trying to make a soup with precisely 50mg of sodium per 8 fl oz. He's trying to make a good soup. The painter isn't trying to make a painting with precisely 93.7 square inches of red coverage and 142 square inches of blue. He's trying to put what's in his head on to the canvas.

So the budding "rookie" chef gets some soup to go and has it analyzed for sodium content -- He is going to make a soup from completely different ingredients in a different kitchen and he has a different skills than the chef who made the original soup. Is knowing how much salt there is in that soup going to make him a better chef? Absolutely not. Is it going to guarantee that his soup won't suck horrifically and cause everyone who eats it to wind up in the hospital? Definitely not. Knowing how much salt is in there is just that - Knowing how much salt is in there.

The budding art student studies the painting of the seasoned artist and finds out that he used 93.7 square inches of red paint in a particular painting that he really likes. So, with a completely different set of paints, in a room with perhaps inaccurate lighting, he makes a painting while concentrating on hardly anything else except making sure that his painting also has 93.7 square inches of red (not the same red, as the lighting is different - and not in the same shapes or with the same style as the artist, of course - but what else would you expect?). Is matching that particular coverage of that particular color going to guarantee that the budding art student will make a painting is detailed and visually stimulating as the seasoned artist?

No one here is "scared" of meters. No one is afraid of losing their jobs to - to meters (?) God, it's actually hard to type that without laughing out loud. We embrace technical advances.

In the grand scheme, we're not the chefs - We're the chef's buddy who gets a taste of the soup after the chef has been slaving in the kitchen all day, tasting the soup over and over as he makes it. Once he thinks it's a great soup, we get a little sample of it and say "it could use a pinch of salt" -- Or we just add some preservatives while trying to change the taste as little as possible, package it up and send it out to the canning plant.

The more I think about it, if I made soup and someone came in and started distilling it to find the sodium content, I'd probably look at him funny. Unless his job was to analyze the content to put it on the nutrition label...

We're also not the artists. We're the artist's friend who walks in after he's been working on a painting for months and we either have an emotional attachment to the painting, or we might say "maybe we can tone that red down a little bit." Then we carefully package a bunch of his paintings and help hang them in a gallery in a way that makes his show a little "cooler" to someone who's never seen those paintings before. He's seen them hundreds of times. We've never seen them. He has his favorites - we might have a suggestion on putting "this" painting next to "that" painting because they look good next to each other - Or because they don't look anything like each other and the contrast between them creates a unique visual tension that the artist just might not notice after having worked on all of them for so long.

The same thing goes with sound. I couldn't give a rat's rear end how much 2.5kHz a meter tells me is there. If there's too much, I'm going to knock it down a notch. I don't care what the RMS levels are - If it's too squished, it's too squished. Some recordings will sound "too squished" at -15dBRMS. Some will sound pretty good up to -10dBRMS.

I don't need a meter to tell me where it sounds "squished" -- And I'm not going to apologize for that.

We're not trying to get people to "not use tools" -- We're trying to relate the simple fact that they should concentrate on using the tools that really matter.