Recording 101 teaches us that the audio spectrum is 20-20,000 Hz and it is our job as recording engineers to manage those frequencies. For introductory level classes, that is a usable definition, but it often leads to misunderstandings. >Do we hear 20 Hz as much as 20,000 Hz? Do we hear those frequencies as well as 2,000 Hz? The answer to both is no. In fact, given contemporary technological limitations, it isn’t even possible to accomplish most of that.
For those of you who read Jay’s Primer on Audio Frequency Bands and made it all the way the bottom, you would have read some interesting things about broadcast standards and encoding algorithms. Broadcast standards here in the US actually cut off frequencies above 15 kHz. That is, radio and television broadcasts don’t even bother with the top 5000 Hz of the audible spectrum! If there were such a thing as radio anymore, you’d know to laugh off any audio engineer who promises you “radio quality mixes.” Also, cutoffs are employed in almost all digital encoding algorithms in order to prevent aliasing of upper frequencies.
On the other end of the spectrum, most playback systems are not designed to go below 30 Hz. Currently, the lowest reproducible frequency by any JBL system is a live sound reinforcement loud speaker with woofer that goes down to 25 Hz. They also have consumer and studio woofers with roughly the same specs. You’ll notice that these are all woofer systems and not standard speakers for desktop and meter-bridge monitoring. The standard studio monitors without a woofer falloff sharply at ~45 Hz. With this in mind, you should know not to expect to hear anything below 40 Hz on a standard system without a woofer. Furthermore, you should know that about 90% of your audience will not be able to physically reproduce anything below 50 Hz given the standard consumer set up.
This is not to downplay the psychological impact of low or high frequencies. These play a very important role in psychoacoustics. Low-lows, though inaudible, help us perceive lowness partially through feel rather than sound. High-highs also help us perceive presence and therefore clarity by giving more emphasis to the minutiae of a sound that you’d only hear by being close to it in the real world.
Next week, I’ll clearly define the component regions of the audio spectrum and talk about the various ways to treat undesirable maladies afflicting them individually.
More from Phil’s Audible Spectrum series: