To normalize or not to normalize?

Creating a home studio for recording the classical guitar. Equipment, software and recording techniques. Amplification for live performance.
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Arash Ahmadi
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To normalize or not to normalize?

Post by Arash Ahmadi » Thu Dec 06, 2018 10:13 pm

When you normalize a recording, it sounds like it loses some of it's quality in some ways. But sometimes the recording seems to have less volume than the common say classical guitar recordings that we've listened to - so what's the common professional practice?
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guitarrista
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Re: To normalize or not to normalize?

Post by guitarrista » Fri Dec 07, 2018 12:19 am

Normalization can mean several things, and if you are talking about some iPhone-labelled one-button procedure, can even involve other things under the 'hood' like compression. You have to be more specific about the context in which you are experiencing this.

Simple normalization should not sound like a quality of sound loss.

Also the perceived loudness of a recording is more like the brain doing a 50-100ms frequency-weighted running average rather than experiencing single sound intensity values. Frequency-weighted because loudness as we perceive it depends on the frequency and we have greatest sensitivity to sound intensity around 1000 Hz or so.

Also we are now conditioned to listen to compressed music (the dynamic range has been compressed) with the average loudness bumped up as far as it can go, whereas a guitar (or any classical) recording may contain a much larger variability of dynamics, causing a lot of quiet sections.

So it is a bit of a craft to find the balance between just enough compression and normalization so that the result still displays a characteristic range of dynamics while also having the pppp parts not as quiet as before.
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Arash Ahmadi
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Re: To normalize or not to normalize?

Post by Arash Ahmadi » Fri Dec 07, 2018 4:16 pm

guitarrista wrote:
Fri Dec 07, 2018 12:19 am
Normalization can mean several things, and if you are talking about some iPhone-labelled one-button procedure, can even involve other things under the 'hood' like compression. You have to be more specific about the context in which you are experiencing this...
I'm not talking about Iphone normalization. I do it on Cubase 9.5 and have tried it on Wavelab 9 too. I am not a pro sound engineer, I'm self taught. How do you define normalizing? How do you do it?

Yes, there are noticeable differences when listening to different albums of even the same classical guitarist. But when we compare a number of classical guitar recordings, we notice that most of them have a kind of a standard in terms of loudness (which could depend on their guitar, gain, compression, etc) - but still same loudness standard.

I've read that it is not ideal to normalize a track because the sound quality might drop, when I tried it, it seemed to be true. So what are the options?
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rojarosguitar
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Re: To normalize or not to normalize?

Post by rojarosguitar » Fri Dec 07, 2018 4:40 pm

Even on a DAW like Cubase normalization can mean peak or RMS normalisation, which are different algorithms. RMS normalization seems to change the sound in my ears. Peak rather not. You would have to listen at the same volume (so make the normalized track same volume as the not normalized) and then AB them.
One test would be to peak normalize a mono track, phase reverse and pull down the fader of the normalized track down by the same amount you raised and pan both dead center. Ideally there should be nothing there.
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guitarrista
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Re: To normalize or not to normalize?

Post by guitarrista » Fri Dec 07, 2018 4:43 pm

Arash Ahmadi wrote:
Fri Dec 07, 2018 4:16 pm
I'm not talking about Iphone normalization. I do it on Cubase 9.5 and have tried it on Wavelab 9 too. I am not a pro sound engineer, I'm self taught. How do you define normalizing? How do you do it?
OK. Simple (or 'peak') normalization just means to multiply all the amplitude values in a digital waveform representation of an audio so that the max value in the sound file is bumped up to be the max value possible. All amplitudes are multiplied by the same factor (which is essentially an amplification).

1. How can this go wrong?

This should be done on a file which was either uncompressed(*) (like wav), or losslessly compressed (like flac) - the program in either case would uncompress it - and the result should be saved without lossy compression as well.

The program you are using should be resampling the file at a high rate so that the (floating-point) multiplication can be done with greater precision, preserving better the original shape of the waveform, i.e. reducing artifacts from the multiplication itself.

If you are hearing audible differences in sound quality just from simple normalization, check if the procedure is as described above.

2. What if there is no difference in the volume after simple normalization?

This can happen, because there could be a single (or just a couple) of amplitude values in the audio file that are already at or near the maximum allowed value (we can't really perceive single max values as loud so they may not be noticeable from listening). So the multiplication factor is 1.0 or very close to it and nothing much happens, meaning the input and output are identical.

So normalization then can include a bit of other manipulation like dynamic compression in conjunction with trying to perceive the loudness as a human would, so it runs through the file with a 50ms amplitude-averaging window or something, and then uses these averaged values in order to calculate the multiplication factor (the amplification). Because we can't have individual amplitudes beyond the max value, it must do some compression to reduce those individual values while it is doing that.

(*) 'un/compressed' in this context means compressed for file size, NOT referring to dynamic compression which compresses the range of sound amplitudes in the file.
Last edited by guitarrista on Fri Dec 07, 2018 5:00 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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robin loops
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Re: To normalize or not to normalize?

Post by robin loops » Fri Dec 07, 2018 4:55 pm

I never normalize anything. If I want to tame the dynamics of something I opt for light compression to do the job with much more control.

That being said I rarely use compression on classical music other than very light compression occasionally to compensate for the idiosyncrasies of recorded audio in general. In the case of altering the original dynamics, less is more is a good rule of thumb.
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Julian Ward
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Re: To normalize or not to normalize?

Post by Julian Ward » Fri Dec 07, 2018 8:56 pm

What I do with delicate recordings such as classical guitar is finish the recording (add reverb or alter any EQ settings etc. etc.) and then put the WAV file up on the screen. If you zoom in at the right level you will be able to see all those nasty little spikes that will mess up your normalisation. Simply go through each one manually and reduce it's volume (zoom in some more to get really accurate). You won't notice this to your ear at all. Once you have done this you will be able to normalise (using the standard normalisation technique) and the whole loudness will be able to increase significantly more.

There are quicker ways to do this (like automatic compression) but I find this method preserves everything perfectly, and it won't be far off the finished volume of a commercial classical guitar recording.
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rojarosguitar
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Re: To normalize or not to normalize?

Post by rojarosguitar » Sat Dec 08, 2018 2:06 pm

Many DAWs have a tool to detect the places with highest peaks so that you don't need to do that visually...
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Re: To normalize or not to normalize?

Post by Julian Ward » Sat Dec 08, 2018 2:18 pm

Yes, true, but if you do it manually you have total control. You could cut a peak by say 50% and see how it sounds. Can undo and try a different level. You might find in a different section of the piece you will be varying this peak drop. I like do do things manually, I like to be in total control. My very first recordings were done on analogue 4 track and I can remember riding the faders a bit here and there when I did the mix down to a DAT tape. By the way those analogue recordings were wonderful. If only I played better then!!
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