Is there a way to automagically improve the sound of downloaded bootlegs?
August 23, 2011 4:05 AM   Subscribe

Does software exist to automatically improve the sound of music recordings, similar to the auto-adjustment features of photo-editing software?

I have downloaded an awful lot of live music recordings, much of which sounds a bit 'thin' to my ears. I'd like to improve the sound, which means equalization to boost bass, compression, and probably other processes I don't know anything about. I'd like to do this for free, at the touch of a button, without having to invest a lot of time into learning audio software.

By analogy, programs like iPhoto and Picasa have magic adjustment buttons that usually improve a picture; maybe not as much as an experienced user with a good eye could do with the curves tool, but good enough and you can process dozens of files a minute. They usually stretch the histogram, adjust colour balance and saturation, and sharpen a bit.

I know little about audio editing, but I like to imagine that something that similarly analysed a waveform and made 'typical' adjustments might be possible to make.

Is there software to do this? Is there free software? A way to make Audacity do it perhaps? I'm on OS X but also interested in Linuxy or Windows suggestions

Failing that, is there a standard workflow for beefing up the sound of bootleg recordings; eg "compress then equalise then adjust gain in that order" or something?
posted by nowonmai to Computers & Internet (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Not really. But Adobe Audition is a good product for this kind of work. It's got a high learning curve but it's pretty useful if you want to maximize sound quality. There's not a lot of magic in sound production if the quality of the recording is bad going in. You could fool around with Audacity, which is free, and see if it works there.
posted by parmanparman at 5:18 AM on August 23, 2011

I use Goldwave. It is not automatic, but has defaults that work to some degree. You just have to play with it.
posted by bjgeiger at 6:37 AM on August 23, 2011

Best answer: You want to compress, then normalize to even out the volume.
posted by empath at 6:55 AM on August 23, 2011

Best answer: For that sort of general polishing, it's mostly a matter of compression (or limiting) and EQing, plus occasionally some stereo effects (and I guess noise reduction on live recordings if needed). There are some great "one knob" mastering plug-ins that you could use via a sound editor that supports plugin effects, but ultimately you can't use them blind (or deaf, I guess), it will definitely take a bit of trial and error, firstly in identifying which effect to apply and secondly in hearing when it's working optimally and isn't introducing unwanted artefacts like clipping, excess noise, or over-compressing the dynamic range.

Even amongst producers, mastering can be something of a black art, which is why there are specialists out there who do it full time. That's not to say that you can't get stuck in there and make some improvements to a recording via experimentation, just that there isn't really a quick simple one-size-fits-all solution, and at the very least you'll have to plough through a whole bunch of plug-ins to find what works for you.
posted by iivix at 9:03 AM on August 23, 2011

Either your recordings have been compressed and normalized already, or they have not. However, you're extremely unlikely to be able to improve the quality by any easy means, as they are live recordings; the room is uncontrolled, the recordings are one-take, and ultimately the recording gear was a compromise between quality and durability. You are very unlikely to make these recordings sound significantly better, much as a photo taken in the dark cannot really be improved to any reasonable degree. You can't add quality that isn't already there.

Having said that, what empath suggests is your only reasonable option for potentially improving the apparent quality by ensuring the volume levels are compressed and reasonably consistent. Some of the products listed above do this for you, but that is effectively all they're doing. EQ can be helpful, but only in the sense that once you've compressed and normalized, you might find an unpleasant buzz you want to eliminate or a particular frequency range you want to bring out more...which brings you into mastering territory, so you don't get a single-pass, easy solution.

Try to remember that part of the charm of live recordings is that they're unique and imperfect.
posted by davejay at 11:20 AM on August 23, 2011

Oh, I just noticed you're talking about bootleg recordings, rather than live performances that were professionally done. You're in worse shape here, because the initial quality will be that much worse. Set your expectations solidly on "you get what you pay for", because there's nothing you can really do (again, beyond compression/normalizing/manual EQ tweaking) to improve a source that's a guy standing holding a microphone in the middle of the hall, or a guy pulling a feed from the board that's mixed for the PA system rather than recording.
posted by davejay at 11:22 AM on August 23, 2011

Best answer: Dont just use regular compression, your looking for some sort of multiband compression so it isolates the lows mids and hi's to make it sound more "radio-ey" I guess, you could check out some software that uses vsts and try the free ones or go all out and try t-racks, izotope ozone. The results aren't going to be awesome but you'll notice a difference, unless it's already squashed to shit.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 12:42 PM on August 23, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for letting me know that the answer is the one I feared, not the one I wanted! I've patched together a workflow that helps more often than it harms, but it's too labour-intensive to use routinely.

For fellow cheapskates and Mac users googling this from the future: Felt Tip Sound Studio is a cheap program that, unlike Audacity, gives you a live preview while you're fiddling with the knobs. It accepts Audio Unit (AU) plugins, including Apple's built-in plugins (that are also available through GarageBand). This includes a multiband compressor, but there's another, free, plug in called the C3 multiband compressor, that is easier for beginners to learn how it works.

You need to do "Get Info" on the Sound Studio application and check the box for 32-bit mode for a lot of the 3rd party plugins to register.

VST plugins seem to offer a wider choice, but for host programs that can handle them, it seems to be a case of "cheap, actually work, comprehensible for beginners: pick two".
posted by nowonmai at 2:08 PM on August 31, 2011

« Older trying to automatically click items on a webpage....   |   Name this data management job! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.