Phone: (240) 505-5544

2D Sound in a 1D System

Share This Page On:

    Music Production Recording Studio Washington DC Maryland Virginia DMV


    Most humans live in three-dimensional space – up/down, left/right, front/back. Typical audio systems have two channels – left/right. And you can think of our ears as being two left and right inputs. If we only have one-dimensional hearing, how can we hear a sound in two dimensions? If you were in a completely anechoic space, a space with no reflections, it would be much harder. (Interestingly, artificial rooms like this make people anxious and even hallucinate- google “anechoic Orfield Labs”).

    In natural spaces, however, we do perceive two dimensions. Left/right is easy. Tap something to your left, the sound reaches your left ear before your right ear. Your brain makes a calculation based on this.

    Near/far is more complicated. In short, we perceive it through environmental clues.

    If you have ever looked at a reverb pedal or plugin, you may know the terms pre-delay, dampening, mix, time. But let’s examine where those come from. Many people turn these knobs and aren’t clear on how they relate to perception of distance. Understanding this can help you use these effects yourself or in critically listening when working with an engineer.

    First, A Brief History of Reverb

    Humans long enjoyed the natural reverb characteristics of caves, cathedrals, and dungeons. Our first artificial ‘analog’ reverb units ran electricity through springs or plates. Spring reverbs are still quite popular in guitar amps; think of the iconic surf reverb sound. Digital reverbs have come much closer to simulating natural spaces. These developments are especially helpful to many of us in metropolitan areas like D.C. where room space is at a premium, but are relevant considerations any time your recording includes overdubs, direct ins, or close micing.

    I tend to think of using reverb in two ways – to simulate a natural room or as a special effect. As a special effect, I might use a huge wash of reverb on guitar in place of a synthesizer pad. Or I might use a reverse reverb on a track – a sound that doesn’t occur in nature.

    With special effects, there are absolutely no rules. In simulating a natural space, some understanding is helpful.

    Before we get to effects, you want to consider how you will record things. If you have a nice sounding room like Blue Room Studios, you might want to put the microphones farther away to capture more of the room’s natural reverb. On the other hand, you might want to close mic them because some elements, e.g. a synth, might be overdubbed directly, or you might want to close mic things for isolation. There, you might want the freedom to add similar reverb to each element to ‘glue’ the mix later. Granted, you can have some room mics on the drums and dial in reverb on the overdubs that match it, but this takes skill and practice and is hard to get perfect.

    With that background, here are the key parameters that help us perceive distance, our second D:


    The farther something is from you, the smaller the difference is between any left or right signals. Image a room 20 meter long room. You are facing the drums. The low tom is on the left, hi hat on the right. If you are at the far end, the angles to your ears may only be a few degrees. If you move the drums to a meter in front of you, they may be at 45-degree angles to your ears, making it much more obvious which is to the left and right.

    So anything intended to be far away should be panned more to the center. Close items can be panned anywhere, those are just perceived as being to your left or right.


    Imagine again you are in the back of a room, a singer is in the middle. When they sing, the sound of their voice will go straight to your head. That is the ‘dry’ signal. Their voice is also radiating in multiple directions, off the walls, the ceiling, and the bass player’s vinyl pants.

    The pre-delay parameter adjusts the delay between the dry signal hitting you and the wall or ceiling reflections. If the singer is farther back in the room, some of the reflections would hit you much closer in time to the dry signal. If a guitar amp intended to be at the far wall, you might use a pre-delay of near zero.

    If you are trying to match overdubs or a specific hypothetical room, note that three milliseconds is about 1 meter.

    Music Production Recording Studio Washington DC Maryland Virginia DMV

    Reverb Mix or Wet/Dry– Far away sources tend to have more reverb overall. There is more opportunity for more reflections on the way from the source to you. In some scenarios it can even mask the dry signal – remember the way it sounded when you locked your accordion player in the basement? Raise the reverb mix to move items farther away.

    Equalization or Damping– High frequencies get absorbed more easily than low frequencies. So things that are farther away will have a high-frequency cut or added dampening. It is difficult to give a default starting point here. I may use anything from 1000Hz to 6000Hz, but that is as much subjective taste as near-far positioning as different surfaces absorb frequencies at different rates.

    At the other end of the frequency spectrum, you tend to have a tighter window of what is cut. A roll off up to 200Hz is not unusual.

    Decay Time or Room Size – Things will tend to be perceived as farther away if the virtual room is larger. This one is more obvious, but note that if you are trying to ‘glue’ your mix, having a long decay on some tracks and a short one on another will sound unnatural. A slight variation though just makes the room sound irregularly shaped. Remembering regarding pre-delay that three milliseconds is about a meter, note that big concert halls may have just 2 seconds of decay.

    Having hopefully gained some understanding of these psychoacoustics, my advice: Pay attention to these factors in your natural environment; Listen to the depth in recordings you love, and go out and make some 2-dimensional music (with 3-dimensional lyrics).

    Perceived distance quick reference.

    Parameter Near Far
    Panning Wide is okay Narrow
    Decay Time AKA

    Room Size

    Down Up
    Mix/Wet Level Dry up Wet up
    Pre Delay Up Down
    EQ Do nothing Lower highs & very lows (usu. over 2000Hz and under 200Hz)


    Music Production Recording Studio Washington DC Maryland Virginia DMV

    Scott Sinner-Foglings


    Scott Sinner is a musician and recording engineer. He released his first album in junior high and has since appeared on over a dozen studio or live albums on vocals, guitar, bass, cello, accordion, banjo, keys, and drums. His music has ranged from banjo and accordion goth-rock to sludge metal. He is the singer and guitar player for Washington DC based Alternative-Rock band Foglings and they are currently recording a full-length album in his home studio ‘Multicellular Labs’.


    Share This Page On: