Critical Listening: How to Train Your Ears
Contributors: Recording Engineers Mark Garrison, Michael White
“Trust your ears.” “It’s what sounds right to you.” These are popular refrains that you’ve read in just about every article (many of them right here) about choosing microphones, positioning them and mixing sound. But if you’re going to rely on your ears to hear and identify the essential features of a well-balanced and professional sounding mix, you may need to train them first. Hearing and listening is not the same thing, as any parent of teenagers will tell you.
Can you detect the difference between a Telecaster and a Les Paul? A Vox Continental and a Nord Electro? Tremolo versus vibrato? Fact is whether you’re a seasoned pro or a beginner, there’s a wide range of resources available to help you develop and fine-tune your critical listening skills. This article may help you get started.
Necessary Equipment: Your Ears
Let’s start with a simple definition, courtesy of recording engineer/producer and instructor Michael White, whose credits include everything from redesigning Whitney Houston’s studio (he was also her chief engineer for 15 years) to ‘behind the glass’ mixing for David Byrne, The Rolling Stones and dozens of others:
“Critical listening primarily comes from the engineer’s point of view. You’re listening to the physical details of the music – frequency response, dynamic range, tone, imaging, and how instruments are blended together.”
Now, let’s contrast that with analytical thinking, also a factor in creating a professional mix:
“Analytical listening is all about feeling and meaning. It’s important to understand that the emotional intention of a musical performance is reflected in the sound.”
How to Improve Your Mixes
We’ll trust your heart to decode the meaning of the music and concentrate, for now, on a few fundamentals and exercises that will help you boost your critical listening confidence. For this, we’ve turned to Canadian neighbor, writer and recording whiz Mark Garrison who starts us off by deconstructing the elements of a mix and challenges you to tackle a critical listening exercise.
Before we start, though, let’s look at the components that make a great mix. When teaching mixing, Mark likes to use a variation on the elements Bobby Owsinski outlined in The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook.
Do all instruments feel like they have appropriate weight in the mix? Are any instruments lost in the mix because they’re overpowered? Are some instruments more prominent then others? (The answer may often be ‘yes’ to the last one, but that should be a deliberate decision and not an accident.)
Do instruments sit at various points in stereo field (left to right speakers)? Does the point of interest shift within this field?
Are all frequencies represented somewhat equally? Is there something happening in all frequency ranges? (There are times when we deliberately have little happening in a specific frequency range – a violin concerto would sound ridiculous with pounding bass. Again this should be a conscious decision.)
Do some instruments sound closer or farther away than others? Is there a sense of movement in the mix?
Does the song change over its duration? Most often in recording we use the term dynamics to refer to changes in volume, but we need to consider other dynamic changes such as tempo, time signature, key, or major/minor tonality.
There are two important sides to interest. First is the hook – is there something memorable about the mix? This could be a melodic hook, or a memorable tonality (think Cher’s “Do You Believe” or Smashmouth’s “Walking On The Sun”).
The second, and less thought-about consideration is this: What pulls the listener through the song? When the lead instrument stops playing, what takes over as the focus of the song? The analogy I like to use is a TV show or play. If the characters leave the stage, other characters must enter right away to keep the viewer’s interest. If a TV show had long gaps of just background between dialogue and action everyone would get bored and change the channel. Music isn’t any different.
Got all that?
Try This at Home: An Exercise in Critical Listening
Everyone agrees that training your ears by studying music production and engineering is an important part of becoming a better engineer, producer or artist. According to Michael White, “Most people do this naturally by listening to loads of music, but fail to study as deep as what is necessary. Audio ear training involves learning how to listen to a music production and what to listen for. This is the most beneficial method for achieving better results with your own music.”
Here’s a helpful exercise that our Canadian friend Mark uses with his students.
What you’ll need:
- A good pair of earphone or headphones
- Sun King” (from Abbey Road) by The Beatles
Let’s start with one just about everyone knows. “Sun King” by The Beatles.
Here’s a little background: According to The Beatles Bible, “The Beatles began recording Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard on July 24, 1969. They taped 35 takes of the basic track: Lennon played rhythm guitar and sang a guide vocal, McCartney played bass, Harrison was on lead guitar and Starr on drums. The next day the group overdubbed vocals, piano and organ, the latter played by George Martin. They then finished the two songs five days later, with the addition of more vocals, piano, organ and percussion.” (The producer, of course, was Sir George Martin and the house sound engineers were Geoff Emerick and Phil McDonald.)
This is what Mark hears:
Balance: Note how the kick and the bass are distinct, as are the two guitars. In the second half of the song, the vocals are big and prominent without drowning out any of the other instruments.
Panorama: From the hard panning to the moving instruments, this mix takes great advantage of the stereo field. When the vocals come in they are everywhere, rather than singular.
Frequency Range: Each instrument has its own place; nothing gets in the way of anything else. Thick lows and sparkling highs.
Dimension: In a reversal from the usual way of doing things, the bass and kick are right up front with the guitars and keys farther back. When the vocals come in, they are farther back still.
Dynamics: Subtle at first, though big when the vocals come in.
Interest: The interplay between the instruments grabs you at the beginning and leads you right to the vocals that take their place as the focal point.
Remember, too – practice makes perfect. The more you train yours ears, the more discriminating you’ll be.
You Can’t Listen if You Can’t Hear
We all know musicians who regard their hearing loss as a kind of merit badge. Blame Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) – the result of repeated – or even accidental (think explosion) – exposure to high SPLs. Standing in front of stage monitors night after night, turning your iPod up to 11, spending hours in an ear-blasting concert venue are examples of situations that can damage your hearing.
Just 15 minutes of exposure to high-decibel noise or music can cause permanent hearing loss. That’s right. Permanent. Research indicates that 30% of rock musicians have a measurable hearing loss. Classical musicians fare even worse – with up to 52% experiencing hearing impairment.
The good news? Hearing loss can be prevented. Keeping your hearing sharp can be as easy as:
- Being aware of the problem and potential risks to your hearing
- Giving your ears a rest by taking short breaks
- Keeping volume levels down
- Limiting the amount of time you spend in a loud environment
- Wearing hearing protection when involved in a loud activity. Check out musician earplugs when you’re playing or if you’re in a loud concert hall.
- Be alert to noise levels in your environment
- Increasing the distance between you and the sound source – this means standing at an angle from the source – not in front of it.
- Listening to your own ears and being aware of changes in your hearing
- Visiting an audiologist
One for the Money, Two for the Show
With a good pair of ears and your own critical listening experiments (deconstructing Mumford & Sons, Mos Def or better still, your own recordings), you’ll have all the equipment and the skills necessary to listen critically. Do it regularly and before you know it, it will become such a natural process that your mixes will improve and your creativity will soar.
ABOUT MARK GARRISON: Author of The Encyclopedia of Home Recording, Mark is a recording engineer and multi-instrumentalist from British Columbia, Canada. For the past decade, he has taught recording through classes, workshops, articles, and as a contributor to AudioTUTS+. He focuses on how to create better recordings through a greater understanding of the tools and techniques of the studio.
ABOUT MICHAEL WHITE: L.A.-based recording engineer and producer Michael has handled mixing, mastering, tracking and editing for the recording, broadcast and film industries. With a career that took off at NYC’s fabled Electric Lady Studios, he has lent his talents to over 35 gold and platinum records. He is an independent producer and shares his audio expertise on his website and at his online music production school.