The Short Guide To Listening
When I first started writing this short guide, the first name of the article was “The Short Guide To Mixing” but realized I was wrong naming it that. Listening is far more important - Gear, technical or sometimes theatrical ideas can come later; much later.
This may be a short guide to listening but this is not just for beginners - These are ideas and practices that professionals do daily to achieve a great well-trained ear. Sound only requires you to do one thing; Listen. The only way to get better of this is with time. This practice is called Critical Listening.
Critical listening is a form of listening that if usually not usually talked about, since it involves analysis, and critical thinking while making judgments during listening to music and sound itself.
The recording engineer and producer for Whitney Houston and the Rolling Stones explained this process the best.
…And I quote -
“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.”
- Michael White
Listen To Sound & Music Daily
Most of us will listen to music daily or at least every other day whether it be via Youtube, Spotify, Radio, TV, etc. The differences between listening to music and listening to music critically is a lot different. Think of music and sound itself as a physical entity and depending on the space you are in; It can change - Listen to music in different environments like a Car, Living Room, Bedroom, etc. Listening to music on different systems and devices from a phone to your studio monitors can be far more beneficial than you think.
Critical listening is all about listening to the sounds around us - differently; in a new way and also experimenting. Try this experiment and notice the different changes to the sound but also the quality. There’s really no right or wrong answers only how you perceive the sound around you.
Play your favorite song in your car then play it on your phone - What changes? Do you notice the music sounds more tinny on you phone? What happened to the lower and bass frequencies - Are they now mostly gone?
The Absence of Music
You will not always need music to train your ears for better critical listening because sound is all around us.
If you are standing next to a busy road, try to think of all the different sounds you hear. It won’t just be traffic if you listen closely. There might be the squealing of brakes, birds, buffeting wind, cars honking, and dogs barking. It’s amazing the things you notice when you truly start to listen carefully. As you notice more and more things try to focus on different ranges of frequency. For a minute, focus on only the low end rumble of cars going by and the next minute, only focus on the higher range of frequencies. Next, listen to the lower end of the traffic again for a minute now relax and just listen to the ambience around you; What do you notice? You will probably notice a louder or more present lower end. The lower end bass frequencies loudness or amplitude didn’t change, you just happen to be more aware of it.
When we get better at this we can start to zone in and focus on ranges of frequencies when we mix to help make better adjustments.
Critical Listening is a skill, there are some people who are born very gifted and can hear the most subtle sounds in the distance and there are some who might be starting out thinking about listening to the world differently that might not notice the simple details. That’s okay, it takes time and the more you listen critically to the world around you; the more natural it will be.
Sound is all around us - Just take a moment periodically throughout the day and listen.