How to listen properly?

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thalweg
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2007/01/05 10:28:27 (permalink)

How to listen properly?

About a year ago I spent some considerable resources building a decent studio in my basement and have learned a ton in terms of eq, effects, mixing techniques etc and am getting results I'm proud of and I'm consistently getting improved results as I continue to spend time experiementing.

As a musician for over 20 years I've always focsued on song construction and arrangement but until the studio, It never really occured to me how I listen to things and if I am really listening properly.

Yep and Chaz, (two incredible contributors to this forum and countless others) recommend really listening and understanding the impact of processing your sounds. That said, I was wondering if any of the seasoned engineers have any tactics/processes when it comes to the ART of listening. Right now I rely on certain tools like a spectrum analyser to either verify that I am indeed hearing certain things or to verify that something I tweaked but can't really hear made any impact.

I know its a zen like question but I'm curious to see how you guys approach listening or if there are any recommendations on how to improve good listening habits.

Cheers
Thalweg

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    lazarous
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/05 13:41:17 (permalink)
    ORIGINAL: thalweg
    I was wondering if any of the seasoned engineers have any tactics/processes when it comes to the ART of listening. Right now I rely on certain tools like a spectrum analyser to either verify that I am indeed hearing certain things or to verify that something I tweaked but can't really hear made any impact.

    I'm not sure it's part of the ART of listening, but I've taken this approach: If I can't HEAR the effect of something I've changed, I change it back. If I hear a SUBTLE change, and deam it an improvement, I keep it. If it makes things worse, I change it back.

    I know that's really simple, but in recent years, as I've done more studio mixing, I've taken to being as much of a minimalist as I can be... mostly to counteract my wanton desire to make everything I work on into a Phil Spector'ish "wall of sound".

    I'm trying really hard to make each song I record serve itself, and become what it wants to be. I have no idea if this helps at all, but at least you get a little bump from my musings.

    Corey

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    #2
    thalweg
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/05 13:46:59 (permalink)
    Ya I'm with you on the minimalist thing. I went a bit overboard in the earlier startup phase. Now very slight tweaks.

    Here was another idea from a friend of mine who's been in this longer than I have. He on occassion plugs his ears with is fingers to get an overall sense of the bass frequencies (for a couple seconds or so) and then he'll cup is hands around his ears and walk around the control room to zone in on mids and highs... thats kinda of the tips I'm looking for.



    #3
    lazarous
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/05 14:01:12 (permalink)
    ORIGINAL: thalweg
    Ya I'm with you on the minimalist thing. I went a bit overboard in the earlier startup phase. Now very slight tweaks.

    Here was another idea from a friend of mine who's been in this longer than I have. He on occassion plugs his ears with is fingers to get an overall sense of the bass frequencies (for a couple seconds or so) and then he'll cup is hands around his ears and walk around the control room to zone in on mids and highs... thats kinda of the tips I'm looking for.

    I find my mixes benefit from having my control room door open at least part of the time. The utility room with the fan blowing seems to really help me find the details I miss. Also, I initially mix at a very LOW volume, then (when I feel like I'm getting close to the end) kick it up and just listen to it at a more aggressive volume, and do some more tweaking.

    I also like to push my chair out into the hall and sit on the loveseat when I'm listening to final mixes. There's a bass node that's very pleasing to clients when you sit on the loveseat, which allows me to mix for a more realistic sound without punk rockers asking me to "kick up the bass, man!"

    By sitting there myself, I can hear what the mix will sound on systems with a large sub, just to get a feel for it. Of course, this trick won't work anywhere but in MY control room, but perhaps it'll open you up to listening in different places in your control room.

    Corey

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    #4
    yep
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/05 14:33:05 (permalink)
    Learn the frequencies. You may not develop perfect pitch, but knowing what the difference between, say, 2kHz and 6kHz sounds like is huge. It allows you to listen to songs on the radio, etc and be able to tell what's going on.

    Learn to hear compression. This is a very big deal and is hard at first. Subtle compression alters the way the music feels, how it breathes and pulses. It does not sound like an effect, but there's definitely a difference. When you start to hear subtle compression, the whole world of dynamics opens up and is laid bare. You also start to realize just how much of the sound of modern records is really just compression.

    ABSOLUTELY make comparison judgements at EQUAL VOLUME, RMS-wise. Anything louder will tend to sound better. Turn up one set of speakers by 2dB and it will sound like subtly better quality audio than the other set, even if they're identical. Speaker salesmen use this to their advantage. This MURDERS newbie mixers, because they keep turning everything up and resist turning anything down and can't understand how it can keep sounding like it's improving but it never actually gets any better.

    Buy a sound level meter (seriously, $30 at Rat Shack) and learn what 83dB RMS sounds like. Practice with the "auto eq" settings on stereos and the like-- adjust the volume as you compare the different eq curves and you may be surprised to learn that your favorite curve doesn't actually sound better, it's just 6dB louder than the others (smiley-face "Jazz" curve, anyone?) Seriously, if you can learn to make "quality" judgements independent of loudness, you are halfway there.

    For the reasons mentioned above, mix quiet, and practice listening to quiet music. Not only will it help to keep your hearing sharp, but mixes that sound good quiet always sound better loud, while the reverse is emphatically not true.

    Clap your hands in different places and listen to the decay-- how long can you still hear the sound bouncing around? Is it a full-frequency reverb, like a snare drum, or a sharp ringing from standing waves? When you first start doing this you will be shocked at how vastly diffferent the reverberation is in all kinds of familliar places that you never even noticed. A similarly enlightening experiment is to walk around your home talking into a microphone. When you play it back you'll hear all kinds of reverb and "room tone" that you never pick up on when you're actually in the space, because your brain filters it out.

    When you get good at recognizing "room tone" and frequency you can actually start to recognize things like, say, standing waves that exist under a balcony at a particular frequency.

    You can buy reference CDs that have hearing excersizes, but I recommend making your own.

    Remember that you are already hearing all this acoustical information, your brain has just learned to filter it out and focus on the "important" sounds for your survival and workaday existence. There's nothing supernatural about an audio engineer's hearing, it's just a matter of learning to pay attention to things that your hearing would naturally tend to ignore.

    Be aware that once you start to hear these things, there's no turning back. You will forever be the person that is too distracted by the crossover distortion in the tweeters to enjoy the movie, or who wants to move the coat rack because the left corner of the kitchen needs some bass trapping, or who criticizes music on the radio not because of the lyrics or the performance, but on the basis of transient handling. This can be damaging to personal relationships, because nobody else cares about this stuff. Be warned.

    Cheers.
    #5
    yep
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/05 14:34:09 (permalink)
    edit: sorry, double-posted.
    post edited by yep - 2007/01/05 14:53:28
    #6
    thalweg
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/05 14:56:06 (permalink)
    Yep...brilliant. Exactly the direction I needed.

    With regards to it being dangerous I couldn't agree more. The better I get at understanding what I hear the less I can put up with the radio or other systems. I have friends who have sold their entire CD collections and exclusively listen to Vinyl. They just can't go back to listening to 16 bit digital CD's. But again these guys are audiophiles who tend to care more bout the engineering vs the song itself.

    For me tho mix engineering is 10% of my schtick. I'm a song lover first and foremost. Hopefully I can learn enough about engineering to get the orginal song point across as intended. Although mixing is kinda like adding another artist I suppose it does add to the "creative" aspect of song construction and arrangement. Balance and moderation key terms here.

    Thanks again..for the advanced insight.

    Cheers
    Thalweg
    #7
    ToneCarver
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/05 16:00:39 (permalink)
    It has been a great help to my listening skills to participate in online song sharing forums (like the Songs forum here) and compare my preceptions of a mix to the perceptions of the other listeners. I have learned much about how to listen and what to listen for by going back to a mix and listening for particular characteristics that other listeners report. It has helped me to identify the kinds of things that I was not listening for or was not even aware that I should be or could be listening for. It also builds some confidence if I think I hear a particular characteristic and other listeners report hearing it too.

    Bill
    #8
    sean1017
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/05 17:08:53 (permalink)
    wow, what a great post yep.

    thanks for the insight.

    i'm gonna go clapping when i get home!

    check out my tunes at my soundclick page
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    #9
    mcourter
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/05 17:29:35 (permalink)
    ORIGINAL: ToneCarver

    It has been a great help to my listening skills to participate in online song sharing forums (like the Songs forum here) and compare my preceptions of a mix to the perceptions of the other listeners. I have learned much about how to listen and what to listen for by going back to a mix and listening for particular characteristics that other listeners report. It has helped me to identify the kinds of things that I was not listening for or was not even aware that I should be or could be listening for. It also builds some confidence if I think I hear a particular characteristic and other listeners report hearing it too.

    Bill


    I agree that hearing what different people say about your mix can be illuminating......or not. For example, with the last tune I posted, one guys says, "Bring up the vocals, they're too low." Another guys says, "Wow! You're vocal is REALLY up front on this one!" One person says the drums are quiet, another says they're prominent. Some of this may not be the mix, but what they're listening with, the kind of phones or speakers. And, of course, some of it is just the listener's personal preference.
    Mark
    post edited by mcourter - 2007/01/05 17:49:11

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    #10
    jacktheexcynic
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/05 20:24:51 (permalink)
    get the voxengo SPAN VST, load it on your main bus. in the interface, hold down control and drag the mouse around. you should see a green bell curve and the sound will be filtered out so you can hear mostly what's under that curve. works wonders for picking out frequency ranges with too much going on as well as learning what they sound like.
    post edited by jacktheexcynic - 2007/01/05 20:55:13

    - jack the ex-cynic
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    holderofthehorns
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/07 13:50:42 (permalink)
    This one's going in my compilation "Forum Articles" book.
    Thanks YEP.

    Eric Anderson
    HolderOfTheHorns - It's a Viking thing.
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    Middleman
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/07 15:54:06 (permalink)
    Yep nailed it. When you can hear compression and later even tell which buss compressor was used, you are well on your way to understanding how to mix and master. Even better, once you understand the affect compressors have on the sound it helps you know when the mix is close or done sound-wise, maybe not arrangement-wise.

    Once you get your drum buss under control and know how to compress (or not) the various components of a drum set, you have a good understanding of EQ and compression. A full drum kit spans the range from the lowest lows to the highest highs so understanding kicks to cymbals gives you a good EQ background.

    Vocal EQ is different for every singer so you need to understand how to frame it and then mix around it. That is kind of the holy grail of a good mix; one that works around the vocal.

    I used to spend hours EQing Snare drums understanding how to get the same sounds I heard on CDs. One of the more challenging ones is a good ballad snare sound. You have to push the lower mids to get there because few snares naturally sound that way. Another area I spent some months on was the Kick and Bass interaction. You can put the bass below the kick or above it depending on the type of music/sound you are working on. Endless hours of dinking and using good monitors in a treated room is a worthwhile endeavor for teaching yourself how to listen. Headphones, not so much because they skew your decisions.
    post edited by Middleman - 2007/01/07 16:14:21
    #13
    Thomas Campitelli
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/07 16:50:48 (permalink)
    ORIGINAL: yep
    but mixes that sound good quiet always sound better loud, while the reverse is emphatically not true.


    Yep,

    You know a great deal more than I, but I have a question as to whether a quiet mix will always sound good loud. How does this statement hold up in the face of Fletcher-Munson curves? Many thanks.

    Thomas Campitelli
    http://www.crysknifeband.com
    #14
    yep
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/08 10:31:22 (permalink)
    ORIGINAL: Thomas Campitelli

    ORIGINAL: yep
    but mixes that sound good quiet always sound better loud, while the reverse is emphatically not true.


    Yep,

    You know a great deal more than I, but I have a question as to whether a quiet mix will always sound good loud. How does this statement hold up in the face of Fletcher-Munson curves? Many thanks.


    Whoa, this is a big question.

    Technically, I should have said "almost always," but in my opinion, it's basically always true (at least for conventional music recordings intended for popular consumption).

    As to your question, I should first say that Messrs Fletcher and Munson discovered a lot more than that infamous curve when it comes to how sound is percieved at different volumes, and a lot of research has happened since then. People can have a tendency to read an awful lot into one little chart, and to draw conclusions that aren't necessarily true based on incomplete information, kind of like the blind man who gets hold of an elephant's trunk and decides that an elephant is very like a snake.

    For that reason, I suggest NOT relying overly much on technical information unless you really know something about acoustics (like, you have read and understood an actual scientific acoustics textbook or two). Trust what you hear and what you experience rather than what you think you know about the science. Web forums, magazine articles, and famous record producers are chock full of half-baked theories based on an incomplete understanding of psycho-acoustical principles.

    So my advice to you is, when you hear a piece of advice like "try mixing at lower volume," rather than try to pick it apart and logically deduce the truth of it, instead try doing it, and see if you don't get subjectively better results. If you do, then great, you learned a new trick. If not, then no harm, no foul-- you learned at least one more thing that WON'T help you.

    All that said, here is something I posted once before on this topic that touches on some of the technical stuff:

    Autist recommended monitoring, while mixing, at 83-85dB SPL. I suggested that this was an unnecessarily and unusually high volume to monitor at, and suggested listening at very quiet volumes and only occasionally turning up the monitors to check high-volume and low-end playback. Here are the arguments on either side, as best as I can represent them:

    85dB SPL is widely recognized as the sound pressure level (SPL) at which human hearing is most accurate. 85dB SPL is the intensity that a standard alarm clock is supposed to be from two feet away-- it is about as loud as a noisy restaurant, or rush-hour city traffic, and is often viewed as a sort of "cutoff point" above which hearing damage can occur with regular or long-term exposure. Most human conversation happens at about 60-75dB SPL, or about 1/4 to 1/2 as loud as 85dB. Movie theaters and movie soundtracks are usually calibrated to deliver an average level of about 85 dB.

    Human hearing is not "flat," it's sensitivity depends on sound pressure level, and certain frequencies (low bass, for instance) are almost impossible to hear unless they are turned up fairly loud. Human ears have a sort of built-in EQ that exaggerates the mids and upper midrange the strict "presence range" from about 4-6kHz-- the frequencies of babies crying or consonents in speech--the human ear also more slightly exaggerates a broader range called the midrange (roughly 1,000-8,000 cycles per second, or 1-8kHz).

    So human hearing can be thought to have three "tiers," of perceptibility-- the presence range, which is clearly audible, even to people with hearing damage, or even if it is very quiet, or masked by other noise; the somewhat broader "midrange" which encompasses the range of sounds that people genrally can identify, in most circumstances, and where most of the "melody" of music occurs, and the "full range" of human hearing, which extends from very slow-moving waves that are more felt than heard, to the very high frequencies that sound more like "air" than sound.

    To get back to the question of what level one should mix at, the meat of the question is psycho-acoustical in nature, and requires a psycho-acoustical primer before any of it makes sense.

    If you ever have an opportunity to spend some time in an anechoic chamber (a totally "dead," totally "soundproof" space), it is a weird, disorienting, and somewhat frightening experience. You will typically be walking out on a wire mesh "bridge" in a spherical room covered entirely with wedges of acoustical foam that appear to go into infinity (usually they are about 6 feet/2 meters deep). From the instant you walk in, any sound you produce will seem to instantly disappear inside your throat. After a few minutes, your heartbeat and breathing will start to seem impossibly loud, and if you have any trace of a cold or allergies or if you smoke, the mucus in your lungs and throat will rattle like a flimsy cage in your chest, still falling on a dead world, totally inside you. After a few more minutes, you will start to become acutely aware of your blood moving through your veins in deep, swishy pumps. Any digestion that hapens to be occuring inside you wil seem impossibly, humiliatingly loud. If you stay in the room for more than half an hour or so, and your hearing is not damaged, you will start to hear a steady, soft pattering, like quiet rain. This is the sound of silence--it is literally the sound of randomly-moving air molecules bouncing off your eardrums. It is an other-wordly experience, and not a pleasant one-- being in an anechoic chamber is almost universally regarded as disorienting, uncomfortable, and sometimes nauseating.

    A far more common experience is being exposed to loud sounds. Anyone who has ever been to a loud rock concert is familliar with the experience of not being able to hear well for the next day or two. It's like walking from bright sunlight into the house, except your ears take longer to adjust than your eyes do. A few minutes after walking indoors in midsummer, you can see clearly, but it can often take a day or two after exposure to a few hours of loud music before you can clearly hear normal speech in real-world background noise.

    More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that "quieter" recordings sound almost universally "lower quality" than "louder" sounds. Speaker salesmen have known this for years, as have admen-- TV commercials are almost invariably loud and heavily compressed. Decades of research has shown that, given the same piece of audio, people not only prefer, but better remember a louder version.

    Another true fact is that human hearing is not "flat," like speaker response, not even close. Frequency response of human hearing improves the louder that sounds hit the ear, moreover, frequency and harmony perception actually CHANGES at different volumes-- this is important-- Fletcher and Munson demonstrated that two notes change from sounding out-of-tune, to in-tune, to out-of tune once again as you change the volume of the two notes-- this is for real. We are all familiar with the notion of tuning to A 440, and we take it on faith that that this tuning will work across all frequency spectrums and all instruments, but it doesn't. You can take two slightly out-of-tune instruments playing different octaves, and they will come to sound in tune at certain volumes. Similarly, if you take two "in-tune" instruments playing different octaves, and change the volume, they will sound out-of-tune.

    This is for real, and has to do with the way that people percieve different frequency ranges differently depending on their volume-- extremely high-pitched or low-pitched sounds sound dangerous and scary if they're loud, and merely annoying if they're low. And their relationship to midrange sounds changes as they change in volume.

    Somewhere in the middle of the volume range is where most people actually listen to recorded music-- in the car, in a bar, as background music while you're washing the dishes or waiting for the dentist, at a party while you're trying to have a conversation, at a cookout with a boombox in the window, in general on crappy playback systems under vastly subpar listening conditions, and so on... the remarkable thing about human hearing is that people hear loud music against a lot of background noise much the same way they hear quiet music against silence-- in both cases, people hear the midrange and presence range more than anything else. The only real-world circumstances under which people have "flat" frequency respone is in dedicated "listening" environments, where background noise is kept to a minimum, and where the music volume is medium-loud (about 85dB, to be precise).

    So given all that, 85dB would seem like the perfect SPL level to work at, right? Well, sort of. That's the level that movie mixers and mastering engineers work at, but movie mixers are mixing "already mixed" songs, dialogue, and sound effects, and mastering engineers are obviously dealing with "pre-mixed" material. Actual professional recording and mixing engineers are little different, in my experience. For one thing, constant, day-long SPL levels of 85dB are right on the cusp of workplace safety standards-- constant levels of 85dB might not damage your hearing, but they definitely qualify as "bright sunlight" audio levels-- they make it harder to evaluate quieter sounds, and "dim" one's hearing. Moreover, monitoring at 85dB might give the engineer the most "accurate" perspective on the recorded material, but it does not necessarily present an accurate picture of what the listener will hear-- for an obvious example, listen to some audiophile recordings of medieval choral music, such as the Tallis Scholars' album "Spem in Alium"-- at conversation-level volumes, this masterpiece recording sounds out-of-tune.

    The holy grail of commercial mixing engineers who have to sell records for a living is to create great-sounding mixes that sound just as good in all different kinds playback systems and listening environments. Unfortunately, this goal is impossible. There is no way to create a mix that is equally well-suited to a Jeep, a boombox, a noisy bar, a $400 home theater system, and a $400,000 audiophile listening room. There is no way to create a mix that sounds the same in a noisy car or bar as it does in a movie theater or a quiet listening room.

    So the question is, where do you draw the line between mixing for the real world and the ideal scenario? In my experience, professional mix engineers who are mixing for popular consumption listen at all different levels, on many different playback systems, and tend to focus on making a mix that sounds good quiet, knowing that mixes that sound good quiet will have a tendency to translate well on a variety of playback systems at all volumes, both aesthetically and tonally, as pitch perception tends to be more forgiving at higher volumes, and more discriminating at lower volume.

    If I were making dedicated audiophile recordings that I expected to be sold to and listenend to by people with excellent playback systems, I would do it differently.

    My $.02, anyway.

    Cheers.
    post edited by yep - 2007/01/08 14:28:13
    #15
    jacktheexcynic
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/08 21:07:07 (permalink)
    i don't know about the fletcher-munson curve but the immediate benefit of mixing at low volumes for me is a significant reduction of ear fatigue. i can mix quite a bit longer without losing my high-end perception. that's good for me because being slightly obsessive i forget to take breaks.

    and thanks yep, for posting all of this.

    - jack the ex-cynic
    #16
    Thomas Campitelli
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    RE: How to listen properly? 2007/01/08 21:21:12 (permalink)
    Yep,

    As always, your explanations are thoughtful, clear, and well presented. Many thanks. When I read the "always" part of the statement that quiet mixes always sound good loud, I wanted a little clarification. Indeed, you provided it. Now, my mixes tend to sound bad at any volume so I tend to keep to low levels while mixing. No need to damage my hearing for something that will sound subpar no matter what I do. Thanks again, Yep. You are a valuable resource. I've asked it before, but do you ever consider putting your ideas together in a book?

    Thomas Campitelli
    http://www.crysknifeband.com
    #17
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