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Essential Listening - Getting Critical

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This post is part of a series called Essential Listening.
Essential Listening - The Classics
Essential Listening: The Sounds of Rock

Welcome back for another round of Essential Listening. Last time we took a look at some of the big albums of all time and how the mixes were so different, but at the same time all great. And while we will certainly revisit looking at some classic songs and albums from an engineering standpoint down the road, today is all about improving your critical listening skills.

Often times some people may claim that their hearing just isn't as good which in some cases may be true. But often times we simply never learned how to listen critically as opposed to musically. As engineers we need to be able to do both depending on what needs done at any given time.

So with that in mind let's look at some ways in which we can improve our critical listening skills.

Listen to Good Recordings

It goes without saying that in order to mix and record well we need to listen to good recordings. This in fact was the basis of the previous tutorial. Often times musicians will listen to their favorite artists to mimic how they play and we as engineers need to do the same thing for the recordings and mixing we do.

While last time we focused on the classics, you should also listen to what is popular and current for the kind of music you are recording or mixing since that will probably be a good basis. Here is a good order of operations to help you out while you mix:

  • Determine what genre exactly it is you are recording or mixing.
  • Learn what the past years top album or song was in that genre. NPR and the Grammies can be helpful for that.
  • Buy the song for a dollar or so off iTunes or some other website; and make sure you get the WAV file and not an MP3!
  • Finally load the song into your project as another track and keep it muted but refer to it periodically throughout to see how your recording or mixing stands up to it.

Now obviously you need to keep in mind that their will obviously be compression on the song in this modern age from mixing and mastering and your raw recordings will not have that, but you still should be able to get close. Remember your mixes will be judged against what is current and what is considered a classic so if have good reference material to work with, use it!

Test Tones

While it might seem strange to some of you and torturous to others, try listening to test tones. By choosing key frequencies for your test tones, you can begin to learn and memorize the sound of important frequency ranges and sounds that you will need to often correct while mixing. This can help with choosing the right microphone, proper EQ, etc.

However by all means do not rely on these frequencies as end all magic frequencies. You still need to mix by ear but the point is to train yourself to listen to different ranges critically.

So with that in mind here are a few test tone ranges I would recommend you start to memorize.

  • Mains Hum: This frequency is actually a collection of frequencies with a fundamental at 60 Hz (in America at least, as it is 50 Hz most elsewhere). It is the bane of all engineers with grounding issues and is one that should be learned very quickly.
  • 80-120 Hz: Good for referencing the bottom end pitch wise of a mix. Anything below that is more for room shaking than anything else.
  • 200-400 Hz: The muddiness of some instruments and singers while the body and punch of others
  • 1500-5000 Hz: Where the attack and clarity of most instruments and singers are. Very good range to get to know well if a mix seems cloudy.
  • 7000-10000 Hz: Really biting sound of most instruments are here. Good if a mix is still too dull or cutting like a knife.
  • 12000-Onward: What most people refer to as the air of a mix, going to be harder to hear at soft volumes so do not hurt yourself on these!

Again these are just some generic ranges you should develop an affinity for listening to. Just pick random frequencies out and learn how they sound. If you want a better challenge mix one into a song and see if you can pick it out!

Finally for a quick easy way to get these tones simply go to the link below and it will generate you your test tones in wave format.


Dynamics Listening

Another really important key to critical listening is to be able to listen to softer instruments or vocals that are not quite buried by the louder sources but still tricky to pick out. These are most often noticeable when you listen to a uncompressed WAV file on good speakers when usually you hear the song through car speakers and through radio compression. Ever have that "Wow I did not even hear that before!" moment?

The only real way to pick up on this is to listen, listen, listen. You also need to make sure you are listening on the best possible system available to you.

Another way to improve this type of listening is to try and hear the reverbs on the vocals, snare, etc. and see if you can hear just how long it actually rings out. You would be surprised how long some reverbs are but since they are mixed so well you never consciously go, "Wow that is a long reverb!" The same of course also goes for delays and ambience effects as well.

Conclusion for Now

So far we have covered what to listen for in classic recordings and how to listen more critically. Try out some of these tricks and then go back and listen to those classics again; as well as some of your favorites as well.

Next time we are going to dive back into some more quality recordings and see what they have to offer us as engineers. Until next time! Thanks for reading.

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