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Essential Listening: Self-Assessment

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Welcome back for another dose of Essential Listening!  Whether because of cost or curiosity, many musicians decide to try their hand at audio engineering—usually working on their own songs. While a DIY mindset is always a valid approach, it does not come without pitfalls. The biggest trap comes in assessing one's own work.

"Does it sound good?" "Am I causing more problems?" "Am I mixing or am I still composing?" These are all common questions that should be asked, but many times are ignored. So how can we effectively remove ourselves from the equation and be truly objective?

Today we are going to back to the other side of Essential Listening, developing good hearing and analytical skills! In our second tutorial we looked at ways to develop better hearing, and today we are going to develop techniques to make assessing our own work easier.

While nothing is better than having a second or third set of well-trained ears, we can still work on our own and make a fine product. So, if you can never seem to get that mix quite right, or even finish it in the first place, read on!


System Variance

By: Berthold Werner
By: Berthold Werner

Probably the largest culprit of bad mixes are the systems we mix on. Always have too much bass? You're probably mixing on small speakers. Too much high end? You're probably mixing with dull tweeters. Not enough top end or bottom end? You are probably mixing on a pleasure listening system that boosts both extremes.

The general rule is to mix on the flattest full range system as possible. However these systems can become prohibitively expensive. So what can we do to remedy the problem? Use more than one system!

By using more than one reference system, we can get a better feel for the mix as a whole and more objectively make changes that fix the mix, not the speakers. The wider array of systems you have to listen to the better! Here is a list of good reference systems and how to use them.

  • Ear Buds - These guys work great for seeing just how bassy your mix really is. If you hear a bunch of blood-pounding kick or bass while wearing ear buds, you probably have too much!
  • Car Stereo - The opposite of the ear buds, they actually provide similar answers but in a different way. If you have too much bass in a mix, generally speaking your car is probably going be shaking from all that extra bass. Additionally, if you hear a really clear, if not slightly sharp sounding, top end you might have too much as most car systems are slightly dull. If however your vehicle has a "premium" stereo package, be aware that the top end might be hyped up from the speakers.
  • Home Theater -  These will give you a similar picture to the "premium" car systems, especially if you have a sub. However, the system should be a little more detailed than a car system. Listen for those quiet instruments and reverb tails here. If you can't hear them they are probably getting buried in the mix.

When listening on these alternative systems, take notes of what you are hearing. Is the bass always too loud on every system? Is the high end too dull or sharp? By taking notes you can objectively write down your impressions and more efficiently make changes to your mix.


Visual Tools

By Voxengo
By Voxengo

While the mere thought might disgust old time engineers, these are modern times, and we should be using the various analytical tools and meters to our advantage. These fun toys visualize the our mix in a multitude of ways that our audio systems may not be able to reproduce acoustically or our ears can perceive.

The trick however is not to rely on them. Nothing beats a well-trained ear, but what options do us lesser mortals have available?

  • Frequency Response - These show use the changing amplitudes at a wide range of frequencies. Why use them?  Because our five inch woofers  may not put out anything below 70Hz, but someone elses system does. Furthermore, we can compare our tracks against similar commercial tracks for wide snapshot of our mix. Voxengo's SPAN is an excellent free option in this case.
  • Loudness Metering - While frequency response is a snapshot at various frequencies, a Loudness Meter grants us the overall loudness regardless of frequency content. By using these meters we can see just how heavily we are actually compressing and limiting our tracks. If the meter keeps moving a lot you probably have a fairly dynamic mix. If however it is rock solid, chances are you have a very flat and boring mix. Do keep in mind that there are different loudness standards and each behaves differently. (RMS, LTU, VU, etc.)
  • Phase Metering - While professional engineers may cringe at the sound of phase cancellation, the rest need to make due with the Phase Meter. These meters tell us how far out of phase our stereo field is, and by adjusting panning, stereo effects, etc. we can more easily tame the phase. Why should we care? Because extreme mono phase cancellation sounds really bad! Try it sometime!

Think Like An Editor, and Listen Like The Audience

From Wikipedia
From Wikipedia

The other large problem that occurs with self-assessment is being able to make changes for the better, even if the artist in you says otherwise. While that synth lick might be cool, does it actually do anything for the song as a whole? Are all those strings just muddying up the arrangement? These are questions a non-partisan audio engineer would ask and act on appropriately, but when you are both musician and audio engineer it can be really hard to separate those roles!

The easiest way to develop the ability to change your thought process is to take on the mindset of an editor. In the literary and journalist world, an editor is suppose to make edits and take away the annoying fluff. This leaves you with a clean and streamlined story/article. No doubt our awesome editor Adrian did the same thing to this very article!

But thinking like an editor is more a quantitative process.  How can we be qualitative at the same time? By listening like the audience! How does the music make us feel? How about the mix? Do they make us feel anything at all?

After you have developed a qualitative assessment of the mix and song via listening, then think like an editor to make appropriate changes!

To speed you along this path, here are some ideas in mind:

  • The song is done! Do not allow for more arrangement, composition, etc. If anything try to take away parts so that the core song shines through. Find what draws you in and emphasize those aspects. Or if nothing seems to draw you in, maybe it is time for a rewrite and not mixing.
  • No more tweaking sounds. An editor sometimes has to rip the book away from the author because otherwise the author will never actually finish the book from all the little tweaks. For audio, you need to stop tweaking synths, adjusting amp tones, etc. or you will never finish!
  • Remove any preconceived notions. A good editor will approach any article or book as if they have never seen the authors writing style before so they can make objective judgments. A good producer (excellent listener) would do the same for a song, even if they had known the musicians for 20 years. As the engineer, we need to stop being musicians for a moment, and approach each song individually.

Conclusion

As you can see there are a variety of options and tactics available for us as engineers to create a better mix, even on our own songs. From adapting mind sets and hearing to adapting systems, we can tackle the problem in more than one direction.

No one approach is a cure all and all are completely valid. Find what works best for you and you will definitely see improvement in your audio skills. Until next time, thanks for reading!

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