Resources for the Recording Musician
December 16, 2014

How well do you listen?

A common thing to talk about among aspiring recording/mixing engineers is how well they can hear. There often seems to be a bit of a contest to see who can hear the highest frequency, as if somehow being able to hear higher frequencies makes you a better recording or mixing engineer. I avoid these types of "my hearing is better than yours" contests because I'm not young any more and I know my hearing isn't perfect. While it is important to check your hearing and protect your hearing as much as possible, it's a simple fact of life that as you get older you are going to lose the higher frequencies in your hearing.

These types of hearing contests don't bother me, though, because I know that although almost all of these young engineers have better hearing than I do now, I can pretty much guarantee that I'm a much better listener! When you are producing, recording or mixing,
how well you listen is much more important than how well you hear!

One of the big mistakes I see young mixing engineers make is that they just dive in and start piling on processing on everything, without first taking the time to really listen to the song as a whole and to figure out what the song really needs. Sometimes I see people who just immediately start with the drums, and try to dial in a drum sound, with some pre-conceived notion of how drums should sound, without even first bringing up all the tracks and listening to everything together. Today we have so much processing power at our disposal, and thousands of plugins to choose from, that it is extremely tempting to just start adding tape emulation, channel emulation, compression, EQ, and other processing to each track without first listening to figure out if any of that is really needed at all.

The better I get at mixing, the less I find I'm doing with processing, and the more I find myself simply working primarily on balances with what I've been given. Of course I use processing, but I don't start with it. I listen to what I've been given to work with first, and really try to listen to the song, and the message and mood/feeling they are trying to convey. Then I work on trying to find a good starting point for the mix with just levels and panning. From there, I can more easily identify what needs work to fit into the mix better, keeping the overall message of the song in mind. Then when I start added any kind of processing to a track, I have a much better picture in mind on how it will fit into the mix, and what it is up against as far as other tracks competing for the same space in the mix (if any). That will greatly influence my processing choices and help me get to a good mix that serves the song much more efficiently than if I had started working on just one instrument or track at a time.

When I worked at the large studio back in the all analog days, we were lucky to have maybe 6 great compressors to work with for the whole mix, and just a few different reverb and delay units. So, we didn't even have the choice of using compression on every channel (wasn't built-in to the console we used). Now days, we can easily have that many compressors on every channel! The sad thing is many people these days use compression on every channel, and sometimes several compressors on a channel. That's not necessarily "wrong", especially if you are going for that very over processed modern pop/rock sound, but it certainly isn't something that you should just do out of habit without listening first! Sometimes you end up doing more harm than good by adding phase shifting and unwanted distortion, or end up making everything dull sounding and small because you have compressed all the life out of it.

In the music business, Listening is Everything!

Although my expertise is in mixing and recording, being a good listener is vital to success in almost every part of the music making biz.

Musicians need to listen to each other to avoid stepping on each other's toes when working on parts for a song. They need to listen to each other to figure out parts that compliment each other and make the song better. It's also important to listen well enough to know when not to play. Not every space in the arrangement needs to be filled with something.

When you are just starting out as a musician, learning an instrument, or how to sing properly, you also have to do a lot of listening. You listen to great artists and learn from what they do. Or, you listen to your instructors as they tell you or demonstrate proper technique.

If you are a solo artist, making music all by yourself in your home, being able to listen objectively is a very important skill. It's too easy to go over the top when you are working on your own, ending up with a complex song arrangement with way too much happening. You need to be able to step back and listen to your songs objectively as a regular music listener, and be able to figure out what are the important parts, and what you can get rid of, and whether or not everything is working well together.

On the other end of the spectrum, the job of a music producer is primarily to listen and help guide the band or artist in the right direction. Their number one job is to listen and figure out if something needs to be recorded again, or spots need to be fixed, or whether or not a part, or even a full arrangement, needs to be changed. In addition, they need to listen to the artist or band members and be able to figure out how to best coach them to deliver the best performance, or simply when it's time to call it quits for they day because the band/artist is too tired or uninspired to deliver anything else worth recording.

Recording engineers also have to be great listeners. Just as described with mixing, they need to have a good overview of the song, and be able to quickly determine the best way to capture the performance with the best sound possible. When you are recording, you'll listen to the instruments as they are warming up or practicing, and figure out where they would sound best in the room, and what microphone, or microphones, would work best to capture the sound of the instrument, all while keeping in mind all the other instruments that you'll be recording or adding later with overdubs. You then need to listen to the sound through the control room speakers after getting thing set up, and figure out if it's working or not. Then, adjusting microphone positions, or swapping microphones as needed until you get as close as you can to the sound you want to capture.  Once that is all taken care of, you still need to listen carefully to everything as you are recording. Many bands/artists can't afford to bring in a producer, so you will be the one who needs to listen for timing/pitch issues, wrong notes, or technical issues as you record.

For mixing and mastering engineers, the ability to really listen is what makes you great! The tools and techniques can be learned by anyone, but learning how to listen well, and then being able to know what to do to make things sound better, is not something that everyone can do. It takes a certain amount of natural talent, and then many years of practice and experience to learn how to listen properly, and to be able to identify problems and come up with the right solutions. There are things like ear training courses that will help you more easily identify certain frequency ranges by ear, but that's only a small part. Another good way to learn is to compare your work against similar work from other artists that you know sounds great, and keep working at it until you can get your stuff sound similar. The more you practice, the better you will get, and over time you will more easily be able to identify what needs to be done through your better listening skills.

So, how well do you listen?

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