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The Art of Critical Listening
Enhancing Your Inner Ear
by Ron Tongue

Critical listening is easily and often overlooked by many musicians. Unless someone draws your attention to it, you may possibly overlook it yourself.

A music professor of mine once said that the sound recording students need to have the best ears in the music department. What he simply meant was that their work will be heard over and over, while a performers work is only heard once... unless it was recorded!

Anyways, as a recording engineer one of the best ways to improve your recordings is by improving your ear. Developing your critical listening skills is... shall I say... critical?

As with anything, the more you practice it, the better you get. Ultimately, by drawing your attention to the idea of critical listening, you should become more and more aware of it.

Here are three concepts to help you improve your critical listening skills.

1. Understanding the natural characteristics of sound.

Sound travels in the form of a wave. The lower the pitch, the longer the waveform that produces that pitch. Try this, stand in front of your speakers with a song playing and draw your attention to the bass frequencies. Now slowly step back and notice what happens.

What do you hear? Lower frequencies have a longer waveform. Therefore, the more distance you give them, the more pronounced they will seem to sound.

If you can, try setting your speakers in different rooms throughout your house. While critically listening to the same song in each location, make mental notes as to the differences you hear.

One of the biggest challenges you'll face as a recording engineer is getting your mix to sound good in multiple locations on multiple speakers systems. Becoming aware of the natural characteristics of sound will carry you a long way.

2. The room wants to sing too.

Every room and location, whether inside or out, has it's own unique sound. The acoustics of the room you are recording in will play a role in your overall sound.

As you go throughout your day, take a second and just listen. How does sound interact in your present location? Now look around and see how the room is constructed. Are you in a garage or basement with concrete floors? A bedroom with a carpet, bed, and curtains? A bathroom with tile floors and a large shower?

If your present location is quiet, make some noise. An easy way to do this is to clap really loud and then just listen. How does the sound of a clap reverberate throughout the room? Does it immediately decay? Is there an echo to the sound? Does the echo bounce back and fourth throughout the room?

Use the acoustics of a room to your advantage when recording or avoid it all together if you don't like the way it sounds.

3. Learn from others' recordings.

Find a recording that you really like and practice your critical listening skills on it. First, focus on the high frequencies. This tends to be the cymbals and sibilance in the voice. Then play the song again and listen to the lower frequencies such as the bass guitar and kick drum.

Now go back and listen to where each instrument sits within the mix. What's panned left or right? Do some instruments seem to sound more distant that others? How does the volume of the guitar compare to the drums? Where do the vocals sit within the mix?

Take some time and listen very critically to every part of the song. Take it apart in your head and try to understand how it was put together.

As you move forward with your own recordings, start to apply the critical listening skills that you learned. Continue to listen critically to songs that you hear on the radio, TV, iPod, Internet, elevator, restrooms, wherever... Train your ears, it's the best reference you'll ever have.

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