Ok, ready? Let me introduce you to some really high-end gear!…have you got your credit card?… well, put it away, moneybags – this gear is absolutely priceless…
“Yeah. I hear yah”… Yes, but are you REALLY LISTENING?
Picture the scene, if you will… maybe you can relate… I was recording a friend of mine who is a reasonably decent singer – In general, he has very good pitch & a pleasing tone. But this situation required me to coach him quite closely through a vocal performance to try to achieve something that didn’t make me feel I was drowning in a sea of nerdy cheese, interspersed with very white-bread un-groovy-ness. I tried to explain as best I could what was lacking, but being a somewhat nebulous topic, I quickly felt a headache approaching – The only recourse was to get him to HEAR an example of what I was trying to say: “Now just LISTEN closely to the how the original singer phrased that part, to get a feel for it” I said, & then played an excerpt of the track to illustrate my point…
He sat there & furrowed his brow in intense concentration as the track played. A bar or two went by… he was getting into it – tapping his fingers… & then… he started to SING ALONG – softly at first, gradually louder, & then into full “Gilbert & Sullivan” mode as the chorus hit, completely obliterating the original vocal performance with a stentorian rendition worthy of the climactic scene in Phantom of the Opera!
Drawing evermore excessively patient breaths, I tried explaining & playing a few more times – same result. Finally, after mopping up copious amounts of forehead blood from the edge of my computer monitor, I stopped the playback. Summoning every last vestige of self control, I quavered: “Do you realize what you just did? Every time I asked you to LISTEN to something, you sang over the top of the very thing that I specifically asked you to listen to!”
Needless, to say he sang over the top of the original track with the same stilted, un-groovy phrasing he had always sung. It was clear from the look on his face he was oblivious…
This little event really got me thinking – Isn’t this actually the whole problem with so many of our musical pursuits? Yes, often we’re HEARING, but not REALLY LISTENING. Why?
1. Become an Audio Alchemist: Turn Ears of Lead to Ears of Gold – Use your BRAIN!
To my mind, it has a lot to do with our preconceptions. As I’ve already hinted, while much is made of those who have so-called “golden ears”, that’s only part of the story. Our brains make up a massive part of the picture. If it was solely a matter of being able to hear fleas fart, then all the “golden eared” ones would probably under 20 years of age. To the contrary, many, many successful mixing and mastering engineers would be categorized (in gear terms) as “vintage pieces” with purely physical hearing abilities well past their prime.
So what of preconceptions, then? As a guitarist who grew up learning riffs off tapes & records before the advent of TAB & Youtube, I came to appreciate the danger of preconceptions from a musical perspective. I would labor for hours learning a song by ear, trying to decipher the exact notes of a riff as it competed with pounding drums, bass & and a singer who seemed determined to wail earnestly over all the really critical stuff, only to discover later on that I had it all wrong.
But why did I get it wrong? Usually because my brain imposed the familiar patterns & scales I had learned by rote upon the hapless riff in question…
To illustrate this idea of preconception another way: Ask someone – anyone – to draw a person. In most cases what do you get? A stick figure with a circle for a head & dots for eyes? In actual fact, it looks nothing like any person you might know. Why? They are not actually drawing what they are seeing.
Now, you can pick up many books that teach you how to draw – a lot of these have “methods” based on configuring subjects as a collection of shapes, or some other specific technical angle. Will these help you to draw what you see, though? Not necessarily – they may get your brain to impose a regime of quasi-geometrical shapes upon your artwork, but this may not get to the root of the issue as to why you can’t draw.
Sometimes we attack a mix like a person who has learned to draw by conforming everything to cones & spheres - This has to be compressed, that has to be eq’d, because that’s what we are supposed to do, right?
Hindsight is a great instructor – When I go back & listen to my early mixes, I hear the sound of someone trying too hard. I can hear that guy who’s compressing just to see gain reduction happening. Whilst working on one of the very first serious mixes I attempted, I was using a Tom Lord-Alge mix of a nineties band called “The Verve Pipe” (remember them?) specifically to reference the bass & drum sound. After being satisfied I had a reasonable approximation (It wasn’t BTW), I wondered why my mix didn’t hold up on other systems… However, when I managed to lose my bass-drums myopia, really stood back & listened to the overall tonal differences, I realized the high end in my mix was appallingly dull by comparison – I mean, TLA’s mix was BRIGHT, but it sounded fantastic!… I realized I still had a massive amount of work to do. I was amazed recently when I referenced a mix I did for the Slate Cup against a similar commercial production – I thought I had a fulsome, generous low end in my mix- I was greatly mistaken – by comparison, mine was damn near anorexic!.. back to the drawing board.
Sometimes, in our eagerness to produce something, to do stuff – we end skipping the most important step entirely – LISTENING.
2. Start “seeing” with your ears
Maybe it would be better to ask the question: Why can some people draw brilliantly without any lessons whatever? It comes down to this: They are able to observe intently, successfully – they notice shape, light & shade, proportion & perspective intuitively. Rather than deciding first what something should look like & then drawing from a predetermined picture in their minds, they are actively observing what is actually there & reproducing that. Can this be taught? Yes – My wife has a book called “Drawing with the Right Side of Your Brain”. It contains a progressive series of exercises to help the brain lose it’s preconceptions.
But why all the talk about drawing? Drawing is all about observing with your eyes, but music is all about observing with your ears.
Do you listen to enough musical variety to discern the broad sonic signature of each genre? Have you added your wife/kids iTunes library to yours? Do you listen to new music? Do you listen to non-commercial music? Do you listen to overtly-commercial music? Classical? Jazz? Roots? World?
When you walk into a space, any space – are you conscious of the “sound” it has – how sound bounces around, reflects off the walls, how the sounds decay… Do the materials of the room make it sound bright? dull? How does it sound when someone whispers in your ear? when someone calls to you from the back of a room? How does a band sound playing in a room? How does a cello sound in nice timber conservatory? How “big” or “small” do different instruments sound? Are you able to get a sense of proportion? There are a million variables, but unless you’re really listening, you won’t hear them - And you won’t be able to even start recreating them as part of a mix.
3. Find the focal point (& learn how to lose it)
But there’s so much more to it than that – just like our eyes, our ears can focus… yep, that’s right – our incredible brain acts like the optical muscles that focus our eyes. Try walking into a party where everyone’s had a skinful & are talking at full volume – it’s just a cacophony, right? Yet somehow, you’re able to make out what your mate is saying to you – Your brain is “focusing” your hearing, so it ignores all the extraneous noise & just takes in what is important.
As musicians, we get hung up on details – Oh! Listen to that killer guitar riff! How about that hemi- semi-demi-splendiferous double-kick fill! It’s so easy for us to get hung up on the perfect guitar/snare/hihat/triangle/bassoon/whatever sound, we miss the things that are really important.
Yet, our job as a mixer is to focus the listener’s ears on different elements in the mix one at a time, while all the time keeping the most important element (usually the vocal) central – Much like a cleverly laid-out painting causes your eye to be drawn right around a painting, & ultimately to it’s focal point.
Yep, it’s a weird contradiction – We need to hear the details, but we also need to step back and listen to the whole drunken rabble too!
4. Don’t got all sentimental on me… ditch your emotional baggage, dude!
Ok, lets get a bit emotional: Think back to your formative years in music – those favorite albums you listened to over & over – you know,the ones where you thought the drums were THUNDERING BATTERING RAMS OF DOOM played by a very angry giant, & the guitars were MOLTEN RIVERS OF MUSICAL LAVA, EXPLODING out of the speakers! – the ones where you kept on thinking, “If only I could get that sound, I’d have MADE it”. Lets call it band XYZ. These are records that resonate to the core of your being. They are inextricably entwined with your personal experience – growing up, being an angry, misunderstood teen, getting your first car, whatever.
In fact, you have so much invested emotionally in these pieces of music, when you play them, do you actually listen to them anymore? I’m betting not – just like my friend at the beginning, you’re tapping your fingers, singing along, playing air guitar… they take you somewhere else.. your brain makes sure they do – your ears are pretty much disengaged.
So, the day comes when you’ve written a killer song – now you want killer sounds for it – you know, just like you remember when you used to listen to XYZ! You go about crafting those great guitar & drum sounds from memory – after all, you know their stuff inside-out, right? Yep, now your mix is a GODLIKE PILLAR of PURE SONIC DEVASTATION – you’re grinning from ear to ear & banging your head ’till blood runs out your facial orifices… its just like you remember….
…..only not really…
With the wind in your sails, you’ve just proudly posted your mix on Bash This Recording, now you’re completely deflated – you feel 35 again, well & truly. The responses rip it apart: “its all drums & guitars” “the bass is MIA” “I can’t hear the vocals”, “it’s muddy”, “it’s boxy” “you need to high pass more of the elements”… & on & on it goes… “AAGGGHHH!!! What the hell do those hacks know anyway?”… you log off in disgust.
A few weeks later you hear XYZ on the radio – What an awesome track! Now your curiosity gets the better of you. You call up your killer mix & Band XYZ in your DAW… You play yours’, then theirs’, then yours’ again.
What do you know! Suddenly those HUGE drums & MASSIVE guitars in XYZ don’t sound so huge & massive – actually the guitars sound a little thin – especially compared to yours’… and the drums are actually pretty low in the mix (compared to yours). You can hear the vocals clearly, every word – & man, I thought they were really dry, but they actually have a lot of delay & reverb on them…. & yep, that bass is much louder than I remember – in fact, it’s what really makes the guitars sound bigger…
Suddenly things are put in stark relief – In the absence of your emotional attachment to the sounds, (both yours’ & theirs’) you hear things as they actually are…
(Oh, and by the way, try listening to some stuff that you not emotionally attached to – a lot of great music was made outside the period from 1982 – 1992, & is still being made)
…which brings me to the final point..
5. Get a second opinion (& give one)
Big shot mainstream mixers have massively overpaid Mastering Engineers to give them a second opinion, but what do we have? Bash This Recording, that’s what!
Oh, & while you’re at it, pay it forward & critique some other mixes… In fact, try critiquing 2 or 3 mixes a day…It’ll take you maybe 10-20 minutes, but it adds up to 700-1000 mixes a year – that’s a LOT of experience you’d never get holed up in your bedroom perfecting your guitar tone.
“Great!, so I have to LISTEN, do I? DUH! That’s all very well and good to spout airy-fairy, faux-Jedi/Zen mixing wisdom, o great fHumbling one, but what the HELL does that mean in real terms anyway?”
- Your brain trumps your ears every time - Don’t assume you just haven’t been gifted with golden ears at birth – train you BRAIN and your ears will follow
- Take the time to start NOTICING the stuff around you – how it actually SOUNDS – then you might have a shot at reproducing those sensations
- Focus on the BIG PICTURE & the things that will matter to the listener - no one cares about your snare sound.
- REFERENCE, REFERENCE, REFERENCE! Your loving sonic memories are no match for the brutal truth of your speakers.
- Post it on Bash This Recording.
Well then, to the title – “FALSE ADVERTISING!”, I hear you scream… Stupidly expensive? Really? Yep – Our ears, our brain & our time – priceless commodities we already own, but like any great gear, we’ve just got to learn how to use it…by using it.