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EnginEARing: Part 1 - The Missing Link
By Glen Stephan on July 7 2008 09:04 PM | Permalink | Author Info
The ability to listen to a mix with "engineer's ears" and use our set of critical listening skills is what separates the men from the boys. This first installment in a series of articles on developing basic critical listening skills, explains why this skill is the key to quality audio engineering.

A musician/engineer sits in his acoustically treated family room-cum-project studio and listens closely to the playback of the electric guitar track he just self-recorded. After playing back a few seconds of the hard disc recording from his computer through a third-party D/A converter and into his precision-placed high-wattage bi-amped near-field monitors, he grabs a new mic out of his case, walks over to his guitar rig and replaces the mic he had on the guitar cabinet with the new one, moving the new mic about an inch to the right. Back at his desk he routes the new mic into a different preamp than he used with the first mic. Then, while still sitting at his desk, plays a riff or two, again listening closely to the new sound. He then slightly adjusts a little EQ before hitting the record button, sending the signal through a crystal-clear A/D converter and to his hard drive to lay down a second take that sounds just perfect for his new song. No third take is required, and, as he’ll find out later, he’ll need to perform very little processing on the track to make it fit right during mixing.

Now, quickly, what would we say the most important ingredient was in the musician/engineer’s success in the above story? Which part of his signal chain and recording process was key to his success?

Some would say it was his microphone/preamp combo, for changing those was the key to giving him the sound he wanted. After all, it’s in the transducing of the actual sound to electrical current where the signal is made, and everything else is secondary. The team of microphone/preamp are, in effect, creating the signal that’s going to be processed and recorded, making their selection and placement paramount, and everything else downstream in the signal chain is secondary at best. That is all true and a great point.

Others might say that the key was not so much in the conversion of sound to analog signal, but in the conversion of the analog to digital during recording and the conversion back from digital to analog when playing back and listening. Let’s face it, no matter what your source analog signal sounds like, your converters are key to having accurate enough reproduction to be able to do a proper job of engineering. All of which is also true, and all of which is an equally good point.

Then there are those who will insist that those two translation points or domain changes are meaningless if the third one, the conversion of electrical signal back into sound, is not up to snuff. This means the monitoring part of the signal chain, which includes mainly the quality of studio monitors and their positioning and use in a properly acoustically treated room. After all, if the engineer cannot faithfully and accurately monitor and hear what is actually going on in the recording, he simply cannot do his job. This is, again, all true, and yet another excellent point.

So which of these is the most important link in the chain? Maybe it’s all of them, since they all are extremely important points in the process. Weakness in any of those points can cause the recording to suffer.

While those are all excellent arguments, they really all miss the big picture, and in doing so, they miss the key element, the master link in the audio engineering chain; the engineer’s ears.

In the above example, it was the engineer’s ears that told him that the first mic/pre was coloring the sound in a way he didn’t desire. It was his ears that told him he was miking the wrong spot on the guitar amp, it was his ears that told him that he needed just a sprinkle of EQ to put the finishing touches on the sound, and it was his ears that told him upon final inspection of that take that he had the sound he needed for the as yet uncompleted song he was building.

But, you might well object, he couldn’t do that without a quality recording setup, right? Every one of the links of hardware or software in the audio engineering chain, including those described above, are certainly important.

Consider these points, however: Put somebody with a tin ear in a million-dollar studio and they’ll make a recording that will sound like it was recorded by someone with a tin ear; put somebody with ears well-trained for this kind of work on a $250 tape recorder with a $100 microphone, and he’ll make a recording that, while not necessarily a gold standard of audio quality, will sound like it was recorded by a professional. Gear is important, but “ear” is even more important.

The difference between a serviceable mix and a great mix is in the ear, not the gear.

When we talk about “ear” here, what we really mean is the ability to perform fast and accurate critical listening and analysis of the sounds we’re listening to. This really involves both the ear and the brain, not just the ear alone. The ear collects the sound, but it’s really the brain that does the listening and the analysis. This talent is, however, traditionally referred to as having the “engineer’s ear”, so we’ll continue that tradition here. “Having the engineer’s brain” just conjures up too many visions of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab anyway.

Not everybody naturally develops such an ear. A large number of folks from home recoding enthusiasts to professional producers often have little better of an engineer’s ear than the layperson, no matter how interested or involved they are in the music itself. Even talented musicians, some of whom are pros, many of whom have perfect pitch, and many of whom are experienced at writing and/or arranging music, nonetheless don’t really know how to listen to and analyze recordings from a music engineer’s perspective, and still find the task of building good, balanced mixes to be outside their bailiwick. They are just not used to listening to their creations that way. There is a subtle but important analytical difference between listening with a musician’s ear and an engineer’s ear, though both are equally important in making a fine recording.

Developing an engineer’s ear can be easier than one might think. In fact, any one of us who does not have an actual physical hearing handicap can be well on their way to training their ear to an engineer’s edge in just a few short weeks. This series of articles is a step-by-step compilation of information and techniques that anyone from musician to audience member can use to get their ear trained to hear and react to music as more than just a music enthusiast. Using the simple training and techniques within, one can also quickly learn to listen as an audio engineer. And that, as we have already seen, is the number one key to being able to create your own quality recording mixes.

The next installment of “EnginEARing” will be the first of a two-part piece on “Listening Without Bias”.

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