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EnginEARing Part 3: Listening Without Bias - Genre and Professionalism
By Glen Stephan on August 1 2008 12:00 AM | Permalink | Author Info
Last time we talked about overcoming the first of our common listening biases that we need to overcome before we can develop our critical listening skills: the bias of volume. Now let's talk about the other two main rookie biases we need to overcome: The bias of genre and the bias of professionalism.

JACK OF ALL GENRES: The Music Genre Bias

Those entering the recording game tend to fall into one of two general categories. They are either music enthusiasts looking to run a small project recording studio for the purpose of recording other people, or they are musicians or track makers (solo or part of a band) looking to self-record. Some plan to do both.

One potential difference between these two categories is in the range of music style and genre with which they’ll be working. The independent project studio owner has to be prepared to work with any music style that knocks on their door – at least if they want to make money they do. The recording musician or performer, on the other hand, will probably tend to be working in a single select genre of music, whether it be rock, country, death metal, hip hop, or whatever may float their boat.

It should be obvious that the independent engineer should have an ear for a wide variety of musical styles. The musician engineer really needs to only have an ear for the type of music in which they work, though, right?

Not really. That’s falling for one of the most insidious of the bias’ – the genre bias.

Training our ears to hear like an engineer is like training our bodies to be an athlete (except a whole lot easier). Just because we’re going to be a running back doesn’t mean that we exercise our legs only. While we may do special exercises like running in a pool or jogging up and down hillsides, we still have to do the sit-ups, bench presses and all the other exercises to keep our entire body in shape.

It’s no different with ear training. Just because we are in a heavy metal band doesn’t mean that we don’t need to be able to have an ear for classical, jazz, country, and hip hop as well.

When we limit our listening skills to only one genre of music, we are exposing our ears to a limited set of sound styles. It’s like going to a weight room and exercising only one group of muscles. Do that regularly and you’re bound to injure yourself when you leave the weight room and head out onto the field of play.

An engineer needs to hear not only what is there in the recording, they equally need to hear what is not there. The only way to hear what is not there is to be familiar with the widest array of possible sounds there can be. The more we expose ourselves to the wide variety of music, the more educated our palate will be when it comes time to analyze a recording, regardless of the recording’s genre or style. Many a time’s when an engineer has tweaked a hard rock electric guitar track because of something he remembered noticing in an alt country tune, or a hip-hop sequencer reconstructed (or even sampled) something he heard from a ‘60s acid rock recording; all things they would have missed if they restricted their critical listening to only their favorite genre of music.

The more cross-genre music we train our ear to, the better we will be able to hear what’s going on in our own genre.



PRO. SO? The Professional Recording Bias

Most every one of us when we start out sets a goal that eventually we want our recordings to sound like “pro recordings”. That is a noble and well-intentioned idea. But what do we mean when we say that? What does a pro recording sound like? Does the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” sound like Steely Dan’s “FM”? Does Pink Floyd’s “Money” sound anything like the Beatles’ “Money”? Or for that matter, does Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” sound even remotely like Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed”? Those are all very professional recordings, yet they all sound entirely different in very many different ways, even to those with untrained ears.

Not only is there no particular “sound” that makes professional recordings, but just because a recording was released by a major recording label doesn’t necessarily even mean that the recording and production are even all that good. The fact is that the quality of “pro” recordings varies anywhere from absolutely fantastic to acceptable to absolutely horrible, with – unfortunately – more recordings falling somewhere just to either side of “acceptable” than to anywhere else.

If you doubt that, just look at other examples of the entertainment production industry. Of all the new movies that have come out in the last few years, how many of them were really all that well produced or directed? As a percentage of the movies produced and released, really only a handful are really high quality productions. Would you really want to learn how to make a movie based upon a screening of “White Chicks”? And even some of those with the largest wallets thrown at their productions starring the biggest names in Hollywood really wind up stinking up the theater (can you say “Waterworld”? How about “Gigli”?) It’s no different with audio-only productions such as music CDs. There are some great ones for sure, but for every great one there are probably a dozen average-to-bad ones.

The point here is that when we listen to a recording with an engineer’s ear, the first thing we need to do is to remove all bias and prejudice from our listening. Who we are listening to is irrelevant. Whether we are listening to a commercial CD or a basement tape is irrelevant. Whether we are listening to a legend on a major label or our daughter’s grade school recital is irrelevant. We need to start with a blank and open mind whenever we apply our ear to any given recording. Just because you have a recording of a legendary band in your hands doesn’t mean that will automatically sound good to a trained ear. And just because it’s an amateur recital recorded in a school auditorium doesn’t automatically mean it will sound awful.

The names that are printed on the sleeve of the CD can’t tell us whether the production sounds good. Only our ears can tell us that. And the only way for our ears to tell us that is to listen with a blank and open mind, and to not let our analysis of the recording be prejudiced by our knowledge of who did it.

Next up: Part 4: Listening To The World Around Us.



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