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EnginEARing Part 4 Listening To The World Around Us
By Glen Stephan on February 17 2011 11:00 AM | Permalink | Author Info
So far in this series we’ve talked about how to listen to sound in its true aural colors without having our own biases unfairly tint our perceptions (Part 2, Part 3.) Now we can start to examine the art of listening to those un-tinted perceptions.

Critical or analytical listening really means listening, and not just hearing. What’s the difference? The main difference is in just how much attention we are really paying to what we are hearing, and to just what details we are paying attention to.

As we continue, we will talk about how to listen for the detail within our recordings and productions. We’ll learn to identify and listen to the various “dimensions” of our recording in which the various attributes such as frequency, depth of field and pan reside and on which we paint the aural pictures of our musical compositions. The first step in our journey to getting our critical and analytical ears brings us far away from our studios and away from the music of man.


As we go through our daily lives listening to our portable MP3 players, car stereos, home computers or home entertainment systems, welcome sounds to drown out the not so welcome sounds of planes, trains and automobiles going by the streets whose sidewalks are crowded with people talking away to each other on their cell phones, we often miss one undeniable fact; one of the most fantastic sources of audio and, in it’s own way, music, is the planet Earth itself. And it’s also one of the best places to get a start on our critical listening skills and learn a few things about audio in the process.

Why Mom Earth? Because nobody and no thing can replicate the quality and quantity of sounds (or lack of them) the way she can. The natural environment we live in provides some of the lowest lows, highest highs, quietest whispers, loudest booms, nearest sounds, farthest sounds, and both liveliest and deadest acoustical environments known to man, all often simultaneously and all with the highest of fidelity that makes both our analog and digital technologies embarrassingly pale by comparison.

There is much that our ears (and the rest of our heads) can learn that will be useful to us in the studio by just shutting up and listening to the natural world once in a while.

ThunderstormStart with one of Nature’s most fascinating and common events; a thunderstorm. The next time you know you have a storm on the way, find yourself a nice dry covered porch or similar - someplace where you can stay dry and safe, yet still listen to the world of a thunderstorm; there’s no sense in getting wet. Don’t take shelter under a tree; no sense getting zapped by a bolt of lightning, either. But take the time and effort to listen to a thunderstorm, from its approach to its end. Listen to the thunder and the rain and the wind.

Listen to how the thunder changes in loudness and frequency from when it is distant and getting closer, to when it is upon you and hits close, but then reverberates as the sound travels farther way, reflecting off of buildings or hillsides. Pay attention to just what is happening to the frequency of the thunder, it’s position and its loudness, and how they change over time from the sharpness of the initial thunder “clap” to the lower, deeper rumble of the reflections that sound like bowling pins being knocked down by a big, godly game of bowling in the heavens.

Notice how the intensity, and often even the existence of the initial clap is determined by how close the lightening bolt struck, and think about how that  has something to do with the more directional nature and dissipation over distance of the higher frequencies of the clap. Then compare how those high frequencies of the initial “clap” resemble in nature the higher frequencies of a fast transient of the initial drum hit or guitar pick in our studio.

Then note the lower rumble of the thunder that goes on and on, however, progressively coming from farther away as each strike rumbles, getting generally lower in both frequency and volume as they progress, because the lower the frequency, the less directional the sound tends to be and the more it seems to fill up the space and be able to make it the distance better than the higher frequency stuff.. Compare that to how one tends to hear the bass from all the instruments and vocals of a loud live band a mile away better than the higher-frequency detail, which seems to just get lost in the distance, yet when up against the stage, the bass seems anemic compared to the screeching of the amplified guitars. Now imagine the way you need to account for that kind of behavior when setting up your control room monitors and acoustics in your studio; how sometimes the bass can sound fuller 12 feet away from a 12” woofer than it can sitting right up against it, and how the more line of sight and straight line reflective nature of the highs play into how your room acoustics can play games with your high end.

But above all, during all this listening to the storm, just sit back, close your eyes, and listen. Listen to the surround sound theater of nature. You’ll never hear on any loudspeakers in any studio anything more pure, more powerful or less distorted, with the equally sharp and wild stereophonic imaging, depth of field and distance, full frequency response, and clarity of arrangement as you will with the sonic performance put on by the plant Earth in a thunderstorm. Enjoy it. Learn from it. And remember how real life actually sounds. It o provides a good reference for the next step we take closer to critical listening in the studio.


The next step is still out of our studios, but it’s getting closer: listening to a live performance. Not some super-group playing to a stadium or auditorium, not even some over-amplified headbangers in a popular nightspot attraction. Find some small bar or room somewhere where you can listen to a small jazz combo, reggae group, country band or something similar, of decent quality. Someplace where we can get close enough to hear the distinct instruments in a situation where the decibel level is actually somewhat near sane listening levels (yeah, right!), and where the arrangements are dynamic and not all everybody playing lead parts balls out at the same time.

Jazz comboWe then take the time to actually listen intently to the sonic qualities of the various instruments, listening “behind” or “inside” the music itself and just digging on the nature of the sounds; doing so in an intent way that perhaps we never really did while playing the instruments ourselves onstage or listening as fans of the music in the audience.

Close your eyes and listen intently to what those ride cymbals and hi hats actually sound like in detail – as well a how they differ depending on whether they’re tapped, struck or brushed, and how that high frequency attack and shimmering decay actually sound live and in person. Then allow our ears, without invasion of other thoughts, to take in and fully appreciate the richness and complexity of the body and overtones of that baritone sax, or the difference between the sounds of the strings versus the sounds of the body of that acoustic guitar. And so on.

Letting our ears do so without concern for whether we particularly enjoy the song or the style of music that’s being played (for as we have previously learned, that is a bias to be listened past, not listened to), we’re listening under the music to the quality of the sound itself. For at this specific moment in time we are all about listening to these instruments as if for the first in their natural, real and live form; without any of the benefits or detriments of artificial recording and reproduction.

Just like the thunderstorm, it’s amazing what we can hear and learn from the space and dynamic nature of sound in the real world. And, frankly, appreciating just how incredibly excellent the real world actually sounds. And how even the small band in front of us, while extremely different in sound from Mother Nature in so many different ways, still has a similar clarity, a certain richness, a certain almost infinite level of detail, a “live quality” that it shares with almost every other real live sound. From the fury of a full-tilt thunderstorm to the more serene buzz of life in a natural summer prairie, from the rhythmic, discordant soundtrack of a cosmopolitan city block to the rhythms and chords of the house band playing in the club on the corner, real life always sounds incredible to the ear trained to hear it’s intricate detail and patient enough to appreciate it.

When we do get back to our studio, we probably will never be able to get a quality of sound quite like that of the real world in a thunderstorm or even a small club, but it sure gives us a good benchmark, a fine goal to fix in our ears and to remember, to listen for, and to reach for as we record our music. And it also gets us started very nicely along the path of critically listening to, and not just hearing, the world around us, including our recordings.

Next up: Part 5: Learning The Frequency Spectrum

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