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Bruce Swedien On Developing Your Own Sonic Personality

The way the balance of an orchestra’s performance is the sole responsibility of the conductor, we must find our personal concept of balance.

By Bruce Swedien February 6, 2018

Bruce Swedien at the Harrison 3240 console at Westlake Audio in 1982 mixing Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

Excerpted from the excellent “Make Mine Music” by Bruce Swedien, available from

It’s my opinion that after all is said and done, psychoacoustics is really why we are interested in recording music in the first place.

Psychoacoustics can be defined simply as the psychological study of hearing. The true aim of psychoacoustic research is to find out how our hearing works.

In other words, to discover how sounds entering the ear are processed by the ear and the brain in order to give the listener useful information about the world outside. I’ve never felt that psychoacoustics is concerned with how sounds produce a particular emotional or cognitive response. That is another matter entirely.

To me, the three most fascinating areas of psychoacoustic analysis are:

—How does the human ear separate sounds occurring simultaneously (e.g., two musical instruments playing at once)?
—How do we localize sounds in space?
—How does the human ear determine the pitch of, say, a sound source or, more important, a musical instrument?

Psychoacoustics is not about sonic mind control. (I must confess that I was a little disappointed when I first learned that fact!)

Determining the abilities and limitations of human hearing is invaluable to us involved in the production of music recordings. Any resource that produces sound for the purpose of human listening should \ take into account what the listener’s ears are going to do with that sound, if we are going to take that resource to its utmost potential.

I have always been a very curious person. I have always had to know why things are the way they are, especially when it comes to the recording of music.

Sound is so important to us in so many different areas that it has always been fascinating to me to think about why we perceive sounds the way that we do. I have heard it said that the purpose of the ears is to point the eyes.

Knowing that, I think it is safe to say that the primary use of our sense of hearing is to localize sound sources. Keep these thoughts in mind the next time you are doing a mix.

Sound as a stimulus is the arena of the physicist. Sound as a sensation is in the arena of the psychologist. We, as professional music recording people, fall somewhere in between these two areas of expertise.

In actuality, to be truly successful in music recording, we may have to be a little bit of both. So, what I hope to accomplish is to help you discover, with the help of the little bit of the psychologist that I think is present in all of us, your own “sonic personality.”

A Card-Carrying Record-Buying Junkie

I think the first step on the road to developing our own “sonic personality” is to find a benchmark for our mind’s ear that has as its basic component true “reality” in sound. From that stark, uncolored point we can then add a new viewpoint for the listener that we can call truly our own.

Many recording engineers and producers spend a lot of their time listening to and trying to learn their craft from records. In my opinion, this is a serious mistake and is precisely the reason why there are so few engineers and producers in the industry today, who have a truly unique sonic character to their work.

A certain amount of information can be gained by listening to other people’s records, but my problem with this approach is that one’s own “audio personality” is short-circuited.

In other words, if you try to learn about music mixing by listening to records, in actuality what is happening is that you are hearing the music, or sonic image of the music, with someone else’s “audio personality” already imposed on the sonic image.

I do believe that it is true that we must listen to records to keep up with sonic styles and trends.

Personally speaking, I am a bonafide, card-carrying record-buying junkie. When I hear a record on the radio or in a club that has interesting music or an interesting sonic hook, I am off to the record store in a minute and buying a copy for myself.

However, to have an “audio personality” that is truly your own, you must start your personal sonic development with a knowledge of natural, acoustical sounds.

Let’s Talk About Acoustical Support

To take that line of thought a step further, I think I should say that I feel that the best way to develop your ears’ “benchmark” is to hear good acoustical music in a fine acoustical setting. How many of you get out to hear live music on a regular basis? It’s very important!

Let’s talk about acoustical support as it relates to music. All music is conceived to be heard with some sort of acoustical support. This does not necessarily mean long concert-hall-type reverberation. It can mean very short, closely-spaced early reflections and minimal reverb content. Both of those components constitute acoustical support.

Once we know what music sounds like in a natural setting with good-quality acoustical support, we can then take that “audio benchmark,” and through our work, give our sonic images our own distinctly personal touch.

An engineer’s or producer’s listening ability does not descend on him in a single flash of inspiration. It is built up by countless, individual listening experiences. So let’s make a real effort to hear the music and sound with as open a mind as possible.

One of our most important abilities as a professional listener is judging balance. So let’s consider balance as the first thing to listen for today. The balance of an orchestra’s instruments in classical music is the sole responsibility of the conductor.

In our work of recording music, that responsibility is transferred to us. It doesn’t matter whether the orchestra is acoustical instruments or the orchestra is represented by a synthesizer. We must be able to judge balance.

Over a long period of time, if we have the native ability, we will develop a seemingly uncanny sense of hearing nuances of balance and sound that would pass unnoticed by the inexperienced.

This ability seems to be acquired almost by osmosis through thousands of seemingly insignificant listening experiences. This random approach is effective and vital.

The antithesis of balance is imbalance. When you are at a concert listening to good music in a good acoustical situation, listen for any imbalances that might be there. Think about your spontaneous reactions later.

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