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Do You Hear What I Hear? A Reasoned Response To A Common Criticism

Deconstructing the old “you can’t really hear that" line with a logical and effective bit of reasoning based on understanding and expertise.

Like most people, I try to be professional and even-keeled in my interactions. However, I’ll admit that I very quickly get irritated when a layperson says something like “[insert technical concept here] doesn’t matter. You can’t really hear that.”

I’ve gotten this pertaining to wall reflections, phase alignment, microphone placement – and, for the grand prize, in response to my telling a venue owner that his underbalcony delays should actually be delayed.

To defeat something, you must understand it. So let’s deconstruct “you can’t really hear that.”

Level I: Physiological

It’s a mistake to assume that if you can’t hear it, no one can. Hearing loss is horrifyingly prevalent these days. A 1998 said study* found that 14.9 percent of children in the U.S. aged 6 to 19 years old had at least 16 dB of hearing loss in one or both ears. And that was 20 years ago, before iPods and earbuds. Care to guess what it’s like today?

When you get an audiogram (hearing test), the results are normalized to the undamaged hearing of a young adult (dB HL). My audiogram shows positive across the board (I’ve been very careful with my ears), which means I actually can hear things that others can’t. But here’s why this doesn’t really matter –

Level II: Perceptual

There’s more to hearing than our ears. Technically, they’re just the A/D stage. The actual processing happens in the brain.

A layperson and an audio professional might have matching hearing loss curves, but the audio pro has developed an extremely discerning perceptual mechanism. We notice details far more readily than the average person. A 2000 study** found that professional musicians are about seven times more sensitive to reflections than “ordinary listeners.”

Likely it’s much higher for audio engineers. We’re quite experienced at listening to reverbs and delays. So it’s not just about what signals our ears send to our brain, but also how well our brains can interpret this data.

Just the other day I sat through an event that featured a constantly-ringing podium mic. Finally, I said to the volunteer running the board, “Don’t you hear that?” His response: “Hear what?”

Don’t worry, I was respectful, because it’s not really his fault – we’re trained to hear things that ordinary listeners don’t: ringing mics, room resonances, slapback reflections, HVAC noise, distortion, etc. In fact, our livelihoods require us to be sensitive enough to these types of issues that we can deal with them before they get bad enough to annoy the audience. (Herein lies one of the more challenging aspects of monitor engineering – musicians hear this stuff, too!)

Level III: Knowledge & Experience

Hearing a problem and knowing how to fix it are two different skills, but closely related. Knowledge of the solution is an extension of the perception of the problem. Everyone who’s not literally deaf can hear feedback. Fewer (apparently…) will hear the ringing first. Ringing starts as a resident tonal roundness I refer to as “bloom,” which is even harder to hear.

The final challenge is being able to identify the frequency, and drop in and EQ filter. An expert monitor engineers is likely to have a corrective EQ in place before a layperson would even perceive a problem. It’s not his/her first rodeo. This is knowledge and experience in action.

To most, feedback is annoying. To an audio engineer, it’s information. The distinction lies with whether the person listening has the skills to interpret the information and use it to inform a useful action. This is specialized stuff. I’ve seen an EKG readout but I don’t have the skills to understand the information contained therein.

Next time you go to the doctor, you can level the playing field by bringing along an FFT of your heartbeat. Your move, Doc.

Similarly, I can’t diagnose a car by its engine sounds, but my mechanic can. To me, it’s noise. To him, it’s data. Depends who’s listening.

In high school, shortly after getting a job with the local sound company, I mixed an open mic on two powered loudspeakers. I told my boss, “Hey, there’s something wrong with that speaker.” It passed a bench test but due to my insistence, an authorized technician did some digging and found oxidized contacts on one of the amp module’s IC chips.

The tech told my boss, “Your guy must have some insane ears if he heard that.” From that day, whenever I said something sounded off to me, my boss took me at my word.

There are two sides to this coin – by saying, “I know you can’t hear it, but I can, please trust me, this is what I do,” I’m compelled to admit the same about other disciplines.

My boss was a lighting designer, and was quite particular about the way gel filters were placed in the frames. It was tempting for me to think, “that can’t possibly matter,” but that’s just my ignorance talking.

As a professional LD, he could literally see things that I couldn’t. If I wanted him to respect my assertion that three milliseconds of delay or two degrees of splay are important, I needed to put his gel frames together the way he wanted. I don’t need to understand why it’s better, but I should trust that it is better.

This approach tends to smooth over interdepartmental squabbles, by turning disputes into dialogues instead of playing tug-of-war.

As for interactions with clients, you can create a similar atmosphere by showing an interest in asking questions – about the venue, the production, the musical arrangement – wherever the client’s expertise lies, I’m going to ask about it.

Even if the client does something completely foreign to me, like putting up cell towers, cool. I’m interested. I have questions. The idea is to create a dynamic in which I recognize that person’s expertise and am receptive to the things that they have to say about it. This increases the likelihood that they’ll be open and receptive to my expertise in turn.

And I’m not being insincere – professional interactions aside, I enjoy learning things. It’s part of who I am.

Live sound is an industry populated by the professionally curious. We’ve come a long way in an amazingly short time. (Exhibit A – the Beatles at Shea Stadium.) All of our new products, workflow innovations, and best practices are the result of someone saying, “I wonder what would happen if…”

In the words of a dear friend of mine: “The best thing to be in this world is curious. Once you’ve lost your curiosity, you’ve lost part of your humanity.”

Stay human.

* Niskar, A.S., Kieszak, S.M., Holmes, A., Esteban, E., Rubin, C., and Brody, D.J. (1998). “Prevalence of Hearing Loss Among Children 6-19 Years of Age.” JAMA, 279, pp. 1071-1075. Available at

** Ando, Yo, Sakai, H., and Sato, S. (2000). “Formula describing subjective attributes for sound fields based on a model of the auditory-brain system.” Journal of Sound & Vibration, 232, pp. 101-127.

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