If you’ve been in this business for more than a week, you know how important training your ears can be. Our hearing is very sensitive, and in addition to protecting it, we need to keep it in shape. Here are some tips that I’ve found helpful over the years.
Sound mixers of all types should possess the ability to focus their hearing on individual sounds within a larger mix, a sort of “zoom-in, form an analysis, zoom back out, and analyze again” process. Rinse and repeat as needed.
Another way to think about it is selecting “solo” on the console without all of the show-stopping awkwardness of actually soloing the channel in the middle of an event. It takes some practice but once you get it down, exercise it frequently.
The goal is to be able to focus in on something to make slight adjustments and then re-incorporate these elements into the mix to finish making any necessary adjustments. This assures that you’re able to find issues deep in the mix while still mixing the entire image.
Another metaphor for it is looking at a painting through a magnifying glass – the smaller details matter because the whole of them makes up the piece, but don’t forget the larger picture. The ability to focus your hearing will also let you discern whether or not every instrument is audible. One of my top three mixing must-have’s is being able to hear every single instrument.
Listen to some of your favorite songs and try to find the quietest instrumental part. Focus on recognizing what rhythm that instrument is performing. When you start to get comfortable, try zooming your perception in and out of that instrument as quickly as possible.
For example, I might focus on a synth part, realize that it’s sitting nicely in the mix, and then immediately divert my attention to the guitarist playing a rhythm part. Every instrument has a place in the mix; be sure to place it there.
Knowing frequency ranges, and where common instruments fall, is a necessity. You should always know where to start when something needs to be equalized.
It’s also a priority to be able to identify – within an octave or two – where an issue is occurring and do some quick arithmetic to determine its harmonics. This significantly narrows the possible frequency range of where the problem might be occurring, which will let you avoid wildly sweeping filters around. This can expedite the sound check process as well as the process that engineers go through in the heat of a mid-show error.
There are several ways to do this, but here’s the method I recommend. Select a song that you won’t mind hearing 300 more times on an endless loop. Import it into recording software or play it through the console. Apply a parametric EQ and set a 10 to 15 dB boost starting at 20 Hz, with a moderate filter bandwidth. Bypass the EQ and listen to the song as it normally is, then turn the EQ back on. Listen carefully. Toggle the filter in and out to see if you can hear the difference.
Then double the filter’s frequency to go up an octave and do the same thing. Begin to understand what each area of the spectrum sounds like. Try to find identifying characteristics about each octave (I think “dinosaur steps” for 20 Hz). An understanding of how the console’s EQ filters affect the different frequency ranges is also important, and for that I recommend checking out Michael Lawrence’s recent article in this issue (here) examining console EQ responses with an analyzer.
Be sure to take frequent breaks to keep your ears fresh – when they get fatigued, they try to maintain homeostasis, which is a constant state of returning to a stable equilibrium. Our bodies are very good at adapting. For example, regardless of the environment, they work to maintain a normal body temperature.