Another example: If we’re around a scent for very long, it “disappears” because we get used to it. Basically, our sensitivity to “abnormal” states can decrease over time. There are ongoing experiments examining how our auditory systems may use mechanisms of a homeostatic variety to compensate for changes in environment. This could mean that the hair cells in our inner ears can change their sensitivity (and other parameters) based on a certain range of stimulus.
Homeostasis aside, hair cells experience fatigue if we don’t give them a break. Make it a habit to stop listening but leave the headphones on with nothing playing through them for a few minutes. This will reset your hearing and then you can get back to training! If you start to get really good at hearing a 10 dB boost, make it 5 dB.
More challenging? Switch to attenuation. The removal of spectral energy is incredibly difficult to hear without a direct comparison. This should keep you busy for a good while. If you’d like to keep score, I recommend a program called Golden Ears, which can blindly quiz you to really stretch you to the limits.
Another great option is SoundGym, a free website that gives some great training on not only EQ, but sound quality, dynamics, and even sound location. It’s going to be tiring and it’s going to take some time, but doesn’t all training?
Feedback is every mix engineer’s worst enemy and a mistake that everyone in the building can hear. While I advocate having solid gain structure to prevent it from happening, it still occurs at times. Fortunately, you can train your ears to almost “feel” when signal is about to spill over back into the microphone. The next best option (immediately following identifying that the feedback is happening) is recognizing the pitch at which it is occurring.
This can go hand in hand with frequency training. Knowing relative frequencies can be a lifesaver. High-pitched feedback is almost always audible as soon as it happens, or when it trails off of a voice that’s right on the cusp of feeding back. But what is “high frequency”? We’ve got about 18,000 cycles per second to choose from. Start by going to a frequency training website or software (I’m a real fan of Quiztones) that lets you quiz yourself on tones as well as EQ and gain changes. It’s a great app, well worth the $5 investment.
When I’m training I put on my favorite pair of headphones, close my eyes, and focus. The more practice I get in, the less isolated I make the training environment. Sometimes I even plug my phone into the house system to test my responses in the room I mix in frequently.
Typically, when feedback is bad, it’s a gain thing. When feedback is subtle, it’s an EQ thing. To notch these frequencies out without losing your entire gain structure, you’ve got to be able to quickly identify where the problem is occurring (without the use of a real-time analyzer, if possible). Don’t be the person that lets the room ring for five minutes because you’ve got no idea where to cut.
That rock band does not need to be 120 dB. Loudness does not equal quality; in fact, the opposite is true. Get molds for custom ear plugs and protect your most valuable asset. Consider it insurance.
In addition to protecting your ears from abuse and fatigue, I also recommend not overthinking. A mind that’s clouded or distracted won’t be able to focus and train. There are times to focus on one task, and one task only.
Whether you’re new to the field or have 15 years behind the board, it’s vital to keep your ears as fresh and as sharp as possible. Come up with some different training methods to push yourself and keep things from getting boring. Training breeds greatness. Go, train.