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Impulse Response: Examining The Role Of Instinct In Audio

Considering how our subconscious mind reacts to music and audio (and other things) while our conscious mind is still in the process of evaluating and gathering information.

A while back I was driving in my car when Cher Lloyd’s pop hit “Want U Back” came on the radio. It was my first time hearing the song, and a very strange thing happened – by the third beat of the intro, literally two seconds into the song, something very low on my brain stem went “Yes! This is a great song!” and I leaned forward and turned it up.

There’s no possible way that I could have come to an informed, rational decision about whether I liked the song within two seconds. After all, my favorite bits – the drum beat and the catchy verse melody – hadn’t happened yet.

I vividly remember that reaction, and had been very perplexed by it, until recently reading Malcom Gladwell’s riveting book Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking. I can’t really do justice to the premise here – honestly, just read it – but Blink is an examination of this exact phenomenon, that instinctive, gut-level, 2-second intuition.

Gladwell describes several fascinating examples: how a few experts on Greek sculpture could spot a forgery in seconds despite a 14-month scientific study that pronounced it genuine; how an expert tennis coach realized that he could predict rare double-faults before they happened even if he’d never seen the players before; how an orchestra conductor could tell within a few notes the skill level of an auditioning violinist; and how a firefighter, on a gut instinct, ordered his men out of a burning building moments before it collapsed.

Absorbing The Nuances

I don’t wish to spoil the book or misrepresent the research, but what I took away from it is that people who can do these sorts of things are, without exception, experts in their field. They’ve spent so much time absorbing the nuances of what they do that the subconscious mind provides a result while the conscious mind is still evaluating and gathering information.

We all do this. It’s how we instinctively pull our hand from a hot stove even before we feel the sensation of heat, or – Gladwell’s example – leap out of the path of oncoming traffic.

He points out that humanity, as a species, could not have survived this long without the ability to make “very quick judgments based on very little information.” It’s an ability Gladwell refers to as “thin-slicing.” His experts have spent years compiling enormous mental databases that allow them to apply this blink-of-an-eye judgment mechanism to their area of expertise.

Since this process is so much faster than the conscious one, the experts weren’t always able to provide a rationale for their conclusion. As he writes in Blink, “Did they know why they knew? Not at all. But they knew.”

Decision Mechanism

I find this exceptionally relevant to live sound, as we have to make mixing and troubleshooting decisions in real time as the music unfolds. We can’t go back to the top and do a step-by-step analysis of the issues – we have to just know.

In live sound, the right decision is the wrong decision if it doesn’t come until after the show’s been loaded out. I’ve heard several engineers say that mixing puts them in a very relaxed, almost meditative state, responding without thinking too much. I think they’re “thin-slicing,” letting that rapid subconscious decision mechanism take the wheel.

I struggle with this. The first time back at the console after I’d begun to ruminate on this concept, when the band started up, something sounded…odd.

I had a fleeting, low-level thought of “something sounds weird” but it was buried way in the back of my mind, like the impulse that tells you to activate the turn signal when you’re driving – you don’t even notice it because you’re focused on something else.

About five minutes later, I glanced at my main EQ and discovered a 2 dB cut at 10 kHz. I popped it out and everything fell into place.

Now I can’t tell you how that filter got inserted between sound check and the show (I certainly didn’t do it), but the point is that my in-the-moment intuitive response knew something was amiss almost instantly, while my thinking, reasoning, rational engineer brain took another five minutes to corroborate it. If I’d had the self-awareness to bring that instinctual reaction to the forefront of my mind – and to listen to it – I would have found the problem much sooner.

Experience & Intuition

Perhaps I’m contradicting myself. After all, one of my favorite topics in audio is the fallibility of human perception and how we should be very wary of what we think we’re hearing (i.e., The Judgment Triangle). You could certainly say I was brought up as an audio skeptic: one of my dearest mentors is Ethan Winer, an expert who has spent decades dismantling commonly-held audio misconceptions.

Ethan’s work chronicles that examination of things that we’ve all been taught should really matter – dither, jitter, sampling rate, phase shift, loudspeaker isolation – and there’s a good chance you’ve seen the video of his “AES Audio Myths Workshop.”

With a mentor like that, it’s little wonder that I’m particularly hard to convince when extraordinary claims are made.

But I’m not talking about clinging stubbornly to the marketing claims of some new miracle product that, if true, would defy the laws of physics. I’m simply suggesting that if we’re truly experts at what we do, our first instincts might have some validity.

After all, we’ve spent our entire careers focusing intently on the very minutia of how music sounds, so it’s reasonable to believe that we might be more sensitive, on a base level, to sonic details than someone without that experience. Gladwell’s book seems to support that logic.

So maybe a lifetime of listening critically to pop songs brings a bit more validity to my initial positive reaction to that Cher Lloyd tune. And maybe the next time my subconscious brain notices a problem with my mix, I’ll pay closer attention.

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