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The Art Of Listening: Refining A Vital Pro Audio Skillset

Developing the ability to zero in on sounds with Jedi-like focus to discern what they add (or not!) to the overall mix.

How often do you listen to music? I don’t mean throw some tunes on in the car or play the radio in the background, I mean really listen; the kind of listening where you give the music your full attention, focusing on the qualities of individual sounds and noticing things which are not immediately obvious. That distant layered guitar chord; the faint timbale in the background; the different harmonies of the violins. The nuances of the reverbs, the tuning of the drums, the positioning of sounds within the stereo image.

How often do you do that? If you’re aspiring to be a successful professional sound engineer, I hope the answer is “a lot.”

This is the art of critical listening, the vital skill which every mix engineer needs whether in the recording studio or TV suite, at front of house or behind the monitor desk. Anywhere you find yourself with your hands on the console, you need the ability to zero in on sounds with Jedi-like focus to discern what they add (or not!) to the overall mix.

Only then can you begin to manipulate them to enhance the experience – because simply adding more and more sound sources indiscriminately can leave you with a nasty audio “mud” from which it’s difficult to extract yourself. It’s a skill that’s honed over time, but the good news is that can you start anywhere, with no fancy gear whatsoever.

Getting Into It

In fact, you can begin right now by listening to lots of different styles of music on lots of different loudspeakers and headphones. Never gotten into classical, reggae, country or samba? Give them a try! Usually listen to downloads in the car or on headphones? Beg or borrow a decent pair of domestic loudspeakers and play a favorite album on CD or vinyl. Clear your space of all other distractions and just listen. Prepare to be amazed at all the details you never noticed before. You can make it a game by writing down every sound you identify (if you don’t know the instrument, don’t worry, just describe the sound – it’s for your eyes only).

Then try drawing a picture of the stereo image as though it’s on a movie screen. Is there a guitar sound to the left? A cello to the right? Are some things higher in the air, or nearer to the ground? Do you feel like some sounds sit further back, or closer to you? Do you perhaps start to feel that the stereo image is more 3D, than flat left and right?

Did you just blow your own mind? I know I did the first time I tried it – I can still remember the exact room I was in, and that was 25 years ago! Doing plenty of listening practice puts you a step ahead when you’re eventually behind the console.

As an engineer, a smart move before working with a band is to get a copy of the proposed set list and listen to the songs, many times over. Obviously if you’re mixing several bands for one day only at a festival then this isn’t practical, but if you’re doing repeat gigs then it’s really helpful to understand what the original song sounds like and what the musicians are used to hearing. You won’t necessarily try to recreate that – a monitor mix is functional as well as pleasant to listen to – but the reference point is invaluable.

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