Regular audio ear training is one way to initiate yourself into
the subtle art of critical listening, a skill fundamental to your long-term success and survival as
an audio engineer or music producer.
"Hello, Cloth Ears!"...
My Sound Engineering lecturer back in the first year of college, a giant named Ari who is about 100 times my size, would often jokingly greet me with a smack on my skinny shoulder and a loud "Hello, Cloth Ears!". This did however, apart from sending me flying over the cheap Behringer desk in the Pro Tools studio, make me realize - he had a point. I couldn't tell 1kHz from 100Hz if my life depended on it back then. That had to change!
Fast forward to three years later and, at the end of my studies, I was of
course much better and more confident at recognizing and adjusting frequencies. What was
the difference? I had some training behind me. That's all.
we got the obvious frequency charts with classical instruments broken
down but this made little difference to my practical tracking and mixing
skills. You see, a chart is a nice way to get an idea of which
frequencies are prominent in the sound of various instruments but it
does not help you recognize specific frequencies in different contexts. What I needed was on-the-job and deliberate training!
Good critical listening skills are difficult to develop for the simple reason that your
nervous system can and will play tricks on your conscious mind. You
don't have to be an expert in psycho-acoustics to know this. Ever gone to
bed safe in the knowledge that the mix is pretty much nailed, only to
experience utter shock and horror when you first play it back the next
Your nervous system can and will adjust the way you
perceive sounds. It's your job to train your conscious mind to
compensate for this with various techniques. This includes audio ear
training on a regular basis.
Meet Mr. Golden Ears...
A top-class engineer such as Tony Maserati or Bob Clearmountain sits between the speakers and listens with a deep look of focus, then reaches over and twists one pot on the mix console 5mm to the left, listens again and grins lightly with satisfaction. The uninitiated person standing right next to him sees this but cannot hear any difference in the mix.
What's going on here? The experienced mix engineer has a complex reference structure built up in their psyche that allows them to hear subtle differences most people would be hard-pressed to notice. Mr Golden Ears has the ability to recognize frequency changes, subtle distortion, level changes and noise often inaudible to the ordinary layperson.
This ability to discriminate was built up over many experiences which
helped the brain to refine the way it notices and pays
attention to sound and music. Day in and day out and year after year the engineer trains their ears with countless tiny adjustments to sounds they worked with in different mixes.
You'll notice an improvement in your critical listening skills as you mix more and more records. This is on-the-job training and it's great because it also means you get some actual production work done! There are however more intense training options available that allow you to improve your critical listening skills much faster than you would with on-the-job ear training alone.
So, how does one go about audio ear training as a music producer?
My opinion is that the best way to train one's nervous system to
recognize frequencies is to work with test tones, noise or music and use
various EQ tools to alter the sound. You need to adjust your sources
and take note of what you hear. You have to learn how to really listen
and then connect what you hear to what you know about frequencies and
This takes time. It never stops in fact. Ear training of
course happens every time you mix or design sounds. You will however get
much better at critical listening when you add deliberate audio ear
training exercises to your list of habits.
I mean if the mix engineering legend that is Dave Pensado does it, who are we mere mortals to argue?...