The Myth of Golden Ears

Are the best sound engineers and producers born with better hearing, a pair of  ‘Golden Ears’ as they say?

Not necessarily, but what they do have is a pair of well trained ears. 

EQ’ing is the manipulation of frequencies. In order to do that effectively, you need to be able to identify what you hear and what adjustments need to be made so you can achieve your desired result.

The first step in doing this is knowing how to listen.

Your ears are always on however, you’re not always listening. We use our ears all the time but exactly how much do we hear and how do we hear?

Hearing is different from listening.  How much of your environment are you tuning out on a daily basis?  If you live in the city, do you even notice the traffic noise anymore?  Sirens blaring, horns honking, garbage trucks emptying dumpsters? If you’ve lived in a noisy city long enough, my guess is that has all become part of background noise that your brain automatically filters out.

When you start listening you focus your attention on the sound you are hearing.  The same as you would if you were trying to hear your friend’s conversation at a local bar with a loud band playing.

It doesn’t take much time to train your ears, it’s something you can do anywhere at anytime and a few minutes a day of doing what’s called ‘critical listening’ will go a long way in helping you to really start to hear things differently.

You already do this to some extent, it’s how you recognize a song within the first few notes.  Even if you haven’t heard it before you can probably tell what artist it is by the familiar sound of their music.

Your ears are probably better trained than you realize.  You’re using them all the time.  When you hear a familiar voice at a party or a crowded room and know who it is even though you can’t see the person.

There are certain qualities in their voice that you recognize, maybe their voice is very deep or very nasally.  Or maybe it has a certain twang to it.  These qualities are descriptive of the tone of their voice and tone is one of the things critical listening trains you to identify.

Critical Listening is an indispensable skill for creating great mixes.  

It allows you to hear the subtle differences in equipment, from mic-pre’s to microphones, between audio consoles and speakers, between various instrument pick ups, to amplifiers.  It allows you to find the sweet spot for mic placement. 

You may think it trivial, but if you are a sound engineer working with a world class musician who wants your opinion on which pick up or setting on their guitar tone sounds best, you’ll not only want to be able to hear the subtle differences but to also articulate what you hear.

If you are a musician, critical listening allows you to hear which guitar sounds better for your track, or which snare drum will fit better and not compete with the vocal.

If you’re doing live mixing and the band tells you they want their live show to sound just like the record.  You’ll need to be able to reproduce it.  Critical listening is how you do it.

Anyone can learn critical listening and here is how you can get started right now.

Find three hit songs from this year, three from 5 years ago and three from 10 years ago.  Commit some time to listening to these songs while doing nothing else.

What do you notice about them?  What do the three from this year have in common?  Is it similar production styles?   Is the balance of the mixes all?  Is it the types of instruments? Style of vocal?

List all of the similarities you can find and then move on to the three songs from 5 years ago and do the same.  Repeat with the three from 10 years ago. 

Now go back and listen to the major differences between this years songs and the hits from 5 and 10 years ago.

Music changes through the years along with our tastes.  What  makes a song a hit today will be outdated 15 years from now.  

By just listening and being able to identify what you hear, you have taken the first step in learning how to listen critically and training your ears.

Having a pair of well trained ears is the first step in being able to use EQ effectively.  When mixing and EQ’ing, if you don’t have an end result in mind, how will you know where to start?  You need to be able to hear what needs to be adjusted and understand the techniques that will create the sounds you want.

These skills will not only raise the quality of your mixes, they will inspire confidence in those you work with,  which usually leads to getting more work!

Spend some time listening today.


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