Musicians, here's why you need to train your ears in critical listening

Feb 18, 2022

If you are a musician in a band, you know that the instrumentation needs to be balanced properly for a great mix. It’s your job as a musician to make sure that your sound, your tone, is the best it can be and that all the elements of the music work together. 

How many times have you heard ‘we’ll fix it in the mix’, only to hear the final mix and it doesn’t sound anything like what you envisioned? It's your responsibility as an artist to take charge of your music and do everything you can to ensure you sound the way you want to, whether performing live or recording in the studio.

To do that you need to understand how all of the instruments and vocals work together.  A critically trained ear gives musicians and singers an advantage in the music industry.  It’s what separates the great artists, engineers, and producers from the rest.

When it’s your song, do you want to rely on someone else to do it for you?  You’ve done the hard work writing, practicing, and recording but don’t stop there.  It’s your music, your career.   It’s up to you to be able to hear that the guitar is getting lost and know how to fix it. You need to be able to recognize that the snare drum is in the way of the vocal and needs to be tuned differently so they aren’t fighting each other for space in the song. 

If you are the drummer, have you ever done a session where your snare drum sounded like a million bucks but when you listened back to the recording it was thin, flat, and small?  How many times have you played a gig where even though you are pounding away on the kick drum, instead of it sounding monstrous, it just sounded like pfft, pfft, pfft… You can’t feel it in the monitors and can barely hear it over the bass guitar. Wouldn’t it be more enjoyable to know exactly what you need to get that powerful drum sound you want?

If you’re a guitar player on stage and the ears of the audience are being assaulted by your piercing, shrill guitar tone, it's not going to be a very pleasant experience for them. You need to be able to dial in your tone so that it fits in the mix of the band and doesn’t make the audience want to run for the doors.

When you are creating and recording in the studio or doing a live performance, if the mix is muddy, unclear, or distorted, it’s hard for people to connect with your music.

When you have a balanced and perfectly blended mix of instruments and vocals, it’s a much more enjoyable experience for your audience. That's what you want. You want the listener to have a great experience and when they do, you win because it lets your performance and your songs shine in the best light possible.

How do you balance a mix?

The first step in creating a balanced and pleasing mix is analyzing what you are hearing using critical listening. In order to fix problems in your mix, you need to know what is wrong with it.   By doing critical listening, you will be able to identify pitch and tuning problems, imbalances between instruments and frequencies. You'll be able to dial in your instrument's tone so it has its own place in the mix and isn't being covered up by something else.  

I'll give you a perfect example of this. The late Pat Torpey, drummer for the rock band MR BIG, aside from being one of the best drummers of his time, Pat was a master at using critical listening to shape the sound of his drum kit. 

If you aren't familiar with MR BIG, they were a 4-piece rock band comprised of guitar and bass virtuosos Paul Gilbert and Billy Sheehan, lead singer Eric Martin and Pat Torpey on drums. Billy's bass tone is very unique and falls more into the lower guitar range than actual bass. Being well-known shredders, Billy and Paul play an astounding amount of notes which fill up much of the sonic space leaving just enough for Eric's rich vocals. Knowing this- Pat very carefully crafted his drum sound, specifically choosing each piece, from the bass drum to individual cymbals, so that it would not have to compete with anything else in the band.  

Drummers can easily get lost, sitting there in the back keeping the beat. You're always competing with the bass guitar for the low end and the vocal with your snare drum and cymbals. In the case of MR BIG, Pat was also competing for air between Billy and Paul's notes.  

His drum kit fit so perfectly, the bass drum being the right size and tuning to carry the weight of the low frequencies solidly without being too boomy. He knew a big boomy bass drum would muddy up an already busy mix. His snare drum sat right in the pocket between Eric's vocal and the guitar tone. It was fat and had just the right tone to cut through and blend perfectly without competing with the vocal. The cymbals were clean and bright but well out of the range of the vocals. MR BIG was also a very vocal-heavy band with all members singing harmonies. Poorly chosen cymbals can often wreak havoc on vocal mixes, creating a wash of white noise that diminishes clarity.   This is especially problematic in small spaces where the cymbals bleed into all the microphones.  Even Pat's cowbell was chosen with great care.

Pat's drumming career didn't start out this way. In the beginning, he just played what he wanted without giving the rest of the band much thought. But after years of fighting to be not just the drummer in the back, he learned how to really listen to what was happening with the other instruments on stage.   He built his drum kit to fit and because he didn't have to compete for space, he was also able to easily hear himself on stage. 

This worked so well and made it easy to mix, all I had to do was bring up the faders.

This is just one of the ways that critical listening benefits you as a musician. A well-trained ear also boosts confidence, creativity, and increases productivity, 

Not everyone has the luxury or budget to work with world-class producers and engineers and even if you do, there is no guarantee that they will understand the sound that you are going for, or even care what you have to say for that matter.

When you're skilled in critical listening, you are way ahead of the game. It makes it that much easier to get the results you want with your music.

You'll be able to make better decisions with your mixes and craft songs that people want to listen to.  You'll also be free to enjoy playing and performing instead of struggling to hear yourself or worrying about the mix.



 By: Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato