Ear Training for Sound Engineers and Music Producers

There’s a term used to describe those people with extraordinary hearing skills – they are known as having golden ears.

This is true for acclaimed audio engineers like Chris Lord-Alge or Dave Pensado.

Additionally, it is also a term used by some medical professionals to describe people who show no signs of age-related hearing loss as they age.

Notice that these are two distinct uses of the term: the first points to an excellent hearing from the perspective of the mind; the second from the physical perspective of the body.

I argue that if you’re involved in the process of recording, mixing and mastering audio tracks – whether your an aspiring sound engineer, music producer or something else – and if you want to be the best at what you do, then you should be informed about both perspectives.

1. The Physical Aspect of Hearing

Genetics

Genetics determine the physical quality of the membranes, tubes, canals and nerves that constitute your auditory system. The more functional Nature made them, the better they will transduce the air pressure around you, into the sound you hear in your head.

Some people are born with extraordinary hearing but if you were born as a healthy individual with normal hearing, you shouldn’t worry about genetics at all.

First, because you can’t do anything about it.

And second, because the standards in any industry aren’t so high that they don’t allow some variability in hearing acuity among their professionals.

Preventing Hearing Loss

Rather than being worried about your hearing genetics, it is much more important to focus your attention on preserving the hearing that Mother Nature actually decided to give you.

What’s the point of a sound engineer being born with good hearing genetics, if 15 years from now he’ll have noise-induced hearing loss due to his carelessness? By then, a sound engineer with an average auditory system would be able to have a better hearing, if he had taken the steps to protect himself.

Anyone with some common sense already knows the basics of hearing loss prevention such as wearing earplugs or avoiding loud sounds altogether. If, however, you take this topic seriously – and you should – then make sure you read my extensive article Hearing Loss Prevention for Sound Engineers, Sound Designers and Music Producers, after you’re done with this one.

2. The Mental Aspect of Hearing

The mental aspect of hearing is what I argue pros like CLA and Pensado are masters of.

Working on this mental aspect will allow you to improve your hearing skills, and increase your intrinsic (and extrinsic) value as a audio engineer and music producer.

The process of developing better mental hearing is the process of becoming intimante with Sound. And it can only be achieved through focus. By directing your full attention to Sound, observing every detail about it with your Mind’s Eye, you will develop, over time, the ability to hear things subtly.

The Harman International has statisticaly relevant proof that listeners can be trained, and that they’ll perform better than non-trained individuals, during their loudspeakers blind tests.

Those listeners who had gone through listener training were found to be much more consistent than untrained listeners, regardless of their profession. 

Consistency and training: As listeners get more experienced at hearing, their listening palette broadens and their consistency quickly improves. Because of this, the Harman group has developed computer-based training that helps listeners (…)

Harman International

So, as you can see, this is not wishful thinking. We know your mental hearing system can be trained and that it will improve.

The Power of Intention

Mixing tracks for years will improve your mental hearing, whether you realize it’s happening or not. However, if you’re mixing aimlessly, without a defined intent, you will evolve slowly.

But if you try to match your mixes to reference tracks you like, you will get you there fast. You will have a defined and very concrete objective, and a very harsh judge – the professional reference mix will not forgive any subpar quality mixes.

So you have to give your best. And like a swordsmith, who repeatedly heats, hammers and folds the metal of the blade, so will you work repeatedly on your mixes. Even if you’re mixing on your low budget home studio, with low budget gear. This should never serve as an excuse to give up – you should always strive to get your mixes to sound as good as the professional ones, regardless of your circumstances… this is how you’ll become good.

This is the process of reverse-engineering, which is one of the greatest developers of skill in any field. Remember this and apply it in mixing, composing, sound designing, and everything else you want to become good at.

A/B Comparisons and Blind Testing

I consider A/B comparissons and blind tests the absolute foundations of developing your mental hearing.

The “How Well Can You Hear Audio Quality?” Test

To get my point across, take a look at this online test:

How Well Can You Hear Audio Quality?

This is a 6-question quiz that ask you, for each song, to listen to all three samples and choose the one that you think is the highest-quality audio.

One or two songs are really difficult to identify, and the other are a little bit easier.

Hint: if you’re not sure, do not answer randomly. Stay with the tracks until you know you have the right answers. Direct your attention (focus) to the different parts of the songs, the different instruments, trying to investigate carefully with all the little details, until you find the culprit – something will sound less defined.

Skiping this work – and it’s temptative to do it, as it is mentally exhausting – is skipping the opportunity to evolve your mental hearing skills.

AudioCheck.net Tests

AudioCheck.net is a website that provides free amazing blind tests which are perfect for ear training for audio engineers, music producers and musicians:

Smallest Difference in Sound Levels. The minimum audible change is thought to be about 1dB, but some people have been found to be able to hear as little as a 0.1dB difference. Are you one of them?

Highest Frequency. Instead of testing the highest frequency you can hear with pure tone frequencies, you do it with white noise tracks. This is a more reliable method to test the limits of your hearing in my opinion

Smallest Differences in Pitch / Frequency. Tests and improves your ability to distinguish between similar pure tone frequencies based on their frequency (pitch). You hear two sounds, and you have to determined if they have the same frequency or different frequencies. Plasticity is another online free tool that tests this.

There are other free tests available there as well. Go to AudioCheck Blind Tests and have fun.

EQ

It is fundamental to have practical knowledge of frequency content and EQing.

By doing this, you will become some sort of Sound Psychopath, where you’ll stop hearing music as regular people do, and start perceiving it merely as a group of frequencies added together.

However, beware! Becoming a Sound Psychopath may ruin your listening experience a little bit, making you hyper-aware of an untamed 11kHz frequency on a cymbal in an otherwise perfectly mixed and epic song.

You’ll start developing these abilities as you gain experience with EQing, coupled with the desire to develop a better hearing.

FabFilter Q3 is a very resourceful plugin with a very beautiful and intuitive GUI. If you join these two things together, you get a great tool for improving your EQ skills.

Freezing the audio spectrum allows you to visually identify frequencies that stand out from the others, in terms of intensity. To help even further, Q3 also tags them.

Another helpful feature offered by Q3 is soloing frequencies.

By soloing offending frequencies, and then unsoloing them (while still focusing on them mentally), you learn what it’s like to listen to individual frequencies out of a complete frequency spectrum.

There are also special software out there, like TrainYourEars, that exploit the concepts of A/B comparisons and blind testing, and apply them to EQ.

Since I have established these two concepts as the cornerstone of fast hearing development, that automatically puts TrainYourEars in the list of useful software to use. If you have the extra money to spend, I’m sure you’ll like it.

MCompare Plugin

Plugins like MCompare by Melda Production are very useful to train your hearing while you’re mixing:

  • It allows you to make A/B comparissons between your mix and multiple other reference mixes of your choice.
  • This means you can also compare it to previous versions of your own mix. This is when MCompare’s ability to make blind A/B comparissons become really relevant, allowing you to reach truly unbiased opinions on which mix version sounds best.
  • You can even use this A/B comparissons to hear how a plugin, or chain of plugins is modifying a certain track or submix, and really show you if they are improving your mix… or if you’re just fooling yourself.
  • MCompare will compensate for loudness differences for all these comparisons, so that your ears won’t suffer from loudness-bias.

A/B comparissons and blind tests become so much easier and faster with this plugin, and I can’t imagine myself working without it. I recommend it 100%!

Use the coupon MELDA0169075 to get a 20% discount.

Conclusion

When I was studying in college, my teacher said to the class: “Keep mixing every day, and maybe in 10 years you’ll be good at it”.

Mixing is indeed a very complex process. Not all of it is limited by underdeveloped listening abilities, but much of it is.

The same thing goes for musicians. Why are there so many guitar players with bad vibrato and bending intonation? Is it because they are conditioned physically to do so? No. These are relatively easy things to master. It’s because they don’t know how to hear. And without hearing, they don’t identify their flaws. And so, they won’t focus on practicing to improve them.

Intention. Focus. A/B Testing. Blind Testing.

These are the things you need to improve. And then it will not take you 10 years to become good, maybe it will take you 3 years.

And then you’ll have your own set of golden ears.

Good luck!

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