Learning to Listen Critically to Your Music
One of the most critical skills in the studio, whether you are a recording engineer or recording artist, is training your ear how to listen critically in a consistent and repeatable way.
For the recording artist, critical listening is important if you are trying to make nuanced adjustments in the EQ or color of your vocal, guitar or drum tones. Additionally, when you receive a mix back from a mixing engineer, you won't be able to evaluate what they give you if you don’t have a good method for listening back to what you receive.
For the recording engineer, critical listening is vitally important when capturing tones in the studio. If nothing else it will save you hours and hours of hunting for “the perfect tone” and instead allow you to identify “good” tones much more quickly. Better yet, you will be able to make quicker decisions when picking microphones or adjusting tones and EQ to get the sound that you want.
The good news is that you don’t have to be an expert in audio engineering to be able to listen critically. All we need to do is come up with a set of guidelines that will ensure we are being as consistent and objective as possible while listening back to our recordings.
The Core Principles of Critical Listening
Know your environment
You’ve probably heard the phrase know your room before, but what does that really mean? It’s important to realize that your listening environment will affect the EQ spectrum and color the sound you are listening to. When we say “color” what we mean is that the walls, floor, ceiling, furniture and other elements in the room will (for better or worse) change how sound reflects and travels from the speakers to your ears. This effect is also influenced by the material composition of those surfaces. Materials designed for acoustic treatment will lessen the coloration by dissipating some of the sound reflections, but it can’t be completely avoided and each environment will sound different to varying degrees.
For example, your car is a very different listening environment than listening to music on your headphones or while sitting on your couch listening to music coming from a Bluetooth speaker. Not only the shape of the room and the materials it’s constructed from, but the size and position of the speakers will change the way that sound source is colored and affect how the music sounds.
Know your equipment
While we are trying to listen critically, ideally we want to listen to our music on equipment that will give us the most accurate reproduction to the source material. If you have ever listened to a song on your phone and thought “I can’t hear the bass” but then moved to your car and thought, “Wow! The bass is really loud", then you know what I’m talking about. It’s a good practice to evaluate all of your listening devices and determine not only what sounds best, but what you like the best for playing back your music.
There are two rules of thumb when it comes to utilizing your equipment: You can either use the best (and often most expensive) monitor equipment that will play music back in the most accurate (flat EQ with no boosts or cuts across the EQ spectrum) way possible; or, you can use a variety of equipment, including any room that the equipment will sit in, to listen back on a variety of speakers/systems to get as many perspectives as possible.
This brings up an interesting question though. Should I go out and buy better speakers/headphones to listen critically to my music or should I focus on learning how my equipment colors the sound coming out of it? It definitely depends on what equipment you have. If you are listening to your music primarily in a car or on cheap earbuds it wouldn’t hurt to invest in a good set of headphones or studio monitors. However, I would say the overwhelming solution is to just learn how your speakers color sound source and work from there.
Many people use "the car test" as their final environment for critically evaluating their music. In fact, I myself did this for a long time as my final quality control listen before signing off on my mixes. But why is the car test so effective? There are two reasons why people love to reference music in their car systems: 1) They spend the majority of their time listening to music in their car and therefore they learn the “color” that their car speakers and environment give to the sound source. 2) Oftentimes the car system has the largest speakers and can best reproduce the low end in the song.
Listen with consistency
Ultimately, the car test doesn’t have to be the be-all end-all of critical listening. What is important is having a consistent environment and speakers (or multiple numbers of environments/speakers) that you can know and trust. But what does it mean to listen consistently?
An important component of consistent listening is listening at a consistent volume. If we are constantly changing the volume of the music we hear then we can easily fool ourselves into thinking that what we are listening to is better or worse than something else we are comparing it to. Consistency is key.
Choose a moderate listening volume. Mark that spot on your volume control and always leave it at that spot when you are evaluating your work. It should be loud enough that it sounds enjoyable, but quiet enough that you can still have a conversation with someone right beside you without raising your voice.
Wherever you choose to listen, make sure the environment is consistent as well. To be able to listen critically we must ensure that we are listening in an environment that we know, so that we understand how it colors the sound and can make informed decisions.
But what if we aren’t in a familiar environment? One way we can remedy this problem is by using reference tracks. Playing back other songs and mixes that we are familiar with in the strange environment in order to get an idea of what the environment is doing to our music.
For example, If I play back a song that I know has a lot of low end and the room I play it back in has a subdued low end, I can deduce that the room is coloring the music so that it sounds brighter than typical in that specific space.
Finally, we need to be sure that our ears are fresh when listening critically. A good rule of thumb would be 1 hour of critical listening at a time and then take a 10-15 minute break. Our ears adjust so quickly to what we’re listening to that we can convince ourselves that anything sounds good if we listen to it long enough.
Learning how to develop your ear.
So now that we’ve covered our listening equipment, environment and listening consistency now we should talk about how to develop our ear for listening critically.
The best way to develop your ear is by practicing using the core principles we have mentioned earlier in this article while critically listening to your favorite songs. Listen in an environment that you are familiar with on speakers that you know and are comfortable listening to, at a consistent and moderate volume.
Now that we know how to listen consistently what should I be listening for?
First, listen to the overall EQ balance or “color” of the track. Does it sound dark or bright? Warm or harsh? Try to use descriptions that make sense to you when comparing one track to another.
Next, listen to the balance that all of the instruments have with one another. Do the vocals sit up front or are they mingled in with the other instruments? Are the guitars loud and up front or do the drums or bass steal the show?
Third, analyze the atmosphere of the track (reverbs, delays, or sense of space)? Does everything sound sparse and dry or wet and dense? Do the instruments have adequate room to breathe with one another or does it seem like they’re muddled together?
Fourth, how dynamic is the track? Does everything hit hard or does everything sound kind of squashed and bland? (Note that this is the hardest feature to hear when critically listening to a track and will take the most time so be patient with yourself.)
Finally, listening with these things in mind will help you train your ear to hear these things more easily over time. The bad news is that there are no shortcuts to ear training, but like everything else, if you put in the effort you will eventually take steps toward being able to trust your ear to hear critically.
Identify what your most comfortable and most well used listening environment is and use that environment as your primary critical listening spot. Conversely, if you can’t identify a single place to use as your critical listening spot, then use a variety of places, keeping in mind how each unique environment is coloring your sound.
Identify your best sounding speakers or headphones for listening critically and use them in your primary listening environment. Again, your environment of choice might include a specific set of speakers as well (for example when listening in a car). In that situation you’ll have to take both into account when selecting your environment/equipment or like mentioned above, you can use multiple different settings - keeping in mind how each setting is affecting the coloration of your music’s playback.
Listen with a critical ear with the music at a comfortable level. Give yourself a break if you’ve been listening for a while and reference other mixes and songs that you like to give yourself an idea of what you should be comparing your recordings to.
I hope this article has helped you think about how you can improve your listening skills. Please comment with any questions or things you've done to help improve your listening that I might have missed. Happy recording!