Sonarworks in Education  /  Miles Fulwider

Miles Fulwider

Chair Music Department, Assistant Professor of Music Technology at University of Saint Francis

It is an area we all have extensive experience in, yet it requires a focused effort to develop improvement in the area of listening critically to one’s environment and the sounds we are exposed to.

The human body’s ability to translate simple atmospheric disturbances (sound waves) convert that to neurological impulses via the brilliant mechanics of the ear, and then the brain understands and reacts, essentially instantaneously, is not only a marvel but may often appear magical.

Unlike learning to play the piano or play guitar where one has to learn a whole new environment surrounding that instrument, posture, scales, rudiments, etc. Developing the ability to listen “critically” to the sounds and music we hear is already an area we have extensive experience in. Hearing is the one sensory that we cannot “turn off.” It is always working for us, day and night. As a result, this has gifted us years and years of experience deciphering sound. Similar to learning to play the piano or guitar however, this development process does require continued practice, focused effort, and is ultimately a lifelong pursuit. To further develop this process for us professionals, we now only need to learn how to dissect these sounds. Doing so will allow us to make a better recording, production, and musical choices. 

Now that we know what kind of experience and expertise we all have, let’s look at strategies to develop this skill even further!

When we break down Critical Listening, it’s important to consider the different categories/attributes that make up the sounds we hear. I refer to these as our 3-Strategies. All sounds will consist of the following components and are thus the basis for the strategies and methodologies we will use: spectral properties; dynamic properties; spatial properties.

Consider now any sound you just may have heard. A train whistle or a car horn. How loud was it? Did it drown out other sounds? Did you hear the sound echo off buildings or a canyon wall? Did the sound resonate in the environment in which you heard it? Where did it come from? Could you tell how far away it was?

All of those questions can be answered by the three previous properties mentioned above. A great exercise would be to take the next 5 sounds you hear and ask these types of questions. You’ll be amazed by how much you will be able to determine about these sounds by applying this type of simple analysis. These are the questions that will train us to listen critically.

Let’s consider now the makeup of each of these categories and ways to improve upon our experience with them.

Spectral Properties:
Dynamic Properties:
Spatial Properties:

Strategy #1 - Spectral Properties: 

Simply put, Spectral Properties can be thought of as frequency balance. Let’s consider three basic bands, Low, Mid, High. We all have boosted or cut the balance of a radio in the car or home. The same thing applies here. The beauty of an EQ allows us to alter the sound in ways that make it more appealing or sit more appropriately with other sounds. There are many different software tools that can help with this, but I personally enjoy using EQ’s that allow you to solo various bands so you can get a sense for exactly what that band might be affecting. There are many different tools that offer this, but the important part right now is to listen to each of these three bands on your desired sound independently to hear what they sound like. 

We will loosely define the Low-frequency range as 20Hz - 250Hz. The Mid-frequency range as 250Hz - 4kHz, and the High-frequency range 4kHz - 20kHz.

If you don’t have an EQ handy, pull up some music you enjoy and know well. Either on your stereo, phone, or music streaming application, manipulate the Low, Mid, and High-frequency ranges. Listen to how they interact with one another. Do different instruments pop out? How do these changes modify the listening experience?

Defining these spectral properties in this way will allow you to take a sound and ask the questions; “is it too “boomy?” or “does it need more clarity?” You can then cut the low frequency or boost the high frequency based on your assessment to achieve the results YOU WANT!

Strategy #2 - Dynamic Properties: 

Dynamics! Is a sound loud or soft? Is a sound not “present” enough to be heard due to other sound sources? Much can be written about how to manipulate dynamics processors and you have probably read many yourself. What we are concerned with are the questions that will inform those decisions.

Often we reach for a compressor to give us the results that a simple volume (fader) balance may be more suited for.

How loud should it be. Do we want it to blend or draw attention to it? Consider working on a drum kit where the cymbals are coming through the overhead mics just fine. However, by the time we add all the tom mics, snare mics, the kick is really lost...maybe almost to a dull-thud. This is a perfect example when a compressor should be used. Placing a compressor on the kick drum to give you anywhere from 3-5 dB of gain reduction at peak moments may be perfect to allow you to reduce the source’s dynamic range-thus allowing you to more suitably blend in the kick drum so it’s presence may be not only heard but also FELT!

Strategy #3 - Spatial Properties:

Where does the sound come from? Where should it come from? The brain is brilliant in hearing a sound and our body can instinctively react and turn to see where that sound came from. Spatial properties involve not just positioning of a sound (left, right, in front, or behind) but also other attributes such as delay and reverb.

As we continue to assess our sound environment, we need to know where things should be placed, but also in what type of environment should they be placed within. Remember back the recommendation about listening to the next 5 sounds and to apply these properties to them to form an assessment?

How does the environment change how the source sounds? Does the environment distract from the source? Does the environment enhance sound? When you listen to great classical recordings you will notice the important role the environment plays on the recording. The bloom and sustain of the sounds helps blends the instruments together in a powerful and cohesive performance. Can you hear the room’s characteristics in the sustain and decay of the music? You can close your eyes and have a mental image of just how large (or small) the environment is.

Imagine someone is speaking with you. Listen to their voices. Are you speaking in a kitchen, in a garage, outside? All of these environments sound different and affect the voice differently. Knowing what type of environment we want to maintain or create will help us know what type of reverb or delay to employ.

We then can decide just “where” should something be placed. By this, we mean using a pan control to position things from Left to Right. The key in all of this is balance! Having too much information on one side will sound unnatural and cause a mix/production to be imbalanced. Also listening for how sounds interact, you may find placing things on one side or the other, or maybe between the Left and Center position will help a source be heard as intended physically or artistically. 
Lastly, when we are listening, it’s important to consider how well can we trust the system we are listening to. Not all of us have access to studio-quality headphones or loudspeakers, so this can cloud one’s judgement because after al if you can’t hear it, how can you assess it. Fortunately, there are some fantastic tools out there that will help us be able to trust what we are hearing, one such product is Reference 4 from Sonarworks. This is an invaluable tool for those of us working in different environments, on different speakers, and working in environments that are not purpose-built studios.

Most people want to know “how do I EQ my bass guitar?” or “how hard should I compress this snare drum?” The sound-world we live in is entirely source dependent. This means that the proverbial “it depends” is often the answer we receive. This is really hard to understand and grapple with when we are desiring to learn how to make better use of an EQ, Compressor, and other signal processing. The more important question to be asking is analyzing the sounds you are hearing based on the three-sound categories. By so doing, you will begin to draw on that listening expertise you already have, and can then know exactly how you want that sound to “interact.” Does the sound completely mask other important sounds? Maybe some EQ should be employed to make space, or a compressor to reduce the dynamic range to help it sit better in the mix. These strategies will give you better results when producing and mixing music as opposed to trying to mimic “tricks” or relying on hard “this is how you EQ a trumpet,” style-rules.
Just as a great engineer is repeatedly asking oneself questions such as “Do I like that?” “Is this loud enough?” “Is the bass too big?” When listening and evaluating one should be taking a similar approach in assessing sounds in an environment to listen to the many different cues that are part of the listening experience.