Use your Ears!
Regular contributor Martin Russ climbs onto the soapbox this month with a plea to use our ears!
Without doubt, you already have the finest and most precise instrument of its type for analysing how you perceive sounds - your ears. Surprising as it may sound, the human ear is capable of reliably detecting features which could easily escape all but the most thorough investigation by expensive audio test equipment. All you need in order to exploit this valuable resource are a few pointers to what you should be listening to, and a little practice.
So what do you hear when you listen to a sound? This may sound like a silly question, but I suspect that unless 'sound' is your full-time occupation, you rarely sit down and analyse sounds. There is no time like the present for this type of thing, so try the following. Put down this magazine and sit in a reasonably quiet room. Turn off the TV, hi-fi, radio etc, make yourself comfortable and listen. Really listen!. It often helps if you close your eyes. Try it now.
What did you hear? Was the room as quiet as you first thought? Did you realise that the central heating boiler made all that noise? What is that cat doing to its litter tray? And does that guy in the flat above have a herd of elephants visiting? You may have heard different sounds but I bet that you heard plenty to keep you occupied. You may like to try 'stopping and listening' as part of your daily routine - it is amazing how pausing for a quick listen can 'perk up' your ears!
OK. Armed with a reasonably quiet room and your ears, you are now ready to start listening in earnest. A packet of crisps makes quite a good start - the flavour doesn't matter at this stage, at least not unless your ears are really good! Pick up the packet of crisps and drop it. Try to pick up the bag without making any sound. Decide what it is about the sound that makes it sound like a packet of crisps. Is there any structure or form to the sound? How would you describe it?
To describe the sound we need to look at sound itself. There is a continuous spread of sounds, from silence to loud noises, encompassing everything we hear. The most ordered sounds are no sounds at all - complete silence, whilst the most disordered sounds are loud noises like waves crashing onto a beach or a jet aircraft taking off. The purest sounds we would actually call sounds are probably sine waves, which take their name from the mathematical description of their shape. Sine waves sound pure and simple and have a basic shape, whereas those sounds which consist of noise are complex and complicated in shape.
This shape is mirrored in the harmonic structure of the sounds - a simple sound has only a few harmonic components. A sine wave should ideally only have harmonic content at one frequency - although pure sine waves are very rarely heard. Complex sounds have complicated, often-changing structures to their harmonics, and it is these changes that produce the characteristic 'signature' of a sound. Drawbar organs can produce a large number of frequencies in precise mathematical relationships, but they always sound like organs!
Rather than embark upon any more detail, I will let the music do the talking. Find some music which uses relatively conventional instrumentation - drums, bass, guitar, vocals - and really listen to it in an analytical fashion. Start with the lowest frequencies - the bass drum. Is it a sound or a physical sensation? Where would you say one ends and the other begins? Are there elements of both in the sound? Does changing your listening level affect it? Can you always hear the bass drum when other things are playing?
Next up is the bass guitar. Can you tell what note is being played at any particular time? Does the type of bass sound affect your judgement? Think in particular about acoustic bass as opposed to a more modern plucked bass sound. Are very low notes just a 'thump' rather than a well defined pitch?
Moving up in frequency, things start to become more complicated. The toms and part of the rhythm guitar come next, followed by the vocals and lead guitar work. Right up at the top are the cymbals, the snare and the hi-hat ticking away. Each of these has a well defined place where it sits comfortably in the available tone spectrum - you will hear musicians talk about instruments 'filling spaces'; this is what they mean. Some instruments cover wider frequency ranges than others - a rim shot or snare drum beat has both high and low frequency components, and even hi-hats have a sharp attack producing the low frequency tick followed by the metallic zing sound.
Try focusing your attention on a particular instrument - you may be surprised at how well you can do this! However, you will find that there are definite limits to how well you can achieve this when other higher level or higher frequency sounds are present. If you are listening on loudspeakers, then switching to headphones should provide you with a lot more sonic definition. This is why a studio engineer who is listening hard for unwanted sounds will often put headphones on and then force them inwards with his hands, onto his ears. He is trying to couple himself as closely as possible into the sound. I am sure there is also a physiological reason why this activity is often accompanied by a characteristic tilting of the head - much as cats and dogs do - but I have never heard of an explanation.
Now that you have practiced listening to the individual instruments, try listening to everything else. The vocals might be a good thing to try next. Are they speaking words or singing notes? Can you distinguish the singer from the backing? (Many singers in the pop world have limited vocal ranges and styles, and often the backing singers make a larger contribution than you would at first imagine!) What about the voice - is it gravelly or smooth? Do the 'esses' stand out like a sort of hi-hat? Is there any noise from clothes rustling or chairs squeaking? Can you hear that expensive Swatch ticking away during the quiet passages?
Now for the really interesting bit. Ignore the sounds of the instruments or vocals and listen to what is left. Can you hear the sound of the room? On old rock 'n' roll records you may actually be listening to a genuine live performance, where everything was recorded in one take, in which case you should be able to hear the acoustics of the room in which the performance was made. On more modern recordings, the echoes, reverberation and 'feel' of the room may be different for each instrument.
Try this simple experiment next time you have a chance. Take an electric guitar and plug it into a combo with a spring line reverb. Strum a few chords and then turn the reverb on full. Doesn't it sound wonderful! Now keep playing a few sparse chords and keep listening. As you listen, you might begin to notice that the 'huge concert venue' sound that you have is a teensy bit over the top. Turn the reverb down until it sounds OK again, and keep strumming. After a while the reverb should begin to become obtrusive again, and you will have to reduce it further. Interesting effect, isn't it?
A classic fault on many home studio tapes that people send to record company A&R people is that the otherwise inspired and promising music is often buried under a thick blanket of reverb! Everything sounds like it has been pushed screaming through a really large bathroom before it gets off the tape and into our ears.
Now that you notice things like the blanket of reverb on your favourite records, and that awful finger buzz on solo guitar work, let's be constructive and attempt one final exercise. Try listening carefully to your favourite synth preset or sound sample. Turn you newly focused ears onto those amazingly realistic digital sounds!
Hmm... I bet you now wonder why you never noticed how overly-bright that electric piano was before, or that the cello sample has some really peculiar reverb in the background which changes pitch with different notes. And that your well-used FM bass sound has all sorts of buzzing in the wrong places!
As with many things, knowing what the enemy looks like is half the battle, and so you can now apply one of the most amazing pieces of analytical instrumentation to the task - your ears! Take them with you everywhere!
Opinion by Martin Russ
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