You’ll Never Listen to Music the Same Way Again
“You’ll never listen to music the same way again,” my teacher told us the first day of class at McNally Smith College of Music. He was talking about mixing and critical listening. Now a year later, I couldn’t agree more…
Consumers, critics, and aficionados who love music but haven’t experienced the music creation process have always intrigued me.
I’ve been drumming since 2nd grade, and I don’t feel like I’ve been able to truly experience music with innocent “uneducated” ears in a long time (although I’d love to). Wouldn’t it be amazing to listen to one of your own mixes, recordings, or compositions for the first time again with completely fresh unbiased ears? It’s like the curse of knowledge, but the curse of ear training.
Growing up, I would over-analyze the rhythm of my favorite songs. As a drummer, I noticed subtleties in the drums and groove that the everyday listener might not consciously notice or care about. But honestly, does critical listening even matter at the emotional listening level? Not really. Who feels the deepest pleasure from listening to music: the untrained music critic, the musician, or the world class mix engineer? Who are we to decide? Does it even matter?
When I used to be obsessed with a song (maybe ages 1-15), I only knew that it made me feel good; I didn’t really know why (or care to know why…)
We don’t always need to over-analyze why a seemingly random song (or any work of art for that matter) makes us feel amazing, but if we do want to break it down, it’s nice to have the knowledge and vocabulary to dissect and discuss it.
Curse of a Trained Ear?
After a lot of experiences, study, and a love-affair with Logic Pro, I again became freshly aware of new listening habits. I started hearing (what were previously subliminal) subtleties in arrangement, harmony, and musical layers shifting in and out creating movement, texture, and emotion in my favorite songs. I was thrilled. Now I could listen to my previously cherished songs which I had played out, but in a whole new light with a fresh perspective. All of a sudden I had an excuse to listen to 90′s pop music again! Sad? Nah. I have a huge producer crush on Dr.Luke & Max Martin, as well as their mix engineer, Serban Ghenea
Listening habits continuously evolve along-side your own skills. You’ll identify with new subtleties as your own abilities progress. Once you become aware and conceptualize something you hadn’t previously noticed, you’ll start noticing it everywhere. This is also true for plenty of other aspects of life.
It used to be things like snare drum ghost notes that stood out to me, but since I’ve delved deeper into the recording and mixing process (and also since building Quiztones), it’s tonal color of sound that I’m more aware of lately. Subtle delays, reverb, compression, and distortion stick out like never before when I’m “leisurely” listen to music. On a macro level, “what is making this mix/performance/song effective?” is the general question I’m usually asking myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy listening to music simply because I love the way it makes me feel, but do you ever find yourself listening to music leisurely and technically? Some may even enjoy it more this way. What about those who love math-rock or mathcore? Eh, who cares…
Honestly, listening to top-40 radio in my car these days, my inner monologue is more like:
- Nice automation on the lead synth building up to the chorus
- So many four on the floor songs with side-chain compression pumping hi-hats, pads, or even a whole mix (pop/electronic).
- Filtered noise transitions everywhere… (eh-hem, Dr. Luke)
- What a nice tuning job they did on that awful vocalist. Nice Melodyne harmony stacks, Nelly!
- Is that a 1/4 note delay or a dotted 1/4 note delay – or maybe an eighth note delay feeding into a 1/4 delay?? Who really knows.
- What a heavenly bass drum sound – like a huge glorious pillow moving air, hitting you like it’s loud, but not loud.
- I clearly hear every breathe of that vocalist while driving 80MPH… with the windows down… on a bumpy road…
Technical vs Musical Listening
I think the ability to listen musically and technically is an incredible skill regardless of your primary focus. Critical listening is important. Period. The more knowledge you have from either side of the glass, the better you will fare – whether as a musician, producer or audio engineer. Also, a great mix starts with a great performance and a solid arrangement.
Let’s be real: the recording and mixing process fundamentally exists to serve the music – allowing it to be as amazing and emotional of an experience as possible for the listener. Music shouldn’t be mixed for an ego.
- I’d rather perform or record with the musician who listens and plays musically with emotion, opposed to the musician who gets the “best tone” out of their instrument.
- I’d rather listen to a pro drummer shred on an un-tuned starter kit, opposed to hearing 11 year old Tommy banging on some impeccably tuned exotic bubinga drums.
When you’re quickly improving within any realm of music, it’s always amazing how you can listen to an old song or open an old recording session (even just months old), and know right away what would take it to the next level. Don’t get down on yourself for this, as it’s really just tangible proof of your own improvement, which you should be proud of.
Good mixing is a musical art form. It’s a process meant to serve the song, and present it in an exciting and emotional way for the listener. Defying variables of unpredictable listening environments and subtly (or not subtly) guiding a listener’s ear and attention is an amazing under-appreciated art.
It’s interesting to hear a song you loved as a kid, but years later with better trained ears. It makes you realize that there were so many aspects and subtleties to why you loved these songs which you never really could have acknowledged or have been consciously aware of at the time.
Listening to songs I loved when I was 14 that were mixed and recorded by world class engineers, I used to think “those drums are awesome.” Now I can conceptualize the building blocks which made it sound and feel that way.
Hearing a song you used to adore when you were less musically or technically educated in any aspect of music is a beautiful thing, and your ever-changing perspective of listening should keep it fresh forever.