Much like professional athletes train their bodies and stretch their muscles, audio professionals should take a similar approach, in particular for training one’s hearing. While every audio enthusiast has some ability hear dissonance or problems in sound, an audio professional goes further and actually trains their ears to quickly pick up on these intricacies. This helps professionals to quickly focus on the necessary steps to take in order to correct any audio issues.
Practice Makes Perfect? Not Always…
As audio engineers, we must also train ourselves to be aware of and understand the limitations or exaggerations of our listening environment and monitor system. If we are not aware of problems in our playback system, we are essentially “shooting in the dark” while we are mixing.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re mixing on a pair of speakers or headphones that have a flat response down to 80hz, then a significant drop of 5dB by 50hz. Mixing “blind” on this setup will probably result in over compensating for the lack of perceived low end. This type of over compensation will produce a mix that sounds too bassy on other monitor systems. However if you have trained your ear to be aware of that 5 dB difference at 50hz, your mix will most likely translate more accurately to other playback systems.
In another case, smaller speakers are generally incapable of accurately reproducing low frequencies. Some lower frequencies may be present, but at a very low volume, resulting in those frequencies being masked, or hidden, by slightly higher and louder frequencies. If you sweep a simple sine wave from 20Hz to 20kHz on a laptop speaker to check the frequency response, chances are that you will hear most of the frequency range. However, when playing a full-frequency music mix on that same laptop, you will lose some definition in the low-end due to the effects of frequency masking.
It is possible to practice and train our ears to recognize small frequency ranges and level differences. One thing you will notice is that as the frequency rises, small frequency changes become more and more difficult to distinguish. This is due to the fact that an octave (or doubling of a specific frequency) in the lower frequencies spans only a few dozen hertz, from 40hz to 80hz for example, while an octave in the higher ranges can span several thousand hertz, say, from 10 kHz to 20 kHz. This is why spectrum analyzers can be a valuable tool to audio engineers – they are not something you should solely rely on, but analyzers can be a great tool for checking whether what you’re hearing lines up with what your brain thinks you’re hearing.
Traditional Aural Training
Professional musicians often undergo aural training, or ear training, which trains their ears and brain to decode music – allowing them to listen to recorded music and recognize notes and chords in order to transcribe the music or play it back on their instrument. The ability to hear notes, chords and their musical relationship is very important when transcribing music.
In musical ear training, the teacher plays various intervals on the piano while the student tries to name the interval or notes based on the perceived relationship between the two tones. Having a reference tone by which to judge another note or interval is the key to training the ear’s perception and builds a memorable vocabulary of musical intervals. This is a great exercise for musicians, however for audio engineers there are more variables at play. When mixing music, we are often trying to distinguish between frequencies, not individual notes, that may be very close together and we don’t necessarily have a reference frequency to use for comparison.
Practicing a regimented training program for your ears will improve the accuracy at which you recognize specific frequencies ranges – an invaluable skill as an audio engineer. Which bring us onto the next point…
The Essence of Efficient Workflow
The developers at Sonarworks have developed Match the Mix, an ear training exercise designed to help you make the most of critical listening abilities and improve your mixing skills. This easy training exercise is based around an intuitive interface that looks like a simple EQ. The app plays a reference song and then an alternate mix of the same song. Your task is to match the frequency balance of the two versions using the on-screen EQ controls. The game consist of three levels which get progressively harder and at the end of each level you are rated as to how accurately you created the proper EQ curve. The accuracy rating allows you to assess how well you’re taking to the training and also allows you to see which frequency bands you may need to spend more time focusing on.
Match the Mix is designed to be a quick and intuitive exercise, allowing you repeat the process several times in just a few minutes and create a daily training routine for your ears. You can even assess your improvement along the way. Accurate monitors or headphones provide a better and more precise experience, so if you find yourself consistently missing certain frequency bands, you may consider whether your playback system has enough accuracy for you. This is a situation where Sonarworks Reference software can remove any doubt that your monitor system is accurate as possible.