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09 MARCH 2017

written by Mike

HOW TO USE YOUR EARS?

 

I know that we, sound engineers, are proud of our listening devices (ears), and we are keen to offer listening advice to other people. I guess it comes with the job. One of my tutors, an old-school guy, said that he is worried about us.

He said that new generation of producers, composers and engineers tend to spend a lot of time looking at the computer screen.

And it can distract us from the “real” job.

He told us that we should approach sound just like an artist looks at the painting. He or she needs to step back to appreciate it in full scale. I agree with his ideas but on the other hand, I thought to myself “I like looking at the screen too!”

Where is the correct answer then?

Just like with sound, in balance.

For a period, I was responsible for quality control (QC) of mixes in a post production department. I had a team of people under my supervision, and our job was to listen to stuff that came out of dubbing theatres. And to find any errors and blunders.

The way we worked was with a picture on one screen and edit window on the other. I would listen for mistakes but also watch the waveforms for possible errors. After a while I found myself finding most of the errors by looking. I could recognise a click, sound drop out or a reverb cut.

It reminded me of the scene from Matrix when the guy says he doesn’t see numbers anymore.

Once, my boss asked me what do I think about the idea of QC without looking at the screens.

“Oh dear…” I thought to myself.

His suggestion was inspired by the “old” school. That was how they learnt back then.

“Mhmmm….ok….I mean I look at waveforms as a helpful guidance but let’s asked the rest of the team at the next meeting. Let’s see what they say.”

I tried to be as diplomatic as I could.

To cut to the chase, we had our meeting and the idea was dropped in a flash. The truth is, we adopted looking and listening as one. To us, breaking it would make our job harder and more prone to error.

  

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LISTENING DURING RECORDING

 

Listening and recording at the same time is a tough cookie. It will be stressful, as you want to get it right first time. Also, in live recording; you won’t have a luxury of a second time.

What can you do to make the whole process stress-free?

Look at the big picture.

During recording, it’s easy to get caught up in details. You start to listen to individual elements and spend time on one thing while neglecting everything else. If you spend a whole day getting your drums to sound “right”, you will not have enough time to get great vocals.

Another classic example of losing the “big picture” stuff is adding new elements. It is so easy to add another layer of bass or pad.

Just one more plugin. 

All you need is a bit of extra RAM memory and good enough CPU. Too much is too much. And it doesn’t matter that you can run three hundred tracks in your DAW without any problems. Sometimes four tracks are enough.

Listen in balance.

Always do a quick mix during the recording, get the feel of the final product. A good monitor balance will make the whole process smooth, and it can help you make a decision on adding another element to the mix.

That lead melody sounds great on its own?

Listen to it in balance with everything else. Do you still need it?

Listening in context will help you to answer all these questions. It is also less stressful when you know that you won’t have to do as much “fix in the mix” stuff later on.

Make the headphone mix as good as possible.

There is a simple rule. If the headphones sound good, the musicians will sound good too. It’s not only from a practical point of view. Yes, the drummer must hear bass and vice versa, it helps. But it is also a psychological trick. If the recording already sounds pretty good just imagine how awesome the final mix will be!

A listening job is not just for the engineer; correct balance during overdubbing is crucial too.

And a few more quick tips:

Headphone bleed can be a pain. Invert the polarity to cut it off.

A vocalist needs good headphone balance to pitch with the tracks. Sometimes one ear off during the recording can help.

You can affect the vocalist’s pitch with a simple fold back tricks.

If the singer is flat, turn the vocal monitor down in the headphones.

If the singer if sharp, turn the vocal monitor up in the headphones.

Moving a bass track a few milliseconds back or forth can help to find a groove “on the go.” 

 

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LISTENING DURING EDITING

 

Editing comes before mixing. You don’t need to be in a dubbing theatre to do a good editing job (it would be nice though!). When you edit, you prepare sounds for a mix. That is why how you listen to them is relevant too.

Watch that screen.

I know, I have just talked about the relevance of listening, and the first point is to look at the screen. Why? Well, with editing looking at the screen is as important as listening. You need to see where to cut the audio, where to move it.

If you need to draw out some clicks, zooming in on waveforms helps.

I would say it’s 50-50 for me. It’s a draw.

Quiet environment is essential, but headphones are ok too.

Working in a peaceful environment is great but with editing, you don’t need to be as strict. I mean, yes, it will be hard to hear lip smacks or clicks if you are working near a building site. But normal house conditions will be all right.

Worst case you can also do a little edit on your headphones.

It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.

Listen in context.

We editors tend to dwell on small stuff. Everything needs to be perfect! Guess what. You won’t be able to hear most of that stuff in the full mix.

Listen in context when possible. Do a little temp mix. Balance the tracks so they resemble the final mix. It will give you the idea what you should focus on.

What does the mixer want?

And the last one. And if only I knew the answer.

Jokes aside, the communication between the parties is necessary. Maybe the mixer doesn’t care about your fades, but they want you to color the clips. Maybe they don’t need your work with clip gain at all.

Find out what do they need in the session. Do it at the beginning. It can save you a lot of time.

The last point is still about the listening. To the other person. 

LISTENING DURING MIXING

 

Mixing sounds together is all about listening, right? You can just go with the feel of the moment.

Yes and no.

Mixing is an art; I do agree. Every mixer works in a different way. But there are a few helpful tips that I want to suggest.

Listen on different systems.

So you got your expensive monitors, you soundproofed your bedroom.

Are you sitting in the perfect listening position?

Good, but guess what. No one is going to listen to your mix in that way. Most people that will hear your work will be listening on their phones, in their cars or at home while doing the dishes.

Buy a pair of cheap USB speakers; listen to your mix from your phone. With and without headphones. Play it on your laptop. If you want your work to be good, it needs to sound great through these systems. If you can only appreciate it on a high-end studio monitor. Well, you got a problem.

One more thing.

Mixers from older generation sometimes will say, “no one mixes on headphones!”. That may be true, but everyone listens on headphones. Have a couple of different pairs ready. Test your mixes on them.

Listen in different environments.

You got the previous point; that’s great. Now it is time to shake it up. Go and listen to the mix in a car. Go outside your room and listen through the door. Take a phone with you to the gym and listen when you work out.

These are only a few ideas; try to come up with other weird scenarios. Just think where other people listen to stuff.

Read a book and listen at the same time?

It won’t hurt to try.

Turn the volume down.

Everyone wants to hear their work loud, on the biggest speakers. And yes it can be good if you want to EQ some stuff.

But to analyse the balance, it is best if you turn the volume down. My sound production teacher used to say “If it sounds good on the low level, then it’s a start.”

The other good thing about low volume is that your room acoustics won’t play such a big role. And that is an important point for all the bedroom mixers out there. Smaller monitors and lower level, you can’t go wrong with that.

Listen musically and sonically.

So I understand it in this way. When I want to listen to my mix musically, I close my eyes, and I try to hear it as a whole. I may not pick up the details, but I will hear if something is off balance.

Try it for yourself. Computer screens tend to lie when it comes to sound. A second method is sonic listening. Bring up your meters and frequency analysers.

Is everything in balance? Spectrum looking good?

Use your eyes, ears and mouse. Make all these plugins work. So I try to jump between these two ideas back and forth. What you can’t hear, you will see it. And hopefully, vice versa.

Have a reference material ready.

We all have mixes that inspire us. All time favourites. The ones that we want to copy. Have it near you. When in doubt with your work, put your cherished piece on.

In a heartbeat, you will know where do you need to improve.

Watch that bass.

The unloved child.

Why do you sound so good in my mixing room, but when I play you on a TV system you betray me?

Why?

Get the bass under control. It’s easier said than done, but with some basic acoustic treatment, you should be all right. After a while, you will learn your speakers, and you will know how to tame the beast. Also, there is nothing better than a clear and strong bass in your mix.

  

LISTENING DURING QUALITY CONTROL

 

So as I mentioned before, I used to be responsible for a Quality Control in a post house. Listening is somewhat different as you only focus on mistakes. Even if a particular mix is rubbish, it’s not your problem. You are there to point out blunders only.

Know the guidelines.

Before you start work, you need to know what you are looking for.

What are the most common mistakes? What gets fixed and what doesn’t?

Every project will be different, but once you know the protocol you are off to a better start.

Watch (sync) and listen.

With quality control, at least in movies, you need to both listen to the mix and watch the screen. Why?

Mistakes such as sounds out of sync, missing Foley or low dialogue are harder to spot if you are just listening. If there is a missing sound effect for a dog, the only way you will notice it is if you see the dog on the screen. It can get a little tricky because you will also need to watch the waveforms as some stuff you won’t necessary hear.

Example?

Let’s say there is a two-second drop out in the left surround channel. When you listen to a loud mix blasting from L-C-R, you won’t hear the error. The only way to spot it is to see it on the screen. So, yeah.

You need to watch waveforms on one screen, the picture on the other and also listen to the mix. At the same time.

Don’t obsess about the small stuff, listen to the Final Mix.

“There is a little sound click in left surround, audible when you play the isolated channel at half speed.”

Don’t be that guy. Believe me, it was I when I started. I felt like a hero for noting these little flaws. Until people much smarter than I am put me in my place. Try to see the big picture.

Can you hear this minor issue in a final mix?

Will fixing it make the product better?

No?

Then it is probably ok. After a while, you will learn what is and what isn’t relevant.

  

 

LISTENING DURING DELIVERABLES

  

Ok, so for the end I have something unusual. Hearing during deliverables.

What? Why would you listen to stuff when you are just prepping files?

Try to see it as the last stage of Quality Control. And it is better to be safe than sorry. Especially after you click on “send” button.

What do you deliver?

Is it 5.1 mix? Stereo? Or just the stems?

Have a quick listen and make sure you included the right material. A good practice is to spot-check the mix. Play a few sections at random.

Listen to different elements and individual channels.

Check the beginning and the end.

Check the fade in at the beginning and fade out at the end. When you work with a lot of data on a daily basis, it is easy to cut something short by mistake.

If the start and the end are both in the right place, the rest should be all right too.

Unusual places to check.

What are the unusual places you can check?

Maybe listen to LFE in isolation. Or check the overlaps between the reels of a movie. These are the places where mistakes happen often.

Why?

It’s because no one checks them. Every project will have an extra element or something different. Don’t forget to listen to these exceptions too.

Is everything in sync?

Make sure that all the tracks and all the stems are in sync with each other. Down mixes tend to have an induced delay so make sure you move it to the right place. An unfortunate mouse click can move the whole mix out of sync so make sure that everything is intact before you send.

All right, that’s it for today!

I hope now you have a better understanding how to use your ears on different stages of sound engineering.

And remember; take care of your listening devices. You only have a pair!

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