Sunday, 19 February 2012

Train Your Ears

Following on from my previous post on practicing sound design (, another aspect that should be taken into account is developing "critical listening" skills.  Again these will take time and practice to develop and will not just happen over night.  For a newbie I would recommend taking a reference track, which could be music, soundscape or soundtrack and first listen to it as a "whole".  Then listen back to it and in your "minds ear" try to isolate one particular sound element.  The human auditory system as actually very good at this and with a bit of practice it is actual fairly easy to do.  When you have an element isolated see if you can work out its attributes: pitch, duration, timber, loudness harmonics, rhythm, envelop, textures, speed, frequency, length, panorama, intensity, dimension, interest, balance, etc.  Write down your findings so you can refer to them later.  When you have fully characterised the sound, move on to the next one, until you have decomposed the whole track.  Writing down the characteristics will help you when moving on to other sound elements as you can refer to what you have written and sometimes you may find that you will want to modify what you have previously written in-light of the sound element you have just listened to.  When completed it is really important that you listen back to track and listen to it again as a "whole" so you can hear all the elements together.  This is a vital process as it is so easy to design a number of great sound elements, but when they are put together they do not "gel".  This is often best done with fresh ears, after a period of rest so that you are not suffering from listening fatigue.  The more you go through this process the better you will get and the more your ears will be able to identify subtle sound elements that may have been hidden before.  It is my suggestion that over a few weeks you do this for 20-30 reference tracks.  Then when you reach a point that it starts to become easy, go back to your first reference track and listen back to it and evaluate the notes you wrote.  How did you do?  Can you pick-out things now that you missed before?  If you can, your ears are getting better so work back through all your previous reference tracks and see if your evaluations have changed.  It should also be noted that this practice should be kept up.  Even when you get really good at it, still analyse audio content that you listen to, especially your own sound design! 

As well as training your ears on reference tracks you will also need to train your ears on the kind of audio processing you are likely to want to use.  This could be done by simply using a DAW with some audio content and just listening to the effect of changes you make, say to EQ settings or any other form of processing.  However, in my opinion some form of "testing" will yield better results.  There are web-sites and apps available that have been specifically designed for the testing of critical listening skills.  I have not reviewed all of these and I'm sure there are some other good critical listening testing solutions.  However, I would recommend the book, Audio Production and Critical Listening: Technical Ear Training by Jason Corey (  This is a great text and comes with an app that compliments the contents of the book and allows you to test your audio production skills.

A final area of useful training is the identification of audio "problems".  For this I recommend you take an audio track and apply processing to it to generate as many audio problems as you can think of.  Here are a few to get you started: over-compression, poor EQ, clipping, quantisation noise, reduced bandwidth, stereo width too wide or narrow, poor spatial impression, etc.  Bounce out several examples of each with different settings and name each file to correspond with the particular issue and the settings used.  Listen to the original audio and then playback the bounced files in a random order and see if you can identify the issue and settings used in each.  This will work even better if you have a friend that can generate the files for you so that you are listening to them fresh.  You could then return the favour.

Suffice to say, the more you practice listening, the better you will get at it.  This time and effort will then pay you back in your sound design and the more you design sounds the better your ears will get.