Knowing how to listen like a pro is the most valuable skill in music production.
If you record your music, this will be the most important article you ever read.
We are going to discuss how to listen to and evaluate music the way that professional musicians, producers, and engineers do. Knowing how to listen like a pro is the most valuable skill in music production. Without it, you will not be able to judge the quality of your recordings or mixes with accuracy.
There are three ways to listen to music: Passive, active, and critical. Passive listening is when the music is on in the background and we are generally focusing our attention elsewhere. Active listening is when you turn the stereo up and the music becomes your main focus. Critical listening is when we focus all of our attention on the music, and specifically try to hear certain things. Knowing what those things are and how to identify them will help you create better sounding music. We can divide our discussion into four parts:
Also, download the Musical Evaluation and Critical Listening Sheet I made for you, and use it on every recording you make! Let’s get some meters bouncing.
Musicality is almost always the most important aspect of a song. Get this part wrong, and the technical points discussed below almost become irrelevant. Most of the time, musicality will be determined by the amount of talent the musicians' performance exhibits, but there are things we can do in post production to help enhance musicality. Consider the following points while you assess the musicality of your recordings.
Pitch and Tuning
Is the singer on pitch? Is the guitar in tune? Did anyone play any flat or sharp notes? If you notice any issues with pitch or tuning, you may have to re-record a part. If this isn’t an option, consider using a pitch correction tool in your DAW to fix the issue.
Rhythm and Groove
Are you rushing or are you dragging?! (If you don’t get that reference, then for God's sake go watch the 2014 movie Whiplash, I assure you it’s amazing). Are the drums in the pocket? Any bass notes late? Are the rhythm guitars' strumming patterns in time and grooving? Again you’ll want to fix any timing issues that are detracting from the song. Re-track, separate and shift notes/clips in your DAW, or use a time-compression/expansion tool to fix.
Contour refers to the overall shape of the song’s energy, or its tension and release patterns. It is contour that defines the emotional uplifts and drop-off’s of the song. These help to carry a listener through the message or story of the song.
There are two things that will affect the songs contour. The first is the arrangement of parts - verses, chorus’s, bridge, etc - and how each part features different instrumentation. The second is the musicians' ability to create appropriate dynamic changes throughout their parts. It is helpful to visualize song contour on a graph with intensity over time.
Listen to your song all the way through. Does it have clear uplifts, drop-offs, and a climax? Did it take you somewhere?
Technical points of evaluation are independent of the musicians performance, and more reflective of how well (or poorly) the engineer did on the recording and mixing.
Is anything too loud or too quiet? Getting the levels right is the most impactful and important point of consideration for technical evaluation.
Is there an even balance between highs, mids, and lows on each instrument? On the track as a whole?
Dynamic range is the amount of volume difference between the loudest and quietest parts of a recording. Different genre’s will demand different amounts of dynamic range. For example, rock music is typically far less dynamic than classical music. Regardless of genre, it is important to understand that songs with too little dynamic range will sound lifeless and boring. It is easy to confuse dynamic range with contour. They are closely related and can both be visualized graphically in a similar manner. However, contour is generally created by the musicians and songwriters, while dynamic range is determined by the recording and mixing decisions made by the engineer.
Recorded music is three-dimensional. Sounds can appear to come from close or far (depth), left or right (width), and top or bottom (height). When assessing spatial imaging, we want to consider all three dimensions.
Do things sound too far forward? Too far back? A great mix should have some sounds right up front, while other sounds seem to be far away. Without having both, your music might sound kind of flat, or two-dimensional. Depth is primarily determined by volume fader position (louder = closer), and use of reverbs and delays.
Where are things placed left to right? How wide does the track sound as a whole? Does each instrument have a clear position in the stereo image? The pan knob is your main control here, but there are also stereo enhancement tools that can help you shape your stereo image.
Where do you hear things placed up and down? Perhaps more abstract than depth and width, equalization tends to have a large effect on our perception of height. Generally, low frequency content is perceived to sound lower, and high frequency content is perceived to sound higher.
What kind of environment does the music sound like it's in? This will sometimes be determined by the rooms used for recording, but our use of reverbs (specifically early reflection times) and delays also have a great influence here.
Clicks, Pops, and Noise
The most boring of all evaluation points. Do you hear any weird clicks, pops, or noise that shouldn’t be there? Often this is the result of bad crossfades (or lack of crossfades), or bad recording and mixing levels.
Across Playback Systems
Does the song sound just as good on your laptop speakers as your studio monitors? What about in your car? On your headphones? If your song doesn’t translate well across multiple playback systems, this is a good indicator that you have further tweaking to do.
At Different Volume Levels
In addition to sounding good on multiple playback systems, you also want to make sure it sounds good at different playback volumes. Listen at extremely quiet volumes, then blast that shit. Does it sound just as good in both scenarios? Can you still hear everything clearly? Low level listening is notorious for revealing imbalances in volume.
Finally, there are some scenarios where your music may be played back on a mono system. Check to make sure your song sounds just as good in mono as it does in stereo.
Does the performance exhibit an emotionally moving quality? Do you feel something when you hear it? There are so many factors that play into whether a song has an emotionally powerful impact or not - too many to get into for the purposes of this article. But this should definitely be something you consider when you are evaluating your recordings. After all, that is the very point of music, right? - to convey an emotional expression. If it doesn’t sound happy, sad, angry, excited, anxious, inspirational, etc.. then what exactly is the point?
The Listening Environment
Before we even hit play, let’s take a moment to understand how your room and playback system will affect what you hear.
When you listen to music coming out of a speaker, sound travels directly from the speaker into your ear. But some of that sound also travels to the wall, bounces off, and then makes its way into your ear a split second later. Any time we listen to a recording (or anything for that matter), we hear both the direct sound and the reflected sound that bounces off surfaces in the room. The room is actually adding (and in some cases subtracting) sound from the recording! It’s not hard to see how this could cause some serious problems while trying to assess your recording. To combat this, educate yourself on how to properly position speakers and acoustically treat your room to get the most transparent listening environment possible. Use headphones in addition to your speakers too, to eliminate the room from the equation.
Part of the listening environment is your ears! One characteristic of human hearing is that it only takes about 30 seconds to get used to something. Once we are used to something, our brains automatically fix and fill any problems or gaps. For this reason, it is immensely helpful to have a reference track to “calibrate" your ears. Basically, your reference track becomes the ruler against which you measure your recording. This is probably the most powerful tool you can use to help compensate for the problems inherent in human hearing. If your recording sounds great in comparison to your reference track, that’s a good indicator you're close to pro-level quality (assuming your reference track is pro-level!)
There are three ways to listen to music: Passive, active, and critical. If you are trying to assess your recordings with accuracy in order to make the best recording and mixing decisions, listen critically by considering these points:
Pitch and Tuning - Are there any wrong notes or out of tune instruments?
Rhythm and Groove - Is everything in time and in the pocket?
Musical Contour - Does the song exhibit moments of tension and release that make it exciting to listen to?
Levels - Are things the right volumes?
Frequency Balance - Is there a good balance between highs, lows, and mids?
Dynamic Range - Does the song have an appropriate amount of loud and quiet sections?
Spatial Imaging - Where are things located in the three-dimensional soundscape?
Ambience - What kind of environment does the recording sound like it’s in?
Clicks, Pops, and Noise - Does the recording have any distracting clicks, pops, or noise that shouldn’t be there?
Translation - Does the song sound good on different speakers? At different volumes? In mono and stereo?
Emotional Response - Does the recording make you feel something?
Additionally, consider the way your listening environment may change what you hear, and don’t fall prey to the problems your brain may try to hide from you!
Be sure to download the Musical Evaluation and Critical Listening Sheet to help you evaluate your next recording, mix, or master!
It is my goal to help you create the best sounding music possible. I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or comments please drop me a line! I’m even happy to listen to your recordings and provide some helpful feedback.
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