Ears in music production are the same as feet in football. Do you think Cristiano Ronaldo would have come so far without training? It’s no different when it comes to producing. Let’s explore some ear training techniques to get you ready to play in the “big league”.
Critical listening vs analytical listening
There are two listening perspectives that form the foundation of music production, each being important in its own way and essential for a professionally-sounding and expressive song.
The aim of critical listening is to pinpoint the physical details of a mix. These can be the dynamic range, how the instruments blend together, stereo imaging and the tone of each instrument. Knowing the technical aspects of sound will help you achieve clarity by knowing how to spatially position your sounds and avoid overlapping frequencies.
Having a technically perfect mix isn’t enough though. Many professionally mixed and mastered songs may come across as lifeless. This is where analytical listening comes into play. It is about identifying the feeling and meaning of a song. It’s about listening to music from an artistic point of view. Analytical listening can be enriched by broadening your musical perspective and listening to good music from all sorts of genres.
This article will focus on developing your critical and analytical ear and the techniques below can make use of one perspective or both at the same time.
Listen to properly mixed and mastered songs
Have you ever experienced listening to your track dozens of times and be convinced that it sounds good, only to listen to something else and find that the highs are a bit off or the dynamics are flat? If you haven’t done so yet, please try it. Compare one of your mixes with another professionally mixed and mastered song. Shift back and forth between the track you’re working on and your reference track, making small tweaks until you’ve reached the desired effects.
Another way to find out if you’re deluding yourself is to send the track to another producer and ask him or her something like „what’s bad about this song” or „what elements shouldn’t be there”.
Learn to identify frequencies
Learning to recognize frequencies is about tuning your ear to recognize a sound’s “color”.
An essential technique to achieve clarity in your mix is to avoid overlapping frequencies. You may need to separate two instruments in the 200 Hz range, one being lower than 200 Hz and the other higher than that, yet both of them fall into the low frequency range which is below 300 Hz.
A fun way to learn what sounds good and what doesn’t is to take a popular song and use your DAW to EQ the hell out of it to find out how it can be improved or.. ruined J.
A common mistake among music producers is that they go overkill on compression and EQ. Proceed with caution when applying these effects.
Understand chords, scales and intervals
Chord progressions are the foundation of most modern genres and are made out of notes at varying intervals. When you can recognize intervals by ear, you can emulate other progressions without using a tab. When it comes to chords, you should study the quality and the emotions associated with each type of chord:
- Major chords are all about happiness and sunshine.
- Minor chords are associated with darkness and sadness.
- Diminished chords can be associated with agitation, irritation or anger.
- Augmented chords are considered dreamy, spatial or atmospheric.
A good way to identify the scale of a song is to listen to what the bass is doing. Play the notes of the bass on the keyboard and identify the quality and root note of the scale. Try it out!
Learn your audio effects in detail
It’s not enough to train your ears, you should also learn how audio effects sound. This way you’ll be able to create original and powerful sounds. Study the main audio effects in detail and understand what each knob does before using it.
Avoid mixing at loud volumes
We get it. You love to hear and feel that pumpin’ bass and the drop kind of loses its purpose when the volume is low. Hold your horses and turn that volume down a bit. (Your neighbor might thank you as well.)
When the volume is high, you may get the impression that everything sounds good, but this can be very deceiving, especially when it comes to the low-volume sounds in your mix. When the volume is low and some sounds seem weak, that’s when you should raise the volume of that sound. Of course, you will need to mix at high volumes from time to time in order to get the volume and resonance of the low frequencies right. If your mix sounds good at low volumes, you are one step closer to making it sound good at high volumes as well.
Each frequency has its own emotional value, as do the combination of notes that define the feeling that you want to communicate. Honing your ear on recognizing intervals and learning new scales and chords will take you from an aspiring music producer to accomplished artist.
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