In the first of a multi-part series, I talk about how you can work to make your music sound as professional as your favourite artists.
With music production, perhaps the biggest question we ask ourselves at one time or another is why doesn’t my music sound as good as commercial releases? It's a question that marketing departments have taken advantage of for years. Its used to sell you the latest piece of hardware (or software) with quotes from artists about how they use it on every track or mix. And while they may well use the product, its certainly isn’t the reason their music sounds professional.
While there can be numerous reasons your music doesn’t sound professional - that I’ll cover over a series of blogs - the largest contributing factor is ear training. After all, if you can't hear it, you can't fix it.
Ear training is a topic that is so rarely discussed because it lifts the veil from most marketing departments. Its not something that can be accomplished quickly with a simple plug-in or piece of hardware. It takes time and hard work and those are words that nobody in the 21st century likes to hear anymore. But if you want your music to sound like a commercial release, you simply have to develop your hearing. Many artists who improve are doing so because they’re beginning to hear what’s actually going on in the music.
So how do we train our ears?
It's a multifaceted issue that will take a number of posts to cover but for this first issue, I’d like to introduce the very basics of critical listening and start you off with some simple exercises.
There are two forms of critical listening, tonal balancing and frequency dependency. Tonal balancing is something you’ve been doing from birth, probably without realising. If you listen to a mix that has too many highs, you tend to notice it immediately; the mix sounds too bright. And the same if there is too much midrange or bass energy.
The second, frequency dependency, is subtler and requires work to develop. This is the ability to hear how processors such as compression and reverb affect sounds. It also includes the ability to identify unwanted resonances in tones and frequencies.
In order to train our ears in this regard we need to first accept that we are unable to concentrate on more than one aural element at once. Although when a professional listens to a piece of music, he or she appears to be able to identify the problem almost immediately it is not a result of being able to listen to everything at once. It's a result of speed attained through practice and a well-developed aural memory.
Try listening to music and to someone talking to you at the same time (often referred to as the cocktail party effect) and you'll find its almost possible. It's the same with critical listening. When a professional listens to a piece of music, we are not listening to all of the instruments at once, instead, we compare the tonality, balance and frequencies to those stored in our aural memory.
This could be considered the same as employing reference software, whereby the software allows you to jump between a professionally produced track and your own. By moving between the two, you begin to hear the deficiencies in your music.
Aural memory is how long these tonal and frequency responses remain in your memory. For frequency balancing, this will often be quite advanced. For example, I bet for many of you as soon as you’ve finished a mix, you run out to your car to test it. This is because you spend a large amount of time in your car listening to other artist’s music and your aural memory has developed to know what a tonal balance sounds like in that particular space.
This process is more difficult for individual sounds or sub-mixes and when listening for the character of analogue gear. Often because the differences are far subtler and for the untrained, the aural memory is typically less than a couple of seconds.
You can find out how long your aural memory is with a simple test. The audio below contains a drum loop that is unprocessed, followed by a processed version.
Each time the audio plays, the separation between the processed and unprocessed shortens. The clicks dictate the next section starting over again.
Which pass do you begin to notice the difference between the two…
Audio Memory Test
- 1st Pass - 10 Seconds
- 2nd Pass - 8 Seconds
- 3rd Pass - 6 Seconds
- 4th Pass - 4 Seconds
- 5th Pass - 2 Seconds
- 6th Pass - 1 Second
I suspect your aural memory is a lot shorter than you first thought (if you need a clue, listen to the kick and snare). This is the first hurdle you have to overcome and unfortunately there are no immediate shortcuts. To improve your aural memory, you need to get into a couple of practices so that they eventually become automatic to you.
Every time you are in your car driving to work or anywhere else, don’t listen to your favourite music but instead listen to the radio and the music they play. On each track begin by listening to the drums, then the bass, then the leads and the vocals. Ask yourself the following; how has the producer employed reverb and delay, do the sounds exhibit a strong transient, do any instruments sound overly compressed, do the instruments/vocals change in character, pace or energy. I should add, of course, that all this should come secondary to paying attention to the road! But if you struggle concentrating on music while driving, try sitting in your car at lunch or if you have access to music at your workplace, try it there.
The second exercise is to develop an aural memory by becoming familiar with tonal frequencies. Unfortunately, this takes a little more work and requires some specialist software. My personal choice for this is “Train your Ears” software. Just 30 minutes each evening for a month on this software will massively develop your recognition and aural memory of frequencies. Although its not free, at a cost €49, it should be considered a worthwhile investment in your future as a producer.
Note: If you’re already subscribing to our monthly newsletter, there’s a code in each that’ll give you an additional 20% discount off Train your ears (amongst other discounts and freebies). If you’re not yet a subscriber, just register on this site and you’ll be added to our subscriber list.
In the next part of this series, I’ll be talking about how you can further develop your aural memory and critical listening skills by introducing what you should be listening for when applying effects and processing.