Zen of Recording

Listening

It happens somewhat regularly. I work throughout the day: Mixes, phone calls, edits, calendar entries, meetings, vocal sessions, traffic, this column…There is music to hear while I’m driving. Sometimes it’s some work I’m evaluating or some new find I’m enjoying, like Melody Gardot. I sit down and enjoy a movie after some peaceful conversation. Take my vitamins and medications and brush and floss and then…my absolute favorite moment of every day: I lie down and listen to the most blessed of all sounds: absolute silence.

I find my way back through the day’s events, or work out a problem, or just simply surrender into slumber, but I always take that moment to appreciate the one thing I hear the least in this busy little life of mine. Please don’t misunderstand; I know how lucky I am to do what I do and that I have withstood the myriad attacks on my hearing that come with living a life, much less one of a musician. More friends than I care to admit have relayed some amount of hearing loss due to loud amps, headphones, squealing monitors, or over-enthusiastic drummers. Yet I am still able to soldier on through every day, making literally hundreds if not thousands of decisions based upon critical listening.

If you think about it, there are so many different ways and reasons for how we listen to things. I mean, the binaural construct of having two ears, one on each side of our head is an interesting design in and of itself. As predators, our eyes are mounted at the front of our head and they work in tandem to provide a sense of space and dimension to what we see. That leaves the ears to perceive what’s happening on either side of us. The processing of all this information and providing ourselves with a 360° view of our surroundings is something we begin learning to do as infants.

Closing our eyes and picturing what we are hearing in our mind’s eye is a fascinating concept as well. Think of a guitar amp at a medium volume (c’mon guitarists, try) placed in the middle of a large wood-floored room. Can you hear the sense of the space it’s in? The sound reflecting off the walls, floor and ceiling actually provide a picture of the room’s dimensions and the placement of the amp within them, even though you’re not actually hearing that!

In mixing, that’s actually one of the easier tasks to accomplish—the staging of different elements within the space you’re creating. The harder job is to get all of the parts to work together harmoniously (pun indeed intended). The overlapping of certain frequencies is unavoidable, like the fundamental of a low E on a bass, which lives around 41Hz, 82Hz and 165hz. These are coincidentally the frequencies that can make your kick drum sound so freaking good when you boost them in a mix. Unfortunately, if you need to bolster the low E in your bass part, it’s going to be at the expense of your kick drum’s tone. Otherwise, everywhere you listen to that mix it’s probably going to be a bass heavy mess. Worse yet, if the song is in Eb you’re going to have dissonant resonances that sound like wrong notes running roughshod over everything, so you’ll in turn end up highlighting neighboring frequencies like 39Hz, 78Hz, and 156Hz. These situations often require subtractive solutions—cutting certain frequencies rather than boosting them or requiring a subtle cut from one element to accommodate a boost in another.

Things get much more complicated in the midrange, where most of your mix’s elements live: guitars, piano, organ and other keyboards, and, of course, the all-important lead and backing vocals. I see a lot of recordists from every level of experience reach for the panning controls first to separate these elements from each other. I recommend leaving your mix in mono for a while so you can really hear what frequencies are sticking out or getting buried and carve a space for each of your instruments to live in. Then, when you start to spread things out, you’re going to hear them more clearly, almost around them.

Once you’re dealing with the high end, you’re kind of delicately breathing a little life into things, like a wisp of hair in the wind. At times where there is some harshness, there are more surgical eq moves to be made, so as not to disturb the glistening beauty of an acoustic guitar or a female voice.

That’s only some of things we’re listening for. If words or notes or certain passages seem to be fading in and out of focus, you may need to compress or limit some of the parts. Usually this is bass, kick drum, vocals and other things you want a consistent level from. We don’t want to squash them and rob the performances of their dynamics, but tame them just enough to play well with the other parts.

Once we’ve established the sound, placement, and dynamics of all of these elements, we move to a wider view—one that follows the song’s natural flow from section to section, creating tension in the verses and release in the chorus, building excitement into or out of the bridge, whatever it takes to keep our listeners emotionally connected. It is somewhere around this stage that I start listening to this in my car, which gives us yet another perspective from which to assess things!

By now, you’re probably noticing that there is not only a lot of listening involved, but there are so many ways in which to listen. All of this listening we do is to be able to provide the best experience to our listeners, but listen: I think I made you listen to the word “listen” enough for today. Tomorrow you’ll perhaps listen differently.

Sven-Erik Seaholm is a singer, songwriter, producer, recording artist and avid music listener. Kaspro7@gmail.com

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