A lesson on listening

Sound Engineer. It’s a title that appeals to anyone who has ever looked at a machine covered in knobs, buttons and lights and thought, ‘I want to know how that works’. It appeals to anyone who knows the difference between a sine wave and a square wave, or who can explain how a condenser microphone works. But does it appeal to musicians?

Whatever you call the person at the back of church pushing faders on the mixing desk, it’s surprising how often they are not a musician at heart. More likely they are someone with an interest in electronics. When I run training for them, I encourage them to think of themselves as part of an artistic process. I don’t want them to consider their job done when every channel on the desk is working; I want them to listen intently to the music. I want them to have their fingers on the faders all the time, constantly adjusting, highlighting, and smoothing things out. In the same way that a conductor has the first word in an orchestra (nothing happens unless he says so) a sound engineer has the last word in a band: nothing gets through unless he (or she) lets it. That means it’s important for the sound engineer to understand and care about music.

I remember chatting about songs while driving to a band practice with a bass player. I said: ‘You know the song: it goes La, da, da di dat, da, da’, and he said, ‘No, I only know the one that goes Boo da dat baa, baa’. It took us a while to figure out we were talking about the same song! It occurred to me that I had no idea how the bass line went in the song, and he had no idea how the vocals sounded. We weren’t really listening to the music – and it showed in the way we played. A similar thing happens when I ask a sound engineer to turn up the piano at a particular point in a song: I often get sheepish looks, betraying the fact that they had no idea the piano was playing at all!

Sound engineers need to become experts in listening to music. How do you become an expert? By practising. Below I’ve written a list of songs, each with some tips on what to focus on. Practise by listening through this list, then go back through your own music collection and listen to it with new ears. Over time you’ll build up a library of sounds in your head that you can call on and try to aim for as you mix.

Obviously, you need to listen on the best quality speakers you can find. If you don’t have something that gives you the detail you need, consider buying a pair of studio quality headphones. Some of the best headphones in the world sell for only as much as an average ipod dock. I use the Beyer Dynamic DT990 Pro, but you might find the DT 770 Pro more to your liking. Each song links to youtube, but my timings refer to the album recordings. One final disclaimer: not all these songs or bands will be spiritually edifying. These are some of the most interesting sounds I could find, and I’m not embarrassed by the fact that most of the artists aren’t Christian.

Everybody here wants you — Jeff Buckley. Listen to how much space there is in this mix – there seem to be acres between each instrument and the next.

How to be Dead — Snow Patrol. Listen to how much variety there is between the different sections of this song Try and note down as many detail Listen to the changes in tone throughout this song. There is a filter on the drums that comes off at 1:51, creating a huge ‘wow’ moment. The bass doesn’t enter till 2:49, then changes tone at 3:04. The patient electric guitars don’t hit the distortion pedal till 3:. Listen to the tone of the vocals, piano and synth. You have three full minutes to get used to their sound before the filter is lifted, and you hear a more ‘realistic’ sound. 

World on Fire — Sarah McLachlan. This is a great example of a deep, smooth bass sound. Really big, but very unobtrusive. By the way, the music video is distracting. Consider it an exercise in focussing on what you’re hearing, not what you’re seeing.

Another one bites the dust — Queen. We all know this bass sound, but can you find words to describe it?

Bones — Radiohead. Here is a bass sound with real teeth.

Popsicle Toes — Diana Krall. An upright bass has a very different sound to an electric. Can you describe it?

Acoustic Guitar
Start a war — The National. Listen to how smooth these guitars are.

Boy like me/Man like you — Rich Mullins. Here’s an acoustic sound that’s simultaneously aggressive and delicate.

Electric Guitar
Alone, Together — The Strokes. Masters of efficiency, these guitarists take up no more room than is absolutely necessary.

Awakening — Chris Tomlin. The best guitarists are patient people. The electric guitar enters at 2:19, with a healthy coating of overdrive. In what way is the tone different at 3:31?

Holy is the Lord — Chris Tomlin. Appreciate how subtle the electric guitars are, each with it’s own sound, and it’s own place in the mix.

In the Springtime of his voodoo— Tori Amos. Listen to how the piano growls down low.

Beauty of your peace— Tim Hughes. This piano is quite contained (upright? compressed?).

We are not as strong as we think we are — Rich Mullins. There was a time when all recorded pianos were as bright as broken glass.

In the Valley — Sovereign Grace.
This piano is very compressed. Compare this sound to the expansive freedom of Tori’s piano.

Here are two of my favourite albums, for production’s sake:
When Silence Falls — Tim Hughes. This is perfect, squeaky clean production. Not a note or a sound out of place, it’s like a textbook on how to ‘do it right’.
Ghosts Upon the Earth — Gungor. This is an explosion of creative ideas. Gungor hardly ever repeats himself, making use of the rich variety of instruments available to him.

Michael Morrow

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. David Campbell

    I came to your workshop at the last London Music Ministry day. I am planning to take my PA team through the listening exercises for stereo image and sound balance. Have you a list of songs that you used as illustrations?

    I am planning to use Chris Tomlin’s Holy is the Lord as one.


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