Critical Listening Part 3a

As I introduced in my blogs Critical listening part 2a & b [March 2015], aspiring audio engineers need to proactively and diligently develop their Critical Listening skills with regular and disciplined critical listening practice sessions. It will take time, practice and considerable dedication to learn to listen for the nuances of the cultural production – the genre, musical characteristics and the sonic qualities to a level of mastery.
Last month I introduced genre, musical characteristics and sonic qualities, followed by a first listening task example. In that reference track critical listening example, I introduced genre considerations, explored music characteristics in some detail, and then introduced the sonic qualities that supported the genre. Now that you have been practicing critical listening in dedicated sessions a couple of times per week over the past four weeks, I want to continue this month, outlining considerations and questions to stimulate your development of Critical Listening skills to a deeper level, focussing more closely on the third area, the sonic qualities of a production.

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MIDAS Console_looking left

(DLP 2015)
In my blog Mixing Part 6 – effectively guiding creative artists through a task: process [May 2014] , I outlined Owsinski’s elements of mixing that he sees as common to all: session set up, gain structure, stereo balance, spectral, dynamics, time-domain and interest (Owsinski, 2013).  In this blog I will focus on these elements, making suggestions as to how you can use resources that you have access to as an aspiring engineer to assist in a deeper level of discovery of a reference track. I will then provide a second listening task example in my next blog Critical listening part 3b [April 2015].
As mentioned in last month’s blog [March 2015], audio engineering is a craft and art that relies not only the auditory, but also on visual cues as well.  Some of the tools I use include: my DAW, Pro Tools as the primary tool; and several plug-ins. But most importantly I rely on my ears and the enormous amount of experience as a hearing-able human I have.

The Human Ear

(The Jury Expert 2015)

Critical Listening – Musical Characteristics

~Music_staff Blue

(AE 2015a)

Session set up

As outlined in last month’s blog, the first step is to open a DAW such as Pro Tools, import the reference track into the session, and create a click track. The session will be used initially for three main purposes: to play back the track, and while listening assist you in determining: 1) the bpm of the track, 2) the time signature of the track, and 3) assigning markers to determine the structure or form of the track, noting down what musical elements (instruments) exist, and feature in the various stages of the song.  Having critically listened to the song many times over by this stage, we complete our critical listening analysis of the musical characteristics of the song, by deducing the harmonisation (chords) of the song.

Critical Listening – Sonic Qualities

Music_staff_+_notes_2560x1600.v1c

(AE 2015b)

Gain Structure

My goal in this second stage of the reference track critical listening analysis task is to consider the balance of the musical elements in terms of their amplitude levels (ie their volume) – overall and relative to each other. Whist I have a DAW session in front of me, looking at this screen while listening to the track over multiple times, I also look to the visual cues available to me. This is the levels displayed on the metres, and also the audio wave file image. I listen to the track several more times, specifically from this perspective, and note down all and any of my observations. Focus questions could include:
  • Are the metered levels excessive?
  • Do the metered levels maintain a degree of consistency throughout the piece?
  • How are the individual musical elements (instruments) levels relative to each other
  • How much inherent noise is present (noise floor)?
  • If so, to what degree?
  • How much headroom is present?
  • Based on your gain level analysis of this track, is there anything you can you deduce about the original tracking session, equipment used or techniques applied?

Stereo Image/Stereo Field Balance

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The next step is to consider the stereo image. Audio engineers consider stereo image in two ways: the stereo image of the whole track/mix, or the stereo image of the individual musical elements (instruments) [Izhaki 2013, 69]. My goal in this third stage of the reference track critical listening analysis task is to consider the balance of the musical elements in terms of the stereo field – the left and right side imagery.
Initially, I am interested in determining if there are obvious left and right channels of the audio mix. It is interesting to look at the history of production, as different approaches have been experimented with. For example, some of the early Motown records featured the vocals in the centre, with bass and drums primarily in one channel, and the snare primarily in the other channel (Moore 2012, 52). In some of the early Beatles tracks the vocals were featured primarily in one channel, and the instruments of the band primarily in the other channel.  It was not until the 1970’s with the introduction of large format consoles that a normative approach to mixing had the drum kit sitting essentially in the middle of the stereo field (Moore 2012, 34).
As a critical listener, it would be foolish of me to to make any assumptions regarding the stereo field and the placement of the instruments. I want to understand how the engineers have spread out the various musical elements over the entire breadth of stereo field. I may do this by selecting the split into mono feature most DAWs in this era allow. This is a right-click feature when you have the audio wave form selected. It splits the stereo wave form into two distinct wave forms – one left, and one right. Once we have the stereo track split into two single mono tracks we are in a position to analyse them in greater detail (see my blog a second listening task example for how I apply this practically [April 2015]).
Sound stage/Sound stage environment
My next task here is to imagine and reproduce the sound stage on which this artist is imagined to be playing, with a rough estimate of the type of stage and dimensions, and where the instruments and musicians are located on that stage. A stereo phase vector scope display is useful here (I use IK Multimedia’s T-Racks CS as this is a simple well laid out metering tool that includes three amplitude metres – PPM and Perceived Loudness and RMS -, a stereo phase vector scope display, and a spectrometer), but I daresay that your ears and experience as a listening human will be your best resources. My advice, is to close your eyes, and imagine where the producer is attempting to transport you as the listener to.  I listen to the track several more times, specifically from this perspective, and note down all and any of my observations. Focus questions could include:
  • What can I hear in terms of a stereo image?
  • Draw a picture of all musical elements (instruments) you can hear?

 

– What musicians and instruments are performing?

 

– Where on the sound stage are the musicians and instruments likely to be, relative to the other musical elements (instruments) are around them?

 

– Which of the musical elements (instruments) are the main or featured instruments, and which instruments make up the rhythm section?

 

– Do these musical elements change during the performance as the song progresses?

 

– And if so, do the positions these musical elements have on the sound stage change?

 

– Based on your analysis of the stereo field of this track, is there anything you can you deduce about the original tracking session, the instruments or equipment used, or techniques applied?
Sound stage environment
At this time, it is also useful for me to consider the type of environment this artist is imagined to be playing in,  a rough estimate of the type of venue that the sound stage is located in, its likely dimensions, and the likely materials the walls – if any – are surrounding that sound stage. As we know from our studies of sound theory and acoustics, the space in which a performance occurs will influence the sonic qualities of all of the elements included in that performance. These are the instruments – including the vox – and any of the processing devices used by both the artists and the live engineers in and around the stage.
  • Where is this song likely to set (as you imagine the mix engineer has imagined it to be set in?)
    • indoors or outdoors?
    • if indoors – in a small venue, or a large venue?
    • if outdoors – in an urban environment or a rural environment?
    • if in a rural environment – in a valley or on a mountain?  in a forest or by the sea?
    • out of space?
  • What type of venue?
    • what is the likely imagined room size?
    • how high is the ceiling likely to be?
    • what are the likely materials on the walls, floor and ceiling of this imagined venue?
    • what effect are these materials to have on the mix acoustically/sonically?
    • is the venue filled with an audience, or empty?
    • what effect is the presence or lack of audience likely to have on the mix acoustically/sonically?
  • Based on your stereo image analysis of this track, is there anything you can you deduce about the original tracking session, equipment used or techniques applied?

Spectral Processing

My goal in this fourth stage of the reference track critical listening analysis task is to consider the balance of the musical elements in terms of their frequency range.  I listen to the track several more times, specifically from this perspective, and note down all and any of my observations.  Useful tools here are an equaliser and a spectrometer. I use a dedicated EQ here (such as Pro Tools 7 band EQ or Sonnox’s EQ), and IK Multimedia’s T-Racks CS as this is a simple well laid out metering tool that includes a spectrometer. Whilst the tools can be very useful for confirming specific frequency information,  your ears and experience as a human will be a very good starting resource. Again, close your eyes and listen the musical elements of the song, and their frequencies. Focus questions could include:
  • What can I hear in terms of spectral processing? List all spectral processing you can hear?
  • Referring back to the first stage of the this reference track critical listening analysis task, what are the musical elements (instruments) included in this song?
  • What are the frequency ranges of each musical element (instrument)?
  • Do they share any of their frequency range with any other musical element/s (instrument/s)?
    • if not, what is or are the other musical elements (instruments)?
    • is this other musical element or elements (instrument/s) one of the main or featured instruments, or is it a musical element (instrument) that makes up the rhythm section?
    • is there obvious masking present, with one instrument masking or covering up another instrument’s frequency range due to sharing or overlapping a similar frequency range?
    • if so, is this masking likely to exist deliberately for corrective or corrective purposes?
  • Does the amount of spectral processing applied to this track (or not) support the stereo image perspective as the producer has established?
  • Based on your frequency range analysis, is there anything you can you deduce about the original tracking session, equipment used or techniques applied?

Dynamic Processing

My goal in this fifth stage of the reference track critical listening analysis task is to consider the balance of the musical elements in terms of the dynamic range – overall and for each of the musical elements (instruments). I use a range of dedicated dynamics here (such as Pro Tools Dyn3 Compressor, Dyn3 Gate or Sonnox’s Dynamic), and IK Multimedia’s T-Racks CS as this is a simple well laid out metering tool.  I listen to the track several more times, specifically from this perspective, and note down all and any of my observations. Focus questions could include:
  • What can I hear in terms of dynamic processing? List all dynamic processing you can hear?
  • Looking at the audio wave image reveals the amount of energy at various points in the song. Is the signal a dynamic audio signal with lots of movement between amplitude levels?
  • Or the signal quite static, with little movement between amplitude levels?
  • Further, has there been any heavy limiting applied to the track, essentially flattening out the top of the wave form?
  • If so, has this been applied naturally through an analogue signal path by driving the gain very high?
  • Or via an external compressor/limiter during tracking, or in post-production?
  • Has there been any other dynamic processing applied – eg gating – for either corrective or creative measures?
  • Does the amount of dynamic processing applied to this track (or not) support the stereo image perspective as the producer has established?
  • Based on your dynamic analysis of this track, is there anything you can you deduce about the original tracking session, equipment used or techniques applied?

Time-domain Processing

My goal in this sixth stage of the reference track critical listening analysis task is to consider the balance of the musical elements in terms of their time-domain placement within the song – overall and for each of the musical elements (instruments). I listen to the track several more times, specifically from this perspective, and note down all and any of my observations. Focus questions could include:
  • What can I hear in terms of time-domain processing? List all time-domain processing you can hear?
  • How much of a time-domain processing tail exists on any of the musical elements (instruments) when I stop the track?
  • How obvious is the time-domain processing (and the presence of a tail)?
  • Is the same degree of time-domain processing applied to the mix overall, or just on one or several of the musical elements (instruments)?
  • Is the degree of time-domain processing likely to have been applied for corrective or creative purposes?
  • Does the amount of time-domain processing applied support the stereo image perspective as the producer has established?
  • Irrespective of the determined purpose of the time-domain processing, does it work within this musical style (genre)?
  • Based on your time-domain processing analysis of this track, is there anything you can you deduce about the original tracking session, equipment used or techniques applied?
  • Based on your time-domain processing analysis of this track, is there anything you can you deduce about the post-production session, equipment used or techniques applied?

Interest

My goal in this seventh stage of the reference track critical listening analysis is to consider the balance of the musical elements in terms of interest – overall and for each of the musical elements (instruments). I listen to the track several more times, specifically from this perspective, and note down all and any of my observations. Focus questions could include:
  • What can I hear in terms of points of interest (hooks for the listener) in this production? List all you can hear?
  • Have any of the following points of interest (hooks for the listener) been used in this production?
    • Form Hooks
    • Rhythmic Hooks
    • Harmonic Hooks
    • Melodic Hooks
    • Improvisational Hooks
    • Instrumentation Hooks
    • Arrangement Hooks
  • If so, describe how they have been used, and comment as to their significance (points of interest hooks for the listener) in this production
  • Have any of the following contrasts been used in this production?
    • Shade (light/dark)
    • Mood (happy/sad)
    • Tempo (fast/slow)
    • Frequency (high/low)
    • Structure (complex/simple)
    • Instrumentation
    • Timbre (ie ‘colour’)
  • If so, describe how they have been used, and comment as to their significance (points of interest hooks for the listener) in this production
  • Based on your analysis of this track in terms of hooks, is there anything you can you deduce about the original tracking session, equipment used or techniques applied?
  • Based on your analysis of this track in terms of hooks, is there anything you can you deduce about the post-production session, equipment used or techniques applied?

Summary

As I introduced in my blogs Critical listening part 2a & b [March 2015], aspiring audio engineers need to proactively and diligently develop their Critical Listening skills with regular and disciplined critical listening practice sessions. It will take time, practice and considerable dedication to learn to listen for the nuances of the cultural production – the genre, musical characteristics and the sonic qualities to a level of mastery.
Last month I introduced genre, musical characteristics and sonic qualities, followed by a first listening task example. In that reference track critical listening example, I introduced genre considerations, explored music characteristics in some detail, and then introduced the sonic qualities that supported the genre. Now that you have been practicing critical listening in dedicated sessions a couple of times per week over the past four weeks, I want to continue this month, outlining considerations and questions to stimulate your development of Critical Listening skills to a deeper level, focussing more closely on the third area, the sonic qualities of a production.
Using Owsinski’s (2013) elements of mixing  I have focussed on each element making suggestions as to how you as an aspiring engineer can use resources that you have access to, to assist in a deeper level of discovery of a reference track. I have listed a number of focus questions to assist you in focussing your critical listening sessions.  I have encouraged you to rely not only on audio, but also on visual cues as well.  Some of the tools I use include: my DAW, Pro Tools as the primary tool; and several plug-ins. But most importantly I rely on my ears and the enormous amount of experience as a hearing-able human I have.  In order to demonstrate the application of the suggestions and focus questions provided within this blog,  I have provided a second listening task example in my blog Critical listening part 3b [April 2015] .

Music_staff_+_notes_2560x1600.v1c

(AE 2015b)
In the coming months, we will develop our Critical Listening process to the next level, Critical and Analytical Listening.
References
AE 2015a Music note montage in the universe image courtesy of: Angelic Exorcism (AE) Studio Projects  Accessed 11th March 2015
AE 2015b Music note montage in the universe image courtesy of: Angelic Exorcism (AE) Studio Projects  Accessed 11th March 2015
DLP 2015 image courtesy of David L Page Accessed 9th April 2015
Izhaki, Roey. 2013. Mixing audio: concepts, practices and tools. 3rd ed. Oxford: Focal.
Moore, Allan F. 2012. Song means: analysing and interpreting recorded popular song. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Owsinski, Bobby. 2013. The mixing engineer’s handbook. Boston: Cengage Learning.
Page, David L. 2015. Critical listening Part 1  Accessed 9th April 2015
Page, David L. 2015. Critical listening Part 2a  Accessed 9th April 2015
Page, David L. 2015. Critical listening Part 2b   Accessed 9th April 2015
Page, David L. 2014.  Mixing part 6 – effectively guiding creative artists through a process  r 2014]  Accessed 9th April 2015
Pulsating image courtesy of: Image Accessed 15th January, 2016
The Jury Expert. 2015. Man listening image courtesy of: The Jury Expert Accessed 2nd February, 2015
– ©David L Page 10/04/2015
Copyright: No aspect of the content of this blog or blog site is to be reprinted or used within any practice without strict permission directly from David L Page.

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