In production, mixing and mastering sessions, critical listening skills can separate an amateur from a seasoned professional. Learn 7 tips to help you stay focused and hydrated with consistent and accurate listening abilities.
By Charles Hoffman, Black Ghost Audio
Beyond the music theory, plugins and hardware, music production requires you to develop sharp critical listening skills—how well can you scrutinize and analyze a song? In this article, I’m going to share with you 7 tips to improve your critical listening abilities that will ultimately allow you to complete mixes faster and more efficiently.
1. Stay Hydrated
You can drastically improve your critical listening ability by staying hydrated and avoiding caffeine leading up to a session—this could be a mixing or mastering session.
Sound waves are transmitted through fluids in the ear, and if you aren’t adequately hydrated, it can affect your perception of sound. When you’re dehydrated, sounds may appear more “muffled” than when you’re hydrated.
According to Christy Callahan of Livestrong, “The inner ear—an organ filled with fluid—is affected by dehydration. Fluid balance is maintained by a charged particle, or ion's, transport across the inner ear's membranes. This fluid helps maintain body equilibrium and transmits sound. The inner ear needs adequate blood flow to supply nutrients for fluid homeostasis, according to an April 2001 study published in "The International Tinnitus Journal." As dehydration sets in, blood volume decreases and mineral imbalances occur, affecting the inner ear's fluid.”
2. Listen or Reference with Headphones
Contrary to what’s commonly propagated online, mixing with studio monitors isn’t necessarily always “better” than mixing on headphones. If you’re mixing and mastering music in an acoustically untreated home studio and using improper desk and speaker placement, you’re almost undoubtedly making mixing harder on yourself then it needs to be.
When working in an untreated space, you’re subject to the negative effects of flutter echo, room modes and excessive decay times. These various factors add up to create an inaccurate representation of your mix. Even if you get your mix sounding “good” in the space you’re working in, there’s no guarantee your mix will translate well to other playback systems.
This sucks, but what’s the solution? Either you read up on room acoustics and invest in acoustic treatment, or you mix and master music primarily using headphones.
What’s so bad about mixing on headphones anyway? Well, the main difference between studio monitors and headphones is that headphones don’t provide natural acoustic crosstalk—the sound from the left and right speakers don’t interact with one another. This is problematic because acoustic crosstalk allows you to perceive phantom images between the left and right speakers, as well as properly perceive certain stereo-panning techniques.
While these issues certainly aren’t great, I’d personally weigh them as much less detrimental to a mix than the acoustic problems introduced by an untreated room. Luckily, it’s possible to generate acoustic crosstalk within headphones using a plugin like Abbey Road Studio 3.
Not only does the Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin generate acoustic crosstalk, but it places you in a virtual version of the Abbey Road Studio 3 control room. You can toggle between near, mid, and far speaker placements, and rotate the studio 360 degrees manually, or by using Waves’ head-tracking NX plugin.
On top of all this, Abbey Road Studio 3 lets you apply a corrective EQ to the signal you’re listening to—this eliminates coloration applied by your headphones. Currently, there are a handful of supported headphones by Audeze, Audio-Technica, AKG, Beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, Shure, and Sony.
Learn more about mixing on headphones and translating to speakers here.
3. Deconstruct Mixes in Your Head
You don’t need to be stationed in front of your computer to improve your critical listening skills. In fact, you might be able to improve your critical listening skills while at work. I used to put in long hours as a construction worker, which left me with very little time to produce music, but I’d spend hours listening to music on my headphones and deconstructing mixes in my head.
David Gibson’s book, The Art of Mixing, demonstrates how you can visualize a stereo mix drawn in 3D. Sounds that appear more present within a stereo mix are drawn to the front of the stereo field, while sounds that are less present are pushed to the background of the stereo field. Pan position is indicated by a song element’s left-right placement, while the height of an element represents the frequency range that it inhabits. Finally, the size of an element indicates its relative volume level.
To deconstruct a mix in your head, picture where track elements sit within the stereo field of the song you’re listening to. How would the mix look if you were to draw it? If this proves to be a bit too challenging, try to identify every element within a mix and determine what was used to make the sound. Is it an acoustic instrument that created the sound, or was the sound synthesized?
As you listen to mixes and imagine how they’d look within this 3D space, you’ll start to notice certain mixing trends amongst different genres of music. For example, hip-hop tracks tend to contain a very dominant kick and bass in comparison to rock tracks, which tend to bury their kick and bass deeper within the mix.
Take a listen to “Hammer” by nothing,nowhere. The production on this track is quite simple, but the 808 drives the track forward and acts as the main instrumental focal point.
Point North covered “Hammer,” but their version is mixed very differently than the original. The main instrumental focal point is the aggressive guitars. The kick and bass are still audible within the mix, but when compared to the original version, the low-end is nowhere near as present.
In addition to mixing similar track elements differently, each version of the song uses unique instrumentation, which is yet another layer of the production process that you can pick apart by ear.
4. Experience Different Styles of Music
There are sounds and mixing techniques unique to certain genres of music. If your goal is to become a well-rounded producer and engineer, capable of tackling various different genres, you need to listen to an assortment of music.
For example, if you listen primarily to country music, you’ll gain a solid understanding of how country music is typically mixed, but if you’re approached to mix an EDM track, you might run into issues. An ambient house artist is going to want their track mixed very differently than a dubstep artist, and it’s up to you to be able to identify common mixing trends amongst different sub-genres.
Understanding what a certain type of mix should sound like is not enough on its own. You need to pinpoint which mixing techniques and tools you need to use to achieve a particular sound.
If you’re working to improve your electronic music mixes, consider checking out the Electronic Music Production section of the Waves blog. Spice up your vocal samples, learn to mix lo-fi sounds, and create synth basses like Marshmallow and Flume.
Alternatively, dive into Waves’ hip hop mixing and production tutorials to learn how to do things like mix 808s, mangle drum loops, and process hip-hop vocals.
5. Analyze Songs using Meters
Do your mixes visually look like other mixes within the same genre? Is the shape of the frequency response similar? Are you hitting loudness measurements appropriate for the genre you’re producing?
The PAZ Analyzer allows you to view the stereo position, frequency spread and peak/RMS levels of mixes. Assuming you can’t quite figure out why your mixes don’t sound the same as your reference tracks, the PAZ Analyzer can provide you with some helpful hints.
If your mix contains way more low-end than your reference track, you may have set your track levels inappropriately. Alternatively, if your reference song appears narrow on the PAZ’s vector display, and your mix appears quite wide in comparison, you’ll need to reduce the stereo widening effects you’re using.
Check out Grammy-winning mixer Shawn Everett’s tips for “Mixing with your Eyes” here.
Another meter that you can use to provide yourself with visual feedback is the WLM Plus Loudness Meter. By comparing the short term and long term loudness of your song to other similar mixes, you can dial in compression appropriately at a mastering level.
Applying the right amount of compression proves to be quite difficult for many producers—especially when they’re just starting out. By keeping your eye on loudness levels when dialing in compression at a mastering level, you remove a lot of the guesswork from the process.
6. Avoid Ear Fatigue
After substantial exposure to an auditory stimulus, you’ll start to experience ear fatigue, which is a phenomenon characterized by tiredness, discomfort, potential pain and a loss of hearing-sensitivity.
If you’ve been working on a mix for a long continuous period of time, your ability to make informed mixing and mastering decisions will start to deteriorate—this is often the reason a mix doesn’t sound quite the same at the end of a late-night session compared to the morning after.
Mixing over the course of multiple small sessions is more effective than trying to tackle a mix all in one go. Many engineers will set a timer and force themselves to take breaks. Quite often, the point at which you should take a break is much sooner than when you want to take a break.
I personally force myself to take a short 15-minute break every 30-45 minutes when making critical mixing and/or mastering decisions. When arranging a song or working on sound design, I don’t take breaks quite as often because it’s not as necessary, but when I’m making those final touches to a track and really splitting hairs, I want my ears to be fresh and alert.
Check out this article on “How to Avoid Ear Fatigue While Mixing” to make the most of your mixing sessions.
7. Prevent Hearing Damage
Past the point of ear fatigue, you can actually damage your hearing ability permanently. According to this article published by The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, "Exposure to loud noise kills the nerve endings in our inner ear. More exposure will result in more dead nerve endings. The result is permanent hearing loss that cannot be corrected through surgery or with medicine. Noise-induced hearing loss limits your ability to hear high frequency sounds and understand speech, which seriously impairs your ability to communicate. Hearing aids may help, but they do not restore your hearing to normal.”
The following image indicates permissible daily exposure times to continuous dB levels before hearing loss starts to occur. Keep in mind that these are daily exposure limits, so if you hit the 4-hour 88 continuous dB limit in the morning, you shouldn’t expose yourself to the same sound source later that night—wait until the next day instead.
While producing music, you should stay as far away from these permissible exposure times as possible—you shouldn’t be pushing yourself to the brink of hearing loss each day.
In live event settings, such as at a concert, you can wear earplugs. But while producing music, earplugs will seriously affect your perception of sound. Since earplugs aren’t an option while you’re producing, your best option is to produce music at low levels.
You can boost the level of your mix every now and then to ensure that it sounds balanced at higher sound pressure levels, but the majority of the critical listening you perform should take place at, or below, the level of a casual conversation with a friend.
There’s a lot that goes into developing and maintaining your critical listening skills, but the tips in this article should help you cover all your bases. Whether you’ve made the simple decision to chug a glass of water before you start mixing, or you’ve decided to take things a step further with Abbey Road Studio 3 and the PAZ Analyzer, you’re well on your way to improving your critical listening ability.
Want more tips on stereo imaging? Learn about 7 tips for mono compatibility in a stereo mix.
Want to get more tips straight to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter here.