Train Your Ears: How to Develop Your Ears for Sound Engineering and Production

In this video from Sweetwater, we show you how to train your ears, helping you cultivate better listening skills over time. Front of house engineer Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato shows how you can develop your skills of critical listening and identifying frequencies in order to create great mixes in both a live and studio setting.

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[Music] hi welcome to Sweetwater gear Fest 2020 I’m Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato and I’m a touring concert sound engineer for the past 30 years I have been mixing front-of-house for artists like Elvis Costello Melissa Etheridge Gwen Stefani thievery corporation Goo Goo Dolls mr. big sticks Adam Lambert Kesha and many many more I’ve been on tour with these artists all over the world and I’ve mixed in every kind and size of venue from tiny clubs to the biggest stadiums and festivals of all shapes and sizes in 2013 I co-founded sound girls org to inspire and empower the next generation of women in audio while also creating a supportive community for the women working in audio and music production in 2015 I was inducted into Full Sail university’s Hall of Fame and if you’d like to find out more about me you can

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check out my website at mixing music I want to talk about your ears now if you’re watching this you might be a sound engineer musician singer songwriter maybe you have a home studio or you’re an aspiring producer but whatever the case may be you likely have a pair of ears one on each side of your head now these two little things here are good for more than just attaching your coated face mask if trained and used properly they are the best thing that you’ve got going for you in audio and music production are the best sound engineers and producers born with better hearing a pair of golden ears as they say well not necessarily but what they do have that sets them apart is a pair of well trained ears they can hear the subtle nuances that the average listener doesn’t to the untrained ear an acoustic guitar is just an acoustic guitar but a well-trained ear would be able to hear the difference between a Martin acoustic

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guitar and a Takamine acoustic guitar [Music] having trained ears is also what allows a world-class musician to be able to sit down in a room with 15 marshall jcm800 and hear the difference between all of them quickly allowing them to find the one that they like and the one that’s best suited for their purpose when we think of ear training it’s most commonly thought of as being able to recognize things like pitch and intervals scales and chord progressions but ear training also includes learning frequencies and critical listening and both of those are so important whether you’re a sound engineer producer or musician having the skills of being able to identify frequencies and critical listening are really key to getting the results and

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the sounds that you want if you want your mix to sound great while you first need to be able to identify what sounds great you need a starting point it’s not enough to recognize that hey that’s a great sounding track what specifically about it sounds great if you want an awesome guitar tone you need a reference point in your head of what awesome sounds like otherwise how are you ever going to get there this is what critical listening will do for you and when you can recognize and identify frequencies along with the specific characteristics of what you hear you can achieve your desired results much more easily training your ears and learning frequencies will help you to get great sounds when recording and mixing both in the studio and in life sound properly trained ears will allow you to the subtle differences in equipment from mic pries to microphones for example between a neumann u87 and annoy menu 47 or between various instrument pickups or amplifiers and all of this will help you

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make better decisions on what equipment to purchase for a particular project well trained ears allow you to find the sweet spot for mic placement and it also helps you in using the right tool for the job like when you’re deciding if the Sennheiser 421 or 609 would be better for miking your guitar cabinet to get the particular sound that you’re looking for well trained ears and knowing frequencies also help you get the best results from a sound system and eliminate feedback in live sound I’m going to talk about EQ for a minute because EQ is the manipulation of frequencies now when most people think of EQ it’s the treble and bass on their home or car stereo that comes to mind and these controls affect the tone of a sound basis the thump of a kick drum or the low notes of the bass guitar and these would be sub frequencies treble is the frequencies of the cymbals the knob that you turn up when you want a little more definition from your stereo these

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would be the high frequencies treble and bass actually describe the two ends of the frequency spectrum okay so here’s a short boring science part the frequency spectrum that we deal with an audio is from 20 Hertz to 20,000 Hertz which is typically what the human ear can hear Hertz which is abbreviated as HZ is the unit of measurement that we use to describe the frequency of ways sound waves are vibrations in the air that we perceive as pitch and we measure those vibrations by how many complete cycles they make per second so one Hertz equals one cycle per second 20 Hertz equals 20 cycles per second and so on boring science part over in audio the frequency spectrum is split up into smaller ranges subs lows low mids mids high mids and highs now the boundaries between these ranges are somewhat variable but here’s a typical division these are not set in

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stone and you’ll notice that there is some overlap from one range to the next the easiest way to visualize this is with a thirty band graphic EQ typically used in live sound if I were to superimpose those ranges across the frequency spectrum this is what it would look like so there’s a lot of frequencies right how do you go about learning all of them well there are plenty of apps and programs out there for learning frequencies and ear training but some people still have a hard time committing frequencies to memory one thing you can do is to start by learning just a handful of the big ones start with 60 Hertz 250 Hertz 500 Hertz 800 Hertz 2.5 kilohertz 6.3 kilohertz

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now when you commit those to memory then you can use them to hone in on other frequencies so if you can identify that what you hear is above 500 Hertz but it’s also below 800 Hertz that gives you a much smaller range to work with when you’re trying to find a specific frequency the key is being able to tell the difference between 250 and 2.5 K or 60 and 800 now if you are doing live sound it’s much more important to really learn all of the frequencies especially when you’re dealing with feedback when you’re dealing with feedback you need to act quickly and you need to know the specific frequency to get rid of it or say that you’re mixing a show and there’s a frequency just rolling around in the room if you know what 250 Hertz sounds like and you can recognize that this mystery frequency is above that but it’s also below 500 Hertz that at least gives you a narrower place to start to find that frequency rather than randomly

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notching frequencies all over the entire spectrum another way to learn frequencies is by learning the vocabulary commonly used in audio and music production to describe frequencies words like Bhoomi muddy harsh boxy and a whole bunch of others all of these words fall along the frequency spectrum and can help you to hone in on what frequency you’re looking for so if you’re having trouble remembering what 800 Hertz sounds like but you can remember that if something sounds boxy it’s usually in the 500 Hertz to 800 Hertz range again that brings you closer to identifying the frequency that you’re looking for when you know that muddy tends to be in the low mids you’ll know what frequencies to cut to clean up a muddy vocal or mix now if you’re a gigging musician knowing frequencies will allow you to get better monitor mixes because you’ll be able to tell the sound engineer exactly what you need hey my guitar sounds a bit boxy so can you

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take out a little 630 just imagine how impressed your bandmates will be when you can start rattling off the frequencies to the sound engineer and help clean up the stage sound as a sound engineer or producer knowing frequencies is essential when using EQ to create sounds and shape a mix and also for helping artists to find their sound and craft the tone of their instruments so that they’re not competing with each other in the mix for example finding a snare drum that doesn’t sit on top of the vocal range or creating space between guitars and keyboards this is a very important and often overlooked component when bands are starting to get their sound together spending some time crafting the tones of each instrument so that it occupies its own frequency space can make a huge difference in everything from the overall quality of your sound to how easy it is to hear yourself on stage if you’ve got a band with drums bass a couple of guitars keyboards and vocals and the keyboards guitars and vocals are

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all sitting in the same frequency range it’s going to take a lot more work to find clarity and definition between them but if you spend a little time working on the tones of the keyboards and guitars and move them out of the dominant frequency of the vocal now you’ve opened up some space and you’ll have a much more balanced mix this is especially important on drums the tone of the snare drum can often be competing with the lead vocal but by slightly changing the tuning of the snare bringing it up or down a little bit they’re no longer vying for the same space and cymbals in live sound can be very problematic when there’s no consideration given to their tonal coloration when they’re badly chosen and cymbals can create a wash of white noise that drowns out everything on a small stage when you have an understanding of frequencies and critical listening it will help you with all of this now this does require some ear training but it’s not hard to train your ears it’s

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something you can do anywhere at any time and by doing just a few minutes a day of what is called critical listening it’ll go a long way in helping you to really start hearing things differently you’re already doing this to some extent it’s how you recognize a song within the first few notes even if you’ve never heard it before you probably can tell what artists it is by the familiar sound of their music and your ears are probably better trained than you real you’re using them all the time like when you hear a familiar voice at a party or in a crowded room and you know who it is even though you can’t see the person there are certain qualities and their voice that you recognize maybe their voice is very deep or very nasally or maybe it has a certain twang to it these qualities are descriptive of the tone of their voice and tone is one of the things critical listening trains you to identify when you learn critical listening you’ll be able to identify all of the instruments and sounds in a mix you’ll notice the placement or imaging

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of them where things are in the three-dimensional space from front to back or side to side and top to bottom you’ll learn how to hear time is the drummer right on top of the beat or just behind it is the guitar delay in time with the tempo you’ll understand the balance and volume of all the elements of a mix what is the loudest thing in the mix and what is the quietest as well as the balance of frequencies what is occupying the frequency spectrum and where what elements are in the high frequencies and what is making up the sub frequencies is the frequency spectrum balance between all ranges you’ll notice the tonal characteristics of instruments and vocals is the bass guitar fat and round or sloppy now this will really help you when you’re trying to recreate something that you hear critical listening also trains you to hear the dynamics of the music not just the difference between the loudest and

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quietest signals but things like tempo changes and modulation as well anyone can learn critical listening and it’s really not that hard it just takes time I’ll even give you a simple exercise right now to show you how easy it is to get started find 3 hit songs from the past year and 3 hit songs from 5 years ago and 3 from 10 years ago you can do a quick Google search or look at the Billboard charts if you need to commit some time to just listening to these songs while doing nothing else now what do you notice about them what do the 3 songs from the past year have in common is it a similar production style is it the balance of the mixes is it the types of instruments or the style of vocal list all of the similarities that you can find and then move on to the three songs from five years ago and do the same thing and then repeat that with the three songs from 10 years ago now go back and listen to the major differences between this year’s songs and the hits from 5 and 10 years

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ago what makes the hit today is completely different than what made a hit 10 years ago what do you notice has changed is the dominant instruments is it the overall color of the mix or the vocal styles is that the affects being used can you give details on how things have changed you’ve just done your first exercise and critical listening and training your ears now if you want to go deeper you can listen to those songs again and make a list of all the individual instruments and sounds that you hear in each one and then give specific tonal characteristics of each instrument by just listening and being able to identify what you hear you’ve taken the first step in learning how to listen critically and training your ears and this will also make it easier to learn frequencies once you learn these skills the next time you hear a great mix you’ll be able to pinpoint exactly what about it made it great and then you can take those details and apply them to your next mix if you’re a musician

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you’ll have a much easier time creating the perfect tone and getting great stage sound now if you’re a live sound engineer you’ll not only improve your mixing skills but you’ll be able to eliminate feedback quickly and have a better understanding of EQ in the sound system to work with the room acoustics these are just a few of the benefits of having a pair of well-trained ears and knowing frequencies but there are so many more thanks for checking out this video I hope you enjoyed it and I would like to give a big shout-out to sennheiser neumann and sweetwater for putting together gear fast 2020 for more info contact your Sweetwater sales engineer

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