The art of subjective listening

Discussion in 'Tracking / Mixing / Editing' started by DonnyThompson, Mar 27, 2015.

  1. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    I found this video interesting, as it's a problem that I think all engineers can run into from time to time.

    How to listen in the most subjective way, especially to a song you've already heard many times during the recording stage.

    I like what he says, regarding putting the most weight on the first and most fresh listen.

    Put the mix away for a day or so, then go back, with fresh ears (fresher, anyway), turn off all distractions, like FB, cell phone, etc., listen to the mix as it is, and take actual notes ( this requires pencil or pen and paper) on what "jumps out" at you the most. Don't focus in on the esoteric or the tiny nuances during this listen. You are listening for the "obvious" things - EQ, too much compression, lead vocal, drums, bass... both tonally and balance level.

    Fix that which you feel was the most glaring of issues. Then put it away for an hour or two, then listen again, this time for the more "finer" parameters... panning, FX levels, etc.

    Put most of your subjective " weight" on those first-time listens after letting your ears recover for a bit.

    kmetal and audiokid like this.
  2. audiokid

    audiokid Staff

    Good one, Donny. Awesome interview!
    I fully agree, this is how I approach everything. The more times I keep going back to something in a day, the more times I am likely to boil it.

    The most improvement happens on the first few glances, fresh ears and take notes.
    Bruce Swedien also recommends to turn down the lights.

    Add this to your media folder. Its great info. Now a sticky.
    JohnTodd likes this.
  3. JohnTodd

    JohnTodd Well-Known Member

    It's always been a problem for me.

    As an artist, when the song gets locked in, I tend to groove too much on it. I listen over and over and just delight in the monstrosity I've created because all the hard work is paying off.

    But I can vouch for "sitting on it" for a while. Those perfect, heavenly, sublime mixes of mine often sound different a week later. Even though I've literally heard them at least 100 times.
  4. Ledger Note

    Ledger Note Active Member

    Yep, I always come back the next day if not in two or three days. Otherwise, I'll literally sit there and tweak things back and forth nonstop as I keep losing perspective.
    JohnTodd likes this.
  5. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    I think that this is easier to do when we are working on our own material. But when you are working on music that has an actual deadline for release, as I have been doing for the last 9 months or so, it gets harder to do. In that situation, You don't always have the luxury of putting the mix away a for a week.

    I'm not saying that the info in the video isn't valid under those circumstances, because it's good info and is valid under any circumstances. I just think it gets tougher to do when you are dealing with a actual concrete deadline and you are starting to feel the pressure of that deadline looming. ;)
    gitlvr likes this.
  6. Davedog

    Davedog Distinguished Member

    I am almost done with my current project. I had gotten it to a certain point and was satisfied with the balances and the positions of things but there was that 'hashiness' from OVERMIXING that bugged me. So I put it all into its final mix configurations and left it for a week. Mixed one the other night with VCA masters on each group and after balancing the drums, bass, vocals alone, found it to be so much clearer and cleaner and tons of missing headroom. This is not my material. I am the producer. I get paid to make these decisions. Most folks miss the last 5% because they get anxious and in a hurry to finish. Its something as a producer that you have to make clear in the beginning. This project has taken a lot longer than it could have....notice "could" not should...And a lot was learned. But its going to be stunning considering the budget. The next one will be better, faster, easier...because there's now a template for this level of quality.
    DonnyThompson and gitlvr like this.
  7. gitlvr

    gitlvr Active Member

    I'm not a Producer, Engineer, etc. Just a musician who records his own stuff at home. I struggle with inadequate gear, inadequate space and inadequate talent. But if I were working with a pro on my stuff, this kind of attitude is one that I would not only respond well to, but seek out again.
  8. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    I'm where you are right now, Dave. One more song to record from scratch, and then the rest is mixing - much of which has already been done along the way over the last 18 months - but I know I need to go back and re-visit these earlier final mixes to make sure that they still work with the most recent ones.

    I've learned more than I ever anticipated from producing this project. It's challenged me, forced me to work in styles I didn't consider myself to be adept at. This last 18 months has been a priceless education for me, proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks... (no pun intended on that... I was referring to myself. ) ;)

    And, there's a big difference between acting only as an engineer and acting as a producer/engineer. "Producer" is a term that I think gets thrown around too lightly on the mid level these days. It's a big job. Instead of being concerned only with the technical side, as an engineer would, I've had to work as an arranger and project coordinator as well, corralling session musicians, coordinating schedules, setting up transfer methods for tracks recorded out of state... I think I've given more of myself to this current project than most projects I've engineered over the years... I think I've maybe even given more time and dedication to this project than I have on my own projects. ;)


  9. Davedog

    Davedog Distinguished Member

    Welcome to my world.
  10. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    LOL...I've been here full time for the last 18 months or so.. ;) But with this particular project, I'm enjoying myself immensely.
    gitlvr likes this.
  11. ChrisH

    ChrisH Active Member

    This is a great topic with allot of great points.
    Perspective and context is everything.
    I have couple of other ways I go about getting a new perspective aside from what has already been pointed out.
    - Turning your computer monitor/monitors off, that can do wonders when you're not being visually stimulated by meters and such.
    - Facing away from your screen and gear.
    - Of course listening to your mix in the car, headphones, ect (givin you really know how those playback systems are supposed to sound).
    - One big one for me is just simply rendering/printing the mix where it currently is, bringing it into itunes and bringing others into to the room just to show them what you're working on. By doing so, you're subjecting your work to others and even if they don't comment or don't have an ear for audio it's amazing what it can make jump out at you just by having them in the room with you.
  12. JohnTodd

    JohnTodd Well-Known Member

    That is a very valid technique, but beware. It can be embarrassing! Do your best BEFORE others arrive, and make sure you listen objectively. Try not to get too much "into the music" and be more into the "engineering" side of things.

    Voice of experience talking on this one! (y)
  13. ChrisH

    ChrisH Active Member

    I humbly disagree and believe this is where you're wrong.
    FEAR is going to be one of the main contributors to holding you back in the audio world.
    You need to be "into the music", far into it to be specific, only then you can use your skills and techniques as an audio engineer to bring the most out of the music.
    Understanding the song/music is first step to mixing.
    JohnTodd likes this.
  14. JohnTodd

    JohnTodd Well-Known Member

    I agree with the mantra of "Don't let fear stop you." All I'm saying is be prepared. The first few times can be nerve wracking.

    But if you've done a good job, it'll still show.
    ChrisH likes this.
  15. audiokid

    audiokid Staff

    So true.
    DonnyThompson likes this.
  16. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    I've over-cooked a mix on more than just a few occasions; and then in frustration, have gone back to those first initial settings, and found them to be the best of the bunch.

    The problems can be two-fold... the first is that repeated plays of the same material, over and over, can result in fatigue; and within that, there's the kneejerk reaction of feeling as though various things need changing with each playback - when that's not always necessarily the case. Mostly, they're little things, small changes - but too often, those little changes start to add up over time - to the point where you find that you've drifted far off the original path, away from the original sound intended; to the extent that the song itself starts to suffer.
  17. TomLewis

    TomLewis Active Member

    This was helpful, in that I sort of had a fuzzy understanding why my mix might sound completely different after an 8-hour session from what it might sound like to me when I leave it for a couple days and then come back. That concept of adaptability that he speaks of explains this. Maybe this is also why when I get in my car in the morning I suspect that someone broke into my car overnight and turned the stereo up! It's probably also the basis of Stockholm Syndrome.

    So I now have a clearer understanding of what is at work here. But he's exactly right; perception is very elastic. Its not just that we all process in our own way, but that one's hearing process varies markedly dependent on changing conditions on the ground, especially in regard to how much we can step back, and take a brief holiday from a project that has been consuming us. Sometimes the helicopter view is more revealing. Forest not being visible because of all the trees, I guess.

    I find that I have a poor sense of when I am getting fried. I will end a session at a break point after working on it for a couple days straight, thinking that I am not that fried, and then after not hearing it for a day or two, I then realize how fresh my ears are really not due to that marathon session, and it often then takes another week to become unfried, when I did not even sense how fried I was, at the point when I was already fried. Its tricky. I'll break for the day thinking "I'm OK, and I'll get that Rhodes comp track nailed tomorrow, because I am not tired of hearing this song and I am still fresh." But by the next morning the thought of hearing that track at all fills me with fed-up revulsion; a total 180 from my thinking the night before.

    I also get my project in my head as if someone is still playing it on the monitoring system after I step away for the day. I can hear it in my mind's eye just as clearly as if I still had the cans on. Every note. And I do not want to hear it then, as it will make me stale, and I am quite frankly a little bored with it by then, like eating pizza for every meal. We all love pizza, but not for breakfast lunch and dinner ad infinitum. If I get too close and hear it too much, riffs that I thought were clever now sound hackneyed to me, but they really aren't, I've just heard them to the point where there is no unpredictability left to enable having an emotional connection to them. I combat this by forcing another, different song into my head, something with a prominent hook, like Sunshine of Your Love by Cream, or Never In My Life by Mountain. It takes that to get the other song out of my head. But just a couple of verses of that does the trick.

    One other thing I try to do is have 15 projects all going at once, so that it I want to work 40 hours on tracking and mixing, I can drop something stale and move on to something I haven't worked on or heard since last week. That way I can make incremental progress on all of these projects without getting too stale.
  18. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    For me, the first indicator that I'm headed towards the rocks on the shore of the land of "Fried", is when I find myself making tonal or gain changes in extreme increments; and not hearing those changes as much as I normally would when mixing fresh...

    That's generally when I get up and walk away - sometimes for a few hors, other times for a few days, if I have that luxury.

    On the most recent album I worked on, I was engineering, arranging and producing, ( and performing as well) and it can be very difficult at times to wear all of those hats.
    I didn't have the opportunity to walk away for very long on that project; as my client had a deadline ( that ended up being moved back twice due to a number of reasons, the main one being that he suffers from MS; along with the decision on my part to switch DAW platforms three songs into the album) so it seemed that I was always working on it to some degree. Actually, to a large degree. That project pretty much consumed my life for 18 months.
    I'd get up at 2 or 3 in the morning, work on the project until about 4 the next afternoon, attempt to get some sleep, and then I'd be right back at it at midnight, and do it all over again - except I didn't really sleep all that much, because my brain was constantly working. I couldn't seem to shut it off for more than an hour or so. Looking back, it's a wonder to me that the album turned out sounding as good as it did, because my subjective listening skills had become pretty much non-existent.

    But, we do what we have to do, we acclimate, we bounce our mixes off of our colleagues, people whom we trust, and we absorb that, and sometimes we make those suggested changes, and sometimes we don't.... because now, you're relying on someone else's subjective listening, which as you pointed out, can be very elastic -where one man's gold is another man's garbage. ;)

    I've heard engineers say countless times that they've found that quite often, their first few initial mixes always seems to sound the best to them.

    I watched an interview recently with Bruce Swedien, who said that while working on Michael Jackson's Thriller album, he ended up doing something like 90 different mixes of Billy Jean, and at some point, Quincy Jones ( the producer) came into the control room and asked why it was taking so long to get the song mixed. Swedien said that they had a fantastic version with Mix #90, and he played Quincy the mix. Quincy listened, didn't say anything afterwards, other than "Okay guys, go to mix #2."
    And Mix #2 was the version that turned out to be the final mix.

    Swedien found that out of all 90 versions, the second mix was the best of the bunch, and that's the version that we hear played today. Swedien mentioned, that after having gone back and listened to all the mixes, that after #2, each of the remaining 88 mixes progressively grew worse with each take - everything he'd done after that second mix seemed to degrade exponentially; because through each version he was making various EQ and level changes, along with different settings on gain reduction, etc., and that as each mix followed the one previous to it, the mixes grew worse and worse. Even though the changes he had made with each mix were small, those changes started to stack up, and led him down a path where the latest mixes sounded terrible to Quincy... and ultimately to Swedien and Jackson as well, who were so convinced that Mix 90 was "the one".

    So obviously, us mid-level guys aren't the only engineers who suffer from this "disease"... LOL ;)

    Sean G likes this.
  19. Sean G

    Sean G Well-Known Member

    I'd love to do Bruce Swediens' 7 day course...well worth the money IMO...

    I would compare it to Jedi lessons with Obi-Wan Kinobi
    audiokid likes this.
  20. Broadwood

    Broadwood Active Member

    I find the most invaluable time to audition a mix or work in progress is in the car! I've not got the best car in the world and the system in it isn't great but listening to it in this way, out of the sonic luxury of the studio environment, is normally when I pick up on stuff. if it sounds great in the studio AND in the car i'm on to a winner :0)

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