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Critical Listening

Can't Have One Without the Other

Critical listening refers to a a form of listening that is penetrating, meticulous and, in as far as possible, objective. It concentrates not so much on what is happening, i.e. the words being said, the moods being evoked, the story unfolding etc but how these moods are evoked, how the words sound, how subtleties are used to tell the story, whether it be a musical story or a more conventional one. A critical listener listens with an informed ear. He or she knows how to quantify and describe the qualities he or she is hearing.

A critical listener knows not only what to listen for but how to describe it, is practiced enough to pick out the details he or she is looking for and knows how to recreate, enhance, reduce or eliminate what he or she hears depending on what's been picked up and what his or her goals are. If something doesn't sound good, a practiced critical listener will be able to say why, whereas a less informed but astute listener may simply get the feeling that something is off; if something sounds good, is particularly emotive for example, the practiced critical listener will be able to go some way towards pinpointing the qualities that contribute to the nature of the audio experience.

It is impossible to produce a good mix without listening critically to what you are doing at every stage, including those stages that take place before anything is recorded or produced. Composing and arranging a good piece of music requires a critical listener's understanding of what works and what doesn't, what would be too much, what has been done to death, what will be subtle enough to be noticed and what will get lost in the noise. Arranging a piece to keep the noise and clutter to a minimum is also vital. You have to have a clear vision of what you want before you start, i.e. you have to be able to hear it in your head - how loud you want each part to be, what you want each part to do, how it will all fit together.

There are many different types of critical listening and just because you are good at one, it does not at all follow that you will be good at others. Some require more theoretical knowledge than others and for some, those with innate abilities such as perfect pitch can be at a considerable advantage.

Critical listening can be used to:

  • Identify the composer, genre and period of a piece of music.
  • Identify the instruments playing and whether or not they are real or synthesized.
  • Pick out harmonies and the parts played by different instruments.
  • Identify how particular effects were created or what effects were used to achieve a certain end.
  • Hear sounds out of context, which is ideal for sound design. This is how front door keys, flushing toilets and police hand-cuffs get turned into time-machines, monsters and scampering cockroaches respectively.
  • identify the equipment that was used to record and mix a piece, e.g. microphones and compressors.

Critical listening can also be used for many different purposes. These include:

Critical Listening as a Talent Scout

Critical listening can be used to identify the things that other people are doing in your field that you really like so you can incorporate them into your work. Using critical listening for this purpose, you might:

  • Identify cord progressions and other stylistic features in pieces you like in order to research them.
  • Listen to the sound of an instrument, particularly a synthesized instrument, to try and work out how the effect was achieved.
  • analyze the properties of an iconic sound effect or type of sound design to ascertain why you like it and to see if you can reconstruct how it was made.
  • Analyze the way an instrument or vocal was treated with effects. You could do this for jingles, alien voices from films or the sound a particular electric guitarist can achieve, depending on your area of interest.

Critical Listening as a Trouble-shooter

Critical listening is used to detect problems in audio from bad acoustics and electrical interference, to mouth noises and fidgeting during a performance you're trying to record, to catching pops and clicks before it's too late, to identifying areas of the frequency spectrum that are under or over-represented in a mix, to identifying phase issues and much more. One mix might exhibit all these problems and listening out for the countless problems that might occur at safe levels might seem like a daunting task so here are some key things to remember.

Know your tools and Territory

Like a general planning a battle, you must be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of your tools and the pros and cons of the terrain you're going to be operating in. If you're reading this, you probably don't have access to a million dollar acoustically treated studio or world-class speakers, microphones or anything else really. Learn the shortcomings of your equipment and your environment and allow for them as best you can. Also remember that as it ages, the character a piece of equipment imparts to your audio may change. A speaker that has been ridden hard for years might distort at some frequencies for example so check everything is calibrated and working well periodically.

Don't Let Your Ears Deceive You

With its non-linear frequency response, deterioration with age, vulnerability to permanent damage when misused and a few other factors discussed in our Audio Essentials course, the ear, some might say, is not the best critical listening tool. In some situations, it is actually better to listen with your meters rather than your ears, because they give a much better indication of peak volume in particular.

Don't Let Your Brain Do the Listening, Only the Interpreting

As if our ears, equipment and environments weren't bad enough, our emotional, subjective, inconsistent, sometimes distracted brains add further complications. Unjustified insecurity, over-confidence, fatigue, mis-information or preconceptions can all be barriers to good critical listening.

If you discover a problem with your audio, you might be so intent on that one that you miss other points. If you have been told by someone on a forum that the mic you just rushed out and bought is great, you may not notice that it doesn't flatter your voice at all or that it might not be as good as you've been led to believe. If someone tells you something was recorded using a flawless signal path in excellent acoustics on top-notch equipment, you may miss the fact that the noise reduction they applied to it made it sound like a low-quality MP3.

No Room For Ego

If you've created a sound effect or a synth patch you're really happy with, if you're producing your girl-friend singing a song she dedicated to you or if you love the way an actor delivers a certain line in the audio drama you're mixing, you may be so blinded by the pride or awe you feel, that you may miss the fact that your sound effect was over-compressed, (I have done this), your synth patch swamps everything else in the mix, your girl-friend sang off key in a few spots or your actor thumped the table at a critical point and the lines may have to be re-recorded. When critical listening, you are not a member of the enthralled audience, you are the knit-picker, the harsh but fair critic, the detached observer. There will be time for pride and admiration when all the polishing is done.

Over and Over Again

Particularly when mixing, since there is so much to look out for, listen to things over and over again, trying to set aside what you've already noticed and looking for other hidden gems to bring into the light. Ears and brains don't take kindly to too much of this so don't be afraid to take breaks. You'll be surprised what seems glaringly obvious when you return to a project refreshed.

Let a Project Settle

Building on the idea that you should take breaks, if time allows, it can be a good idea to leave a project for a longer spell before coming back to it. while over-taken by creative zeal, it's easy to get blinded by over-confidence, ego or simply the joy of creating and think that material is better than it is. The reverse is also possible. You may feel that you're banging your head against a brick wall, that what you've produced is no good. Through frustration, you may actually end up making things worse if you don't set things to one side for a while.

Critical Listening by comparison

When someone says that something doesn't sound right, whether or not he or she is a practiced critical listener, this conclusion is usually reached because of a frame of reference that he or she is subconsciously using. If you buy a CD and notice something wrong, it will be because it sounds "wrong" compared to all the other CDs you have listened to. Referencing and comparison are vital parts of critical listening.

If you want to sell a sound effects library, listen to similar libraries that are popular and see if yours sounds up to scratch. If it doesn't, why not? where is it lacking? If you want to release a country album, listen to critically acclaimed albums that have the sound you're after and see how your mix stands up to theirs.

Crucially, compare versions of your mix with one another and, most importantly of all, listen to your music on as many different setups as possible - in the car, on ear-buds, on studio monitors, on a blue-tooth speaker. This will test your audio in a variety of different circumstances. See how it stands up against your reference audio in all these scenarios.

Finally of course, the reference to which you should compare the audio you have produced is the vision you had for it. How well have you managed to represent the idea you have. How close have you come to achieving what you wanted to achieve?

Important caveat

With all this talent scouting and comparing to try to achieve some of what other people have, the important thing is not to make it sound too similar. That way leads to blandness and unoriginality at best or law suits at worst. Make sure that everything you produce is truly yours, that it isn't too derivative and that you aren't just Ben Bert 101 or Pendulum 101. To do this, you must listen to your productions using critical listening as a comparison tool looking for similarities rather than differences.


Critical listening is a wonderful skill that can open up all sorts of possibilities, reveal all types of hidden information and contribute the most to your success in audio and music. However, did you ever get sick of a once treasured book or film because you debated it and deconstructed it to death, either for a course or among your friends because you thought it would be fun? Being able to switch off your critical listening so that you can be just another member of an enthralled audience, so that you can be absorbed by music's beauty, even if the rendition isn't technically perfect, so that, in short, you can just unwind, is just as important as anything else. So, once your work is done or while you're letting it settle, relax and enjoy the sounds around you just as they are!

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Page last modified on February 03, 2017, at 01:53 AM