Critical Listening Part 1

The ability to listen critically affects every aspect of the recording musician’s endeavors, and is an absolute requirement for the successful producer or recording engineer. Who among us has not had the experience of trying to record or mix something, only to find that it sounded too muffled or thin, or that the vocal was suddenly buried under the rhythm guitar, when played back on a different system? Short of apprenticing with an Elliot Scheiner or a Michael Brauer, how does one learn what makes our favorite artists’ mixes sound so full, detailed, transparent, and, well, professional-sounding? One answer is critical listening. We must learn to listen to recordings in such a detailed way as to allow us to learn directly from the masters.

Don’t Leave Home Without It

An important part of the process of developing skills as a serious listener is the personal CD reference library—a collection of great recordings that you know well and can reference while you work. Every successful producer and engineer has one. Not only does it help us set the bar for quality recordings, it also allows us to enter an unfamiliar listening environment and be able to analyze the room and playback system. To take this a step further, many engineers also travel with their own favorite speakers and amps to remove yet another unknown and further ensure that they know exactly what they are hearing.

When doing concentrated listening, it is worthwhile to alternate between headphone and speaker listening, to get a sense of how these two experiences are different and unique. It is usually not a good idea to mix using headphones unless under otherwise seriously compromised acoustic conditions; headphone mixing often does not translate well to speaker listening. Besides, extended headphone mixing is just no fun. At the same time, headphones can be helpful as an occasional reference, because they can reveal certain details not otherwise readily heard over speakers.

Critical listening ultimately involves listening on multiple levels simultaneously. Eventually, we want to develop the ability to analyze a track for panning, balances, frequency content, use of compression and other effects, as well as instrumentation, song structure, and lyrical content, all in one sitting. Challenging! For now, let’s concentrate specifically on imaging and panning analysis.

Global Panning Concepts

The approach to panning used in a record can have a dramatic effect on the impression of size, width, clarity, and impact of the mix. It can help instruments stay out of each other’s way, both rhythmically and from a frequency-range perspective, as well as create a more or less contrapuntal feel to the arrangement.

Individual Mono vs. Stereo Tracks

Paradoxically, the most dramatic stereo effects often involve individual mono tracks that have been panned to opposite sides of the stereo sound field in a complementary way. For instance, a triangle might be panned opposite and in counterpoint to a hi-hat or ride cymbal, or different distorted rhythm guitars might be panned opposite one another to create the impression of a wide stereo spread. This approach tends to introduce stronger rhythm and pitch variations than a single stereo source such as stereo guitar or stereo keyboard. It also helps to keep like-sounding instruments from stepping on and masking each other. Mono and stereo tracks are used togther, usually with a smaller number of stereo sources complementing a majority of mono tracks. Even drums follow this pattern: many mono sources (kick, snare, hat, individual toms and/or cymbals) and a couple of stereo sources (overheads, room mics).

Frequently, rhythmically complementary mono parts (guitars, keyboards) are written and recorded with the specific intent of having them panned opposite each other in the final mix, either on different instruments or even on the same instrument. Acoustic rhythm guitars are tracked this way frequently within the context of a rock or pop record. Again, instrumental parts that share significant frequency or rhythmic information are panned away from each other, in order to hear each part more clearly. Ultimately, the goal is to have a mix that is balanced from left to right with equal rhythmic and frequency activity evenly distributed between the two (or five) speaker channels. At the same time, it is important to have a strong and focused center, often made up of the kick, snare, and bass, along with the lead vocal, and sometimes the main harmonic instrument (guitar, piano). Together, these mono center-panned elements provide the bones around which the stereo-panned elements can be fleshed out. Without them, the mix falls apart.

Panning Drums

Producers and mix engineers have a basic decision to make with respect to drum panning: audience perspective or drummer’s perspective. Perhaps the more common, audience perspective, presents the drums spread across the stereo sound field, as if the listener were in the audience facing the drummer: hi-hat on the right, high tom right of center, floor tom and principal ride cymbal on the left, kick and snare dead center.

Audience Perspective Panning

Though not necessarily hard-panned left and right, the drums are often panned to sound wider than reality, giving a slightly larger-than-life impression of the drums. Hi-hat panning varies widely, from being essentially in the center along with the snare, to being panned out fairly wide to the right. A different variation of audience perspective, more common in jazz or other acoustic live records, particularly classic jazz recordings, presents a narrower image of the drums, sometimes even mono and panned off to one side, to represent where the drummer might physically be set up on stage. While less dramatic, this narrower panning is a more realistic live performance presentation.

Possible Classic Jazz Audience Perspective Panning

Drummer’s perspective, on the other hand, takes more liberty with reality and presents the drum image as if the listener were the drummer: hi-hat on the left, high tom left of center, floor tom and ride cymbal on the right, kick and snare still dead center. While perhaps less realistic, drummer’s-perspective panning is also more dramatic, underscoring the concept that a record is not just the documentation of a live event, but represents studio art with its own raison d’etre, not beholden to reality.

Drummer’s Perspective Panning

Of course, other panning alternatives exist. For instance, mono drums and drum loops are common in hip hop. Focusing energy by panning all of the drum elements to the center can help create a more explosive sound. The mono drums sometimes are punctuated by a single panned drum element, such as an open hi-hat. In fact, each musical style has its own conventions and expectations with respect to panning, which can be either followed or flouted depending on the desired effect on the listener.

Critical Listening Exercise

Go through your CD collection and compare, within and between different musical styles, the exact positioning of the various elements of the drum kit: kick, snare, hi-hat, toms, crash, ride, etc. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How wide is the panning overall?
  • Where is the hi-hat: center or panned left or right? How wide?
  • What toms are played, and where is each one panned?
  • What cymbals are played, where are they panned, and how long is each of their decays?
  • Which elements of the drum set stand out the most?

Now try to identify each additional element in the mix, and try to pinpoint its exact image and positioning within the stereo or surround field. The closer attention you pay to these details when listening to great recordings, the better your own mixes will begin to sound.

Speaker Positioning

Panning or imaging positions are referenced according to clock positions, with center being twelve o’clock, hard left panning being around seven o’clock, and hard right around five o’clock (reflecting how far the physical pan pots on a console or mixer turn on the dial). It is generally important in a successful mix for there to be no gaping “holes” between say nine o’clock and three o’clock. (One needs to ensure that certain elements are positioned at eleven o’clock and one o’clock, for instance.)

Your speakers should be positioned to form an equilateral triangle with your listening position. This means that the distance between the two speakers should be equal to the distance between either speaker and your listening position, which should be along the median plane. Any point that is equidistant between the two speakers is said to be on the median plane. Because of the way we localize sounds using phase (timing) and intensity (level) differences between our two ears (called inter-aural cues), it is critical to be positioned on the median plane for proper image tracking. Imaging refers to where an instrument or audio event occurs within the left-right stereo (or surround) sound field. Tracking refers to how well an intended visual or audio event translates to the actual listening (or viewing) experience.

To help you with proper positioning, you can use a marked piece of string to ensure the equal distances. Once set, you may also want to mark your listening position. The angle of the speakers should be at 30o from the listener, or an included angle of 60o between the two speakers. Use the controls on your amplifier (or speakers, if you are using powered monitors) to match the levels. If you have an SPL meter, you can use it to confirm that the levels of the right and left channels are matched, using pink noise as a source, for instance. Like being positioned off of the median plane, mismatched channel levels will cause the perceived left-right image to be skewed.

Mono check

Now play back a track in mono. Mono implies that exactly the same signal is sent to both left and right channels, so that there is only one track of discrete information. This should result in the impression that all sound is emanating from a spot exactly between the two speakers, the phantom center. When seated at your marked listening position, confirm that the phantom image appears directly between the two speakers. If the image seems skewed to one side, either you are not positioned exactly equidistant between the speakers, or one speaker is louder than the other. Make the necessary corrections. Now you are ready to listen.]