One of the most valuable lessons to learn about music is to use your ears. It sounds simple enough, yet as music listeners, we are often dazzled by appearances. Live performance and music video have added an important visual element to music, but it is important we still separate this from what we hear. The same is true with engineering or mixing, you can stare at frequency analysers and your settings for EQ, Dynamics and effects, you can read online forums and copy all the recommended settings into your session all you like but mixing music is not an exact science and the only true analyser is also your most powerful tool in audio engineering… Yes, your ears.
So what I’d like to explore today is how to reverse engineer a song or at the very least to listen critically and make observations and assumptions about what sort of techniques and processing they may have used to achieve these sounds.
After much research,
I have chosen to focus on these areas
● Spectral Balance
● Spatial Attributes
● Dynamic Range
When we talk about spectral balance in relation to a piece of music, we are talking about the balance of frequencies and the timbre that each instrument or sound has. Traditional orchestras use a range of instruments to cover a large spectral field with many instruments in different shapes and sizes creating different frequencies. Often with groups of people playing the same instrument which blends the frequencies and gives a bigger sound. In a similar way in the instrumentation of a traditional rock band, the instruments each have their own space in the spectral field (Corey, J 2012, p24-26).
When frequencies overlap sounds can blend and the separation can become blurred this may be the desired effect if we are double tracking a vocal or a guitar but if we have 2 different sound sources with different timbre we may want them to have their own space in the mix. Audio engineers have the ability to affect the frequency of captured sound at many stages of the signal flow. The first is in the microphone placement, if you move it closer it will sound bassier, if you move it a bit further back you will capture a bit more treble. (this can also come into play with the spatial attributes). Many pieces of equipment have EQ and the ability to cut or boost certain frequencies from a sound. This can be done at many stages of recording and mixing (Corey, J 2012, p27-29).
Learning to analyse spectral dynamics, will require consistent frequency training. To Learn what part of the frequency spectrum a certain sound sits in and to be able to recognise roughly what frequency something is or what frequency it is missing. This is important for an aspiring sound engineer in order to understand how the elements in a song fit together, how to analyse a reference and how to achieve the sound you want.
Reverb & Delay - Front to Back
Spatial attributes refer to the perceived space that a sound is positioned within a mix.
This can refer to reverb and delay which can help position the distance of a sound.
A close mic will sound closer and a distant or room mic will sound further back.
In much the same way adding reverb or delay to a sound will make it sound further away.
This can affect how the instruments sound in relation to each other, as well as affecting the auditory perception of the space this sound is happening. Added reverb can create the illusion that the music is happening in a large or small space (Corey, J 2012, p53-55).
Panning - Left to Right
Just as sound can be positioned front to back with reverb and delay, it can also be positioned left to right with panning. This helps to create a virtual soundstage within a mix. The combination of Reverb, Delay and Panning help to create a 3-dimensional space in a recording. Which can give the listener the illusion of being in the space that the performance is happening or can be used in creative ways to make a mix interesting (Corey, J 2012, p59-60).
Spatial Attributes are instinctual for me. It’s about being aware of our perception of sound and recreating that perception and space in a mix. I believe this will develop further with time, awareness and practice.
Dynamic Range refers to the range between the quietest and loudest sounds within a mix. Naturally, most performances will have a dynamic range, while it is often necessary to balance these volume differences to best interpret the performance I believe it is important to still have some dynamics. Dynamic Range can be controlled and manipulated through the use of faders, compressors, gating and limiting. This can help keep elements of the song at a steady volume (Corey, J 2012, p78-80).
Dynamic Range ties into spectral balance and spatial attributes!
Because creating space around a sound will allow it to cut through and volume is not necessarily the only way to create dynamics. This can also be done with the use of EQ and effects (Corey, J 2012, p145).
As an engineer, it is important to develop critical listening skills in order to decipher individual sounds within a mix and to have some idea of how they may have achieved that sound.
As a chef, this is a skill I have acquired. I can go to a restaurant, eat a meal and discern the flavours, the textures and figure out how to recreate it. I would often go out and enjoy a lunch on the weekend and recreate it at work the following week. By the third time, it would be pretty close to the original or my own take on that style. It is very similar to audio, I aim to acquire the skill to hear a sound and be able to critique how they may have achieved that sound and how to recreate it or serve it with my own unique flavour.
Corey, J (2012). Audio Production and Critical Listening: Technical Ear Training. Focal Press.