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Listen closely: Why it’s vital to rely on your ears in the studio

"Close your eyes and listen"

Photo by Dom Sigalas

Mastering engineer and PSNEurope columnist Katie Tavini on why it’s so important to take the time to look away from the screen and rely on one’s ears in the studio…

Here’s a question – have you ever been using an EQ or compressor, been convinced you’re hearing changes, and then realised that it’s in bypass? Yeah, me too. It’s like the rookie error of audio processing, but I don’t think I’ve met an engineer that hasn’t done this. The thing is, there are so many amazing visual tools to help with audio processing right now. Izotope RX plays a huge part in my daily life, I live for the phasescope in WaveLab when I’m setting the azimuth of a stereo tape ready for transfer, and plugins are increasingly pretty to look at, as well as sounding so good. These tools are so useful in our day-to-day life as audio engineers, and we (by we, I mean I) can tend to take them for granted.

But when’s the last time you stopped and listened? I mean really listened. No distractions, no screens, no phone. Eyes closed, perhaps. And for a substantial amount of time.

If you’ve ever studied music at school or college, perhaps you will have had to do listening exercises, where you wrote down what you could hear. I was super lucky that in my school there was the most amazing music teacher who did weekly listening exercises with us, and even though at some points I wasn’t sure why we needed to practice this, she made it such an exciting event that it was a joy.

But when you’re listening day in day out, the world can seem like a noisy place. What can you hear right now? Well, I can hear some intense storm outside, the washing machine of the flat upstairs, pipes clunking as the heating turns on, and the soft buzzing of the lamp next to me. I’m currently curled up in the lounge, which is my ‘quiet place’ where I like to write.

So, I really understand why we are becoming increasingly reliant on visuals when it comes to audio engineering, when we’re taking in so many sounds on a daily basis which aren’t even related to work. Go into the studio and shut the door, and you’ve got a quiet bliss. But combine the overload of sounds in daily life, amazing visual tools, and an increasingly fast-paced life when it comes to being a freelancer in audio, and you’ve got an amazing combination for forgetting how to listen.

Suddenly, all the hardcore listening practice that you did at the start of your career begins to fade away and you get sucked into relying on tools to enable you to provide a faster turnaround to waiting clients. But you have to remember, faster doesn’t mean better.

And we’re so used to being around screens. Right now, I’m typing my thoughts into my laptop, whilst my phone and iPad sit next to me. I’m as guilty as the next person. I’m the one who’s not phased by checking my emails at 4am, or reading an article on my phone whilst watching Netflix on a laptop. And I’m hyper-aware of this.

They can’t follow me into the studio though – this is a rule. As soon as that happens, the quiet fades away and it’s a different type of noise. Notifications, calls, texts, news stories, cat videos. They’re all a distraction from listening.

So this is my little reminder to you – close your eyes and listen. Tell clients that you’ll be finished when you’re finished. Take the time, and put your heart and soul into your work. Remember why you wanted so badly to do this for a job. And use the most powerful tools you have; your ears and your judgement. Enjoy the experience of critical listening. Focus. And enjoy feeling a new sense of passion for your work that comes with it.