Framework for Critical Thinking

As a professional you have a responsibility to yourself to strive to improve at your art. For an audio producer, one of the most important ways in which you can improve is by listening. Not just on a casual and subjective level (which all music fans love to indulge in), but on a more technical and objective level. When audio is perceived in this fashion, “flaws in the music are not a curious, evanescent phenomenon; a solid scientific reason for the flaw is sought” (Everest, 2006, p. 2).

This is what is called critical listening, and it helps audio professionals learn new skills or improve upon a technical proficiency that they already have an understanding of. Rochman (2013) considers critical listening to be “from the engineer’s point of view. You’re listening to the physical details of the music” Rather than analytical listening where it’s more about the emotional intention of the sound.

In order to do this efficiently, one must identify the physical details that need to be analysed. In a broad sense, these details can be viewed as Spectral, Spatial, and Dynamic Range. The case studies that I am doing to undertake my critical analysis will consist of:

  • Song , Album and Artist Name
  • Band members at the time of recording
  • Album artwork
  • Song elements (genre, bpm, key)
  • Visual representation of the song’s structure for reference
  • Visual representation of the song’s sound field
  • Song overview (timbre and psychoacoustic properties as a whole)
  • Instrument Deconstruction

The following are the physical details that are crucial to the analytical process during the song overview and instrument deconstruction and have been chosen with reference to “Audio Production and Critical Listening: Technical Ear Training” by Jason Corey (2012).

Equalisation & Spectral Analysis

This relates to how the instruments make use of pockets in equalisation, whether they have to share frequencies with other instruments, and if so how it is managed. As well as the interaction the instrument has with the rest of the song, it also needs to be analysed from an individual perspective. To help demonstrate these pockets in EQ, I will be using a spectrum analyzer, which is a plugin that lets you see how frequencies are changing in volume in real-time.

spectrum analyzer

An example of a spectrum analyzer (Voxengo, 2004)

Considerations for this category include:

  • General
  • Frequency Range
  • Overlap
  • Balance
  • Change
  • Technique
  • Subjective Descriptors

Spatial Attributes

This relates to the psychoacoustic properties of the mix. This includes discussing time-based effects such as reverb, delay and chorus that are used to make the sound more roomy, as well as how the instruments are laid out in the sound field via panning to give the perception of their placement in relation to one another, and to the listener.

Considerations for this category include:

  • General soundscape
  • Materials/behaviour
  • Stereo
  • Dimension
  • Change
  • Techniques
  • Subjective Descriptors

Dynamic Range

This relates to the levels and  accentuation of the instruments, and should reveal details as to the amount and type of compression used. Some producers use a lot of compression in order to gain overall volume while mastering, which compresses the dynamic range and can lead to a lot of clipping as heard in Metallica’s album “Death Magnetic”. Observations to do with this category of physical detail should also include information regarding ADSR envelopes and how they impact the discussed aesthetic.

Considerations for this category include:

  • General
  • Amplitude
  • Balance
  • Change
  • Envelope
  • Technique
  • Subjective Descriptors

Reference List

Corey, J. (2012). Audio Production and Critical Listening: Technical Ear Training. Waltham, MA: Focal Press

Everest, F. Alton (2006). Critical Listening Skills for Audio Professionals. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning

Rochman, D. (2013, March 1st). Critical Listening: How to Train Your Ears. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blog.shure.com/critical-listening-how-to-train-your-ears/

Vaneev, A. (Voxengo). Voxengo Span (version 3.1) [Windows]. Available from: http://www.voxengo.com/product/span/features/

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