How To Ear Train For Sound Engineers - Best Ear Training Guide

Sounds are amusing. We listen to several sounds every day. The sounds of birds chirping, horns honking, a huge waterfall, a large crowd cheering, dogs barking, acoustic guitar strumming, etc., all trigger an emotional response.

How a human responds and listens to these sounds all depends on individual perception and experiences. These emotional triggers are good for a casual listener and an audience but are not good for an audio engineer.

Perception is what hampers the growth of an audio engineer. You have to listen beyond your perception. You have to become a critical listener to become a good mix and master engineer.

Being able to identify what is actually good and bad in a sound is critical. For this audio and sound engineers ear train.

In this article, learn step-by-step how to ear train as an audio engineer.

How To Do Ear Training For Audio and Sound Engineers

Ear training is a practice to train your ears as well as your mind to listen for critical information in sounds.

Here are the steps to start ear training practice for engineers:

  1. Learn To Identify Frequencies
  2. Learn To Level Match Sounds
  3. Learn To Listen To Subtle Compression
  4. Learn To Listen To For Masking And Phasing
  5. Learn To Listen To Click, Pops And Other Artifacts
  6. Increase Your Song Vocabulary

1. Learn To Identify Frequencies

As an audio/sound engineer, your primary concern is with frequencies and how they are behaving in the mix. So training your ears to identify frequencies and training your mind to associate and recall those frequencies with sounds is essential.

Beginner Exercise - Identify Sounds

For beginners, start by identifying instruments and guessing what their fundamental frequency range could be. Start by categorising an instrument as low, mid, or high. Then try to think about where the fundamental frequency range is.

This is a superb exercise for beginners. For starters, listen to several instruments and try to guess their fundamental frequencies. It will help you understand the low-end, mids, and highs a lot better.

Next, try to analyse different instrument sounds and give their characteristics a name. Is it rich in the low-end, mids, or highs? Is it boomy, muddy, warm, dark, clear, honky, etc? Generally, people use these words to refer to frequencies.

Below is a sound characteristic and their relative frequencies table for your reference.

Sound Characteristics & Frequency Range

Sound Characteristics Frequency Range
SubBass/Rumble  20Hz-40Hz
Low-end/Bottom 40Hz-90Hz
Boomy/Punchy 90Hz-150Hz
Warmth/Dark 130Hz-230Hz
Proximity Effect 250Hz
MidRich/Fullness/Muddy 250Hz-500Hz
Honk 400Hz-1kHz
Poky/Tinny 1kHz-2kHz
Crunchy/Shrill  2kHz-4kHz
Edgy/Brittle 3kHz-6kHz
Sibilance Voice(esses) 4kHz-10kHz
Definition/Presence 6kHz-11kHz
Crystal/Piercing/Highs 8kHz-14kHz
Air 12kHz-20kHz
 

Intermediate Exercise - Reference Numbers

Listen to well-recorded and well-mixed songs on repeat. Choose any song which appeals to you and study it to the core. Play it and mark frequencies that stand out to your ears.

Try and understand instruments/sounds in sub-bass, bass, mid, and high frequencies. Listen for musical and artistic expressions. When new instruments are introduced, how are they altering the mix? How is the depth and width of the track changing as it progresses? How are the low-end, mids and highs behaving all together?

You can use a spectrum analyser or reference plugins to help you if you are just getting started.

Next, divide the song into musical frequency ranges without specifying the ranges' specific numerical frequencies. What is causing the most minimal rumbling? What causes the bass sensation? What's kicking you in the stomach? Where on the frequency spectrum is the lead instrument located? Where are the guitars? What musical instruments and frequency ranges are performing chords? What, and in what range, is the lead instrument's or voice's counterpoint? What audio is setting the mood? What instruments or sounds are creating width in the track?

Once you grasp a hold of guessing the instruments, frequencies and sounds right, it is time to put numbers to the sounds.

Learn the frequencies present in each sound as you work on your compositions by isolating them. A spectrum analyser can be useful. Examine each instrument to see which frequencies best describe its personality.

Learn to assign a number to rumble, boom, thickness, mud, forward mids, harsh mids, clear high-mids, harsh high-mids, silky top end, and harsh top end. This may vary slightly depending on the music.

The key is to give your mind a reference and a framework to listen for.

Advanced Exercise - Vowel technique

Add a pink noise with 31 Band graphic EQs or a 10 Band EQ on a separate channel. Three frequency bands are provided for every octave by a 31-band EQ, which is actually a lot of resolution. So you can also use a 10 Band EQ or a parametric EQ. One band is provided for each octave in a 10-band visual EQ, like API's 560, which makes things a little easier. Sweepable parametric EQs can also be used.

Now on the channel, raise and lower each band while playing along. Listen for different sounds. Use the vowel technique and listen for different frequencies.

The vowel technique assigns a vowel sound for different bands. E.g., if you listen to frequencies around 250Hz, you will listen to the sound of "oo" as in Food or Boot. Similarly, other frequencies also resonate with vowel sounds. Below is a table for your reference.

 

Frequency

Vowel Sound

250Hz "oo" Sound as in Boot or Food
500Hz "O" sound as in Tow or Sow
1kHz "Ahh" Sound as in  Father -
2kHz "Eh" Sound as in Bet, Met
4kHz "ee" Sound as Beet, Tweet
6kHz "ss" sound as in Hiss, Kiss

 

The vowel technique is useful as it will help your mind have a reference to different regions. You will be easily able to figure out which bands are causing trouble, by listening for the vowel sounds.

You can also use a channel with pink noise and graphic EQ and play it along with different music tracks. Listen for what sounds are getting masked in the music. This will also help train your ears when combined with the vowel technique.

2. Learn To Level Match Sounds

Balance and level is the most crucial aspect of a mix. If you cannot get the balance right, nothing else matters. You can make mixing and mastering decisions to maintain consistent loudness and clarity for your release by level matching, for example, several tracks on a single album. 

Level matching is tricky as different peaks and RMS on different sounds will make it difficult to match them. So, start this exercise with two copies of the same track or sound before you move on to level matching different songs or elements.

Training your ears to match levels is crucial. Training your ear to listen to as low a 1dB difference is amazing. This is not easy to do, and it takes time and effort.

Before you match levels, first listen to what 6dB, 3dB and 1.5dB differences sound like. Start with listening to a 6dB difference in the same sounds or tracks. Make sure to loop the loudest section and start matching that section. This will be fairly easy to hear.

Next, listen to 3 dB differences. This will be easy as well. Anything below 3dB is where it starts to get tricky.

Next listen for 1.5dB difference. This one is tricky and will ask for attention and focus. Next, try a 1dB difference.

Keep practising 1db with different songs until you get a hang of it. It can easily take your ears to listen for a 1dB difference. So stay patient.

Once you feel you are comfortable, try and match sounds or songs to exact levels, 6dB, 3dB and 1.5dB and 1dB differences as well. This exercise will be fun. The more you do it, the better your ears will become.

Once you grasp a hold of matching to 1dB difference and same levels. Now try doing the same exercise with different songs or sounds. Doing this on different sounds will be challenging. So make sure you loop the loudest parts or each track or sound while doing this exercise.

If you find it difficult to level match different songs, you can also use pink noise and match levels against it.

You can use a loudness meter to help you analyse and judge your work. Plugins like isotope Insight or Waves WLM Plus can be a great help.

3. Learn To Listen To Subtle Compression

Listening to compression can be tricky at first. There is no denying that one of the most challenging audio engineering talents is learning to hear compression, or more precisely, learning to hear the impact of compression on your music, particularly the softer form commonly utilised in mastering. Most beginners face difficulties listening to compression.

To train your ears to listen for compression, first loop a dynamic vocal take. Setup a simple compressor which has a threshold, makeup gain and ratio controls.

Set compressor to Extremes, i.e. high ratio setting like 10:1 and higher threshold. This will over-compress the signal. Now lower the threshold and try to find a pocket. Find a pocket between over-compression and under compression

Focus on not just the dynamics, but also on how the tonality changes as you compress.

Once you get a grasp of over-compression and under-compression, set a proper threshold and listen for a perfect compression. Next, move around the ratio and listen for changes in dynamics. Once you get a hold, try to level match the dry signals by setting makeup gain.

Repeat this basic exercise with drums, guitars, violins and other instruments to get a hold of compression.

4. Learn To Listen For Masking and Phasing

As an audio engineer, you need to understand and listen to masking and phasing issues.

When two comparable sounds(similar frequency spectrum) play simultaneously or close to one another, a process known as frequency masking takes place in the auditory system. The perception of either sound is clouded when one obscures the other(Like wearing a mask). E.g., a snare and a clap sound can mask each other because both share the same tonality and frequency spectrum. One might overpower the other, and you might perceive that it is one single sound.

Phasing is a phenomenon that is caused by similar spectrum sounds due to an unaligned sound envelope. Phasing leads to either boosted, decreased or cancelled sound response. Phasing issues are most prominent in stereo-miked instruments and low-end instruments like drums and bass. If any phase issues them in your mix, it will generally lack bass response and sound thin.

It is critical to identify and listen for masking and phasing issues in a mix. the best way to train your ears for masking issues is to spend as much time mixing as you can. The more you mix, the more masking and phasing issues you will encounter. Listen for instruments that are subtle yet important for mixe. Try to figure out what instruments mask and phases with others.

5. Learn To Listen To Clicks And Pops

Clicks and pops can take away all the signal's dynamic range and hamper your processing. They don't sound good and need to be treated.

Learning to listen to clicks and pops is a must. Editing and bad mike technique can lead to clicks and pops and even distortion in a mix. Listen for anomalies and distortions in mixes.

6. Increase Your Song Vocabulary

Nothing can beat listening to different genres of music. The more diverse your music playlist, the better you will understand music and sound. Listen to as many different genres as you can and try to break down the music structure and elements of a mix. The more you do this, the more your ears and brain will develop. Look out for different instruments used in different genres and study them. Learn how they interact in a mix. All this will help you develop a reflex and even help you listen better. The more familiar you are listening to a certain type of music, the less consumed your brain will be. This will help you listen.

So listen to mixes from different genres, different engineers and different countries. Try to figure out what why and how of the music and mixes.

Hope this article helped you learn something new. If you have any questions or comments, please do post them below.

Suggested Reads

EQ Fundamentals

Fundamentals Of Sound For Audio Engineers

How To Set Volume Levels In A Mix


1 comment


  • Fasal Va

    Audio engineering


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Udeeksh Sood on

Udeeksh is an Audio Engineer and Co-Founder of learnmusicproduction.in. He loves to produce music, research music gear, play guitar, go on treks and road trips.