Listening

Last night I joined in with a Twitter conversation about listening to your own material. I chipped in with a single tweet:

This caused some LOLs, which is always fun. But then I got thinking that maybe there’s a more serious point that I ought to explain.

When you’re producing, you listen back to your stuff again and again and again while you’re creating it. When you get to the point of mixing it, you listen to it. Lots.

Again and again and again.

Then, if you’re budget-conscious or just plain broke, you try your hand at mastering your work yourself. And you listen – again and again and again.

Then you think you’ve got it right, so you try it on a couple of different pairs of speakers, on your iPod, on your phone, in the car, in a couple of pairs of headphones, in mono, in stereo, upside down, with the speakers in front of you, behind you, to the left, on a PA system, in comparison to tons of other reference material.

Again. And again. And again. And again.

If you’re like me, you obsess about the details. Is it right? Is that note on the fourth layered synth in the stack coming through as intended? Is this the very best that I can make?

It never is. So you go back, and you tweak it, and you listen to it again.

And again. And again.

I think we’ll stop the the “and again”s right there. But you get the picture. If you’re really, really clear about what you’d set out to achieve, you might even still like the music by this point. But I guarantee, at some stage in the process, you’ll have fallen out of love with your creation for a little while, and you’ll have reached the stage where you’re not even sure what the hell it is you’re listening to – because it’s no longer a coherent piece of work, it’s become a series of noises to listen to, one isolated note at a time, and you just can’t judge what the hell’s going on any longer.

And that, ladies and gents, is the point at which, if you’re smart, you’ll realise that listening fatigue set in hours ago, and you ignored it and pressed on. If you’re really smart, you’ll save your work and step away from the mixer right there and then, because there’s nothing further you can add that’s going to be constructive – your judgement’s shot. Leave it for a couple of days and come back fresh.

I’ve known people who are new to mixing and production to get pretty frustrated and upset when their work seems to drifting further and further away from where they want to get to – “I’ve been tweaking this bassline’s EQ for hours now – why isn’t it getting any better?” The answer is – leave it. Come back with fresh ears. Limit your sessions at the studio monitors to short periods and build in lots of breaks. Go outside, listen to ambient background noise, go for a walk, whatever works for you – but reset your ears.

In rock climbing we used to say “If you’re not falling off, you’re not trying hard enough”. In production, I’d say “If you’re falling off, you’re trying too hard for too long”.

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