As an industry, we work with pretty complex stuff. And once we think we know it all, some breakthrough arrives and the learning process starts all over again. So we read; we study; we attend tradeshows, seminars and clinics; and we surf though Web pages, newsgroups and blogs seeking some insight that will give our creations that extra edge. It's gear, gear, gear. Unfortunately, our ears form the one essential link in the audio chain that doesn't come with an owner's manual.
Every engineer learns basic session etiquette — i.e., don't overload digital inputs, don't unplug a phantom-powered condenser mic — but basic listening caveats are often ignored. Besides listening for audio anomalies such as ticks, pops, hiss, rumble, oscillations, cancellations, comb filtering and all forms of distortion, the well-eared engineer should be able to identify instrument aberrations ranging from rattling hardware and snare buzz to noise from valves, frets and drum/guitar/piano pedals. Once the latter has been WD-40'd or duct-taped into submission, the engineer's attention can then turn to listening for performance glitches: intonation, tuning, tempo, poor mic technique or whatever.
The glamour disappears once “take 54” is uttered through the talkback mic, but before you get to that point, take a breather: Let your performer chill out and give your ears a break from the very real problem of ear fatigue. One sure sign of ear fatigue is when you begin losing the ability to concentrate or when you can't hear subtle changes, such as a minor equalization tweak on a soloed track.
Before deciding on mic choice or placement, take a moment in the recording room and actually listen to the source. Even something as predictable as the Fender Twin Reverb/Shure SM57 combo sounds completely different at floor level (where the mic is) than to a listener standing next to the amp. The same goes for players: Guitarists often pump too much treble into amp feeds simply because they're listening five or six feet off-axis.
The listening situation is more complex in the control room, where decisions are based on accuracy of the monitoring environment. Bad monitors will sound bad anywhere, but even the best monitors can (and will be) affected by room placement and poor acoustics — even in the near-field.
There are plenty of good monitors available (the newest are profiled in this issue). However, when auditioning monitors, the key is to find those that are accurate and appropriate to your listening space. As an extension of your hearing system, monitors must provide a true sonic reflection of the input signal, rather than hype and flattery. Sorting out the difference between the two is no easy task, but the quest for great monitors is worthwhile.
A fresh, rested set of trained ears, combined with an accurate listening system, is the first — and perhaps most important step — in creating audio magic. But along the way, try keeping playback levels in check and give your ears a break once in a while. Hearing is priceless.