Critical Listening

Everybody loves the Beatles, right? Their songs are as catchy as they come. And they have long been celebrated, along with producer George Martin, for their groundbreaking studio innovations. But when you listen to their albums, can you recognize these revolutionary recording advancements at work? You’ll be able to hear them all after taking Dan Thompson’s new online course, Critical Listening. This veteran composer, producer and engineer, (whose long list of credits include work on The Sopranos, ER, The Sweetest Thing, Soul Food, and CSI Miami, to name just a few) uses the Beatles as just one example of how effects are employed in the studio.
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As Thompson points out, the Beatles were responsible for advancements like the implementation of automatic double-tracking, which involves using a tape machine as a delay device. Thompson teaches his students to hear this effect in a song, by listening for the richer vocal sound it creates. He also helps them to differentiate this method from vocals that have been recorded twice, which achieves a similar sound. In the end, these skills combine to give both aspiring musicians and producers the ability to achieve their ideal sound while recording and mixing.

“This course will help you fine-tune your listening and analytical skills—to listen to recordings in a deeper, more active and involved way, and on a number of simultaneous levels,” says Thompson. “A lot of musicians—obviously, casual listeners, but even musicians and producers—may be used to focusing on certain elements, when they listen, such as lyrics, melody, harmony, or that sort of thing. This course teaches you to take listening a step further—to recognize what delay parameters were used in Sgt. Pepper, to listen for specific frequency content, to identify the specific types of reverbs at work, and various other parameters of a mix. What is the musical effect of these decisions on the final recording? What is its final result? This awareness helps us to use delay, EQ, and other tools within the context of a mix or recording.”

In order to train students' ears, Thompson has created several kinds of critical-listening exercises. These assignments teach students to identify the different elements of a recording, and to hear different effects at work. Weekly drills teach students to listen for how EQ, reverb, and other signal processors are used in several different musical genres, from jazz to hip-hop. Student projects include analyzing a producer’s approach to a particular piece of music, and listening to two versions of the same recording to differentiate what was changed in the second mix. Thompson’s newly released book, Understanding Audio (Berklee Press, 2005), serves as an invaluable textbook and resource towards understanding the science of sound.

In the end, students will be able to listen to any recording and analyze what techniques were used, while identifying specific sounds that are associated with celebrated producers and engineers. Because the course trains students to be educated listeners, Thomson feels that anyone with an interest in recording and studio technology will benefit from the material. “I think it is accessible to virtually anyone who is interested in recording or producing,” he says.

Thompson developed his own critical listening skills over many years, working as composer, producer and engineer. Studio sessions often begin with producers and artists using CDs to demonstrate the sound they want to achieve, and so Thompson emphasizes the importance for aspiring music professionals to be able to listen for particular sounds and effects, and then be able to replicate them in the studio.

“It’s very common to see a stack of CDs in the control room,” he says. “We reference other recordings before the tracking session and during the mix. We never produce a recording in a vacuum. It’s always within the context of what else is going on. Critical listening skills will give you control over your productions—whether you’re trying to grab some ideas from other artists or you’re doing something totally new.”