Our friends over at SoundGym have kindly written this great guide highlighting their best ear training exercises for music producers. Their learning system is fantastic and fun. I hope the training brings you a ton of value.
As audio engineers, we’re constantly looking for ways to level up our mixes; buying new hardware or plugins, learning new production techniques, improving our listening environment.
All of these things can help, and they are all important at various times in your development as an engineer. However, one essential area for improvement is often overlooked; the ability of an engineer to listen accurately.
What is Audio Ear Training?
One of the major differences between amateur and professional audio engineers is the ability of professionals to analyse what they are hearing accurately.
When a pro listens to a mix, they immediately know which EQs need adjusting, and where on the frequency spectrum those adjustments need to be made. They can hear if a sound is affected by distortion, they can hear if there is too much or too little compression, they can hear if the stereo field is unbalanced and understand how to fix it.
Once upon a time (when I started on my journey as an engineer!) the only way you could improve your listening skills was to get in the studio and work on music. Of course, this is a legitimate way to improve these skills – but it’s no longer the quickest way to do it.
Audio Ear Training is specially designed to improve your listening skills quickly in a learning environment that is fun, friendly, competitive and personalised. Gamified ear training exercises improve the accuracy of your listening without it feeling like hard work.
What are the Benefits of Audio Ear Training?
The major benefits are that you will be able to work faster and more accurately when you mix – your skill set will become more professional. Imagine being able to instantly hone in on problem areas of the mix like resonant frequencies or distortion artifacts and fix them quickly and intuitively.
Ear Training can also improve your ability to detect subtle changes in audio. For example, amateur engineers often struggle to hear how a compressor is shaping a sound. There are ear training exercises that are specifically designed to get your hearing even subtle changes in compressor settings.
Yet another benefit of ear training is that it can teach you to listen to other people’s mixes more accurately; a vital skill if you want to learn from the best.
Listen to top-end mixes in your genre and accurately identify the different techniques that have been used while understanding your mix tools well enough to be able to recreate the sounds that you hear.
Types of Audio Ear Training Exercises
There are numerous types of ear training exercises available, and below, we run through a few of them. Each of this exercise are available on SoundGym, an advanced ear training website that is free to join.
We’ll explain how each exercise works, and how it helps you to improve you mixing skills.
Each exercise starts relatively easy and gets more challenging over time as you reach higher levels where more and more accuracy is required. This way of working helps you to gradually develop your skillset as you progress through each exercise.
Train your ears to hear specific frequency ranges
Being able to identify specific frequency ranges is fundamental to audio engineering. With this skill, you can quickly remove unwanted resonances or boost underrepresented frequency ranges in a mix.
You’ll also be able to identify if different elements in your mixes are masking each other, and figure out where the problematic frequency range is.
These are some of the foundational skills of mixing and you can hone them in a game called Peak Master. In this exercise, a peaking filter is being used to boost certain frequencies of a sound source, and you need to find the boosted frequency. Flip the EQ on and off and try to figure out where the boost is occurring.
Train your ears for level match and balance
Being able to hear the balance between different mix elements accurately is vital if you’re trying to make sure that your track conforms to genre norms, trying to get multiple tracks to sit together comfortably on an album or EP, or if you’re trying to recreate the balance used in a reference track.
Being able to listen to another mix and recreate the balance that you hear is useful in all these situations and plenty more. Balance Memory is a game that can help you supercharge this skill.
You are presented with some music, and a set of faders. Your task is to memorise the balance that you hear, and recreate it by bringing each of the faders up to the correct level.
Train your ears to hear subtle compression
Compression is one of the most important tools in an engineer’s arsenal. Yet, for many new engineers it can be challenging to hear exactly what effect a compressor is having on a signal.
Dr. Compressor is a game that can train you to hear even subtle compression by asking you to compare two signals and decide which one is the most compressed. Attack and release times are kept short to make recognition easier, but as you progress up the levels the differences become harder to identify and your ears become more and more attuned to the sound of compression.
Train your ears to hear spatial positioning
Being able to accurately analyse a stereo image is helpful for all kinds of reasons. As with level matching and balance, it can be an invaluable tool when you are analysing somebody else’s mixes; hearing something accurately is the first step towards reproducing something accurately.
It can also speed you up when mixing – rather than looking at where each of your individual tracks are panned, you’ll be able to quickly identify areas in a mix that need to be de-cluttered, or find gaps in the stereo image that you can plug with a new musical part.
Stereohead is a simple but incredibly effective game that helps you to develop this skill; you listen to two sources panned to opposite sides of a stereo mix and are asked to identify how wide the stereo image is.
Train yourself to hear artifacts
As engineers we can work with all kinds of audio material; studio recordings, live recordings, samples, field recordings... the list goes on! We need to be able to trust our ears; can we recognise when one of these recordings is distorted in some way?
It’s the same when we put audio through effects, or when we’re routing audio in a DAW. Can we recognise the - sometimes subtle - distortion that can be caused by these processes? Sure, we frequently want distortion on recordings, but we need to be comfortable that we are in control of things; we decide when to apply distortion and how much we apply.
Distorted Reality is an exercise that can train your ears to hear distortion; you compare two sounds and identify which is the most distorted. Once again, a simple concept, but this game will really help tune you in to the sound of distortion.
If you’re serious about improving as an engineer then you’re probably already hard at work levelling up your skill set, learning new techniques and upgrading your studio equipment.
Don’t forget that your ears are your most important asset! Training them is a real shortcut to finishing mixes faster and to a higher standard.