Auditory exercises for audio mastering and mixing techniques

Delicate piece of audio mastering equipment
My ear – a delicate piece of audio mastering equipment

Whether you want to start your own recording studio, start DJing, want to be an expert in audio mastering or you just want to mix your own music as a hobby. It never hurts to train your hearing. This will help you quickly identify errors in the audio signal that you’re working on. An audio mastering engineer requires the same ear training as a music producer or mixing engineer but a mastering engineer is an expert in improving the entire audio mix and a mixing engineer is an specialised in improving and combining the individual elements that makes the mix a smooth combined piece of art.

You may be wondering; “Is it even possible to train your ears?” Yes it is. Hearing exercises are actually nothing more than training your memory thus the recognition of the difference in audio can be taught. The more different sounds you can give a value to; the more you learn and thus get better at recognizing and detecting i.e. unwanted frequencies, errors, bad edits, cracks. volume dips, etc in a mix. There are two different types of hearing exercises. Make use of passive and active auditory training.

- Passive ear training is the one you can practice all day. Listen to the speakers in your car, a train passing by, birds singing, etc. Do these sounds include harmonic overtones and can you hear it? Take it all in you and try to break the sound in little pieces.

- Active ear training is the one where you have to take some time and choose out of very important exercises that will significantly improve your hearing to become the audio mastering or mixing expert you always wanted to be. The following exercises help you to educate your “golden ears”. Keep repeating these exercises regularly and you will see that you are getting better at recognizing pitch and discover what frequencies in the audio recording can produce or are errors in the audio mix. Once you taught yourself golden ears you always maintain them.

Hearing Exercise 1: Phone apps for training perfect pitch

There are quite a few smart phones apps which will help you develop perfect pitch. Try the search query “golden ears” in Google Play and this will return quite a few download options. There are some free apps which are very good. The only disadvantage is that they show advertisements. I always use the app “Pitch Improver Lite”. This app will help you tremendously in training an absolute pitch. You start easy, with 2 different tones and sometimes a change in an octave or 2. You hear a piano sample and you have to indicate which tone it represent. If you have 20 correct guesses the app will add another tone to the game. You would be amazed at how quickly you can train your ears. A great app but unfortunately not downloadable for the iphone.

pitch improver for hearing exercises
Phone app – Pitch improver for hearing exercises

Hearing Exercise 2: Learn to recognize frequencies and train perfect pitch.

This exercise for improving the recognition of audio frequencies is very important. If you’re really good you can name the pitch and or frequency with your eyes closed. Don’t start this exercise with individual tones but with pink noise. Listen to a 1/3 octave with the help of an equalizer and guess the frequency-band. If you become good at it then change the exercise to music. Recognizing a frequency-band of 1/2 to 1/3 octave is what you need to quickly and efficiently work on an audio master. Do not be surprised if it’s very hard to recognize frequencies in the beginning. This will not be easy. But keep practicing and you keep getting better.

Hearing Exercise 3: Learn the effects of smaller bandwidths

There are numerous of speakers who have a very little bandwidth. Think of the speakers of your laptop or smartphone on which vocals sound very thin. Because the human hearing has the nice property of adding missing harmonic frequencies to a sound we don’t notice this that much. The unique property of adding missing data to a sound source gives us mixing and audio mastering engineers a big advantage. For example you can omit lows to create a high intrinsic level. But keep in mind that a full bandwidth sound better than a small one. Most of the information of music is present in the midrange but a bandwidth of just 5 kHz reduces the brightness and life of the sound. Practice the effects of reducing bandwidth by applying a high- and low-pass filter on the audio of different instruments.

Hearing Exercise 4: Learn to identify comb filtering

If audio is recorded with two identical microphones which are separated from each other by a few feet and this recorded audio is played back simultaneously then comb filtering could occur. Think of the “flanger effect” which is often used as an effect plugin for an electric guitar. This flanger effect will occur when you move one of the two identical microphones from one place to another and place it back again. This is caused by the phase differences between the two sound waves. The positive sound wave cancels out the negative wave so in theory you should hear no sound at all if you apply this on a single frequency. This problem also occurs when you are recording in a room with poor acoustics and bad microphone placement. Reflections can direct sound in a negative way and this will affect the quality of a vocal recording considerably.

EQ chart of the effect of comb filtering
Comb filtering effect – This is what the equalization chart looks like

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