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I'm new to the world of sound recording, and one of my questions is: What are some good ways to develop "critical listening skills"?

While I realize that "listening" is highly subjective, I'd like to learn to discern the more subtle characteristics of various sounds and become conversant in the "language" of audio professionals in order to adequately communicate about the things that I hear.

Are there any book/cd combos out there that would walk you through the differences in sounds? Or perhaps any educational websites? What about other methods? How did you personally "train your ears" and how would you recommend that someone else go about it?

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6 Answers

Listening is like any other skill: Reading about it helps, but practicing it is everything.

Another well-regarded technique is sitting somewhere and writing down every sound you hear. I take that a step further create a description for each sound, both on a technical and emotional level. This can be done in a wooded forest glen, a concert, a coffee shop, the bus...anywhere. Personally, I keep a journal with me at all times to practice this skill (a smartphone with a note-taking app is good, too). On the technical side, I make guesses as to the frequency ranges of certain sounds, and check them against a sonogram or spectrograph when I get home (assuming I'm recording what I'm listening to). On the emotional side, it's just a personal heuristics thing, but forcing yourself to assign emotive descriptors to everything you hear can be challenging...and then figuring out why certain sounds make you feel a certain way is another introspective challenge unto itself.

A recent workshop also reinforced a zen-like koan that I think is essential for all creative endeavors: Don't be disappointed if what you're hearing isn't what you're after. Bend your mind around the circumstances and embrace all sound. If you do that, everything is music and nothing is merely noise, and no recording outing will be disappointing (or at least every recording session will teach you something).

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Nice entry Nathan! I'm with you 100% on that! Interesting point about embracing all sound. I guess like all sensory experiences it comes down to interpretation and how positively or negatively you perceive what you've experienced. –  Colin Hunter Jun 29 '10 at 18:28
    
Nice thoughts...very much John Cage's approach. I professor of mine in college used to refer to this as "simplified hearing." –  Justin Pearson Jun 29 '10 at 20:38
    
Great stuff. Check out "33 Short Films About Glen Gould". He does exactly this in a scene in a diner- composing a piece by simply listening to the world around him. –  oinkaudio Jun 30 '10 at 14:51
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Well a good place to start is becoming familiar with the spectrum of frequencies perceived by the human ear. A chart like this is a good visual representation:

http://www.independentrecording.net/irn/resources/freqchart/main_display.htm

At the bottom is a list of typical adjectives used by sound people, and a way to communicate with them.

I like to use a parametric EQ plug-in to train my ear and reinforce a chart like this; sweeping it over different sounds/music to hear what different frequencies sound like isolated, boosted, or cut.

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That's a super-concise chart, Justin, nice find! –  NoiseJockey Jun 29 '10 at 16:28
    
I often use the parametric EQ on voice because I find it the most complex sound to get right. The presence spot in the 6-10kHz area is the one I enjoy most looking for, don't ask me why. Once you find it, you can add so much definition to the words... –  Justin Huss Jun 29 '10 at 17:13
    
That is the coolest chart ever! –  ianjpalmer Jun 29 '10 at 19:07
    
Cool chart. But, most voice talents I work with go well down to 60 Hz!!! –  Utopia Jun 29 '10 at 20:09
    
Nice. I teach as well as work in the industry and I think they break things down very well and explain the sublties. I am going to get the students on to this. Thanks. –  oinkaudio Jun 30 '10 at 14:55
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Id highly recommend F.Alton Everest's book - Critical Listening Skills for Audio Professionals

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Critical-Listening-Skills-Audio-Professionals/dp/1598630237/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1277826811&sr=8-2

It gives a very focused approach to developing your hearing, i have been using it for the last year in uni, and i have noticed a significant improvement in my own ability to perceive some more of the subtle aspects of audio and also my ability to communicate effectively.

Also ive found setting yourself a task for listening every week if you can, for example exploring the effects of various reverb parameters on a sound, then finding recordings with interesting use of reverb and analyzing them. Then research the theory behind what you are hearing and why. Ive found this has helped me tremendously over the past year. I am nowhere near where i want to be in my listening skills, but i think it probably take many many more years!

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I use this book as well, it makes for a good 'tune-up'. –  Iain McGregor Jun 30 '10 at 15:53
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In IAV school we would raise and low at the maximum each of the graphic EQ filters so that we could hear what which region would affect in the instruments. We did it with percussive, strings, voices... and it totally helps you to understand where, as for an example, you will usually bring the kick out of the bass drum and lower the undesired plastic sound. Pretty cool!

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I can recommend to find and buy a bunch of CDs of Golden Ears Audiotraining program. This is very useful training where each cd dedicated to one of several audition and spectrum recognition exersises and contains audiotracks with differently EQsed materials and also calibration tests and prepairing listening. With those disks, attached test sheet on a back of the cover - so u can copy it and easily use for writing test answers suchwise learn critical listening.

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I also suggest listening to film. Blind fold yourself and just listen to it. Then watch it with the sound after you have made some notes. Great stuff.

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