When using EQ, I have more difficulty hearing what's being suppressed compared to what's being boosted. For example if I put white noise on a channel and sweep the parametric EQ up and down the spectrum, I can hear the difference very clearly when the eq is boosting, but when it is suppressing, I need to widen the Q and deepen the gain to a greater extent before any difference becomes audible.

Another aspect, when I hear a note, I have no clue which one it is. I can guess the octave with an accuracy of +/- 1, but the note itself is impossible. Unless I make sounds to which I can refer (hit some keys, which can be awkward in a live setting) I have no way of telling what note I'm hearing. I have a (crazy?) theory that musicians that can tell the note by hearing it, have noisy resonating ear-bones to witch they can relate. Probably the brain EQ's these frequency's out for them so they have a relatively flat conscious spectrum again

Because of the two points above, I rely heavily on a spectrum analyzer (when ringing out mics for example). Also in post production, I really need the metering tools, rather than relying on what I can actually hear. For example, I can see the compressor kicking in long before I can hear any effect and when slowly tweaking for some time it seems that my ears adapt to the processed sound and I need to press the A-B test/bypass button in order to call back or compare with the original.

My guess is that these are normal human aspects, or am I just the wrong man on the job?

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  • It's not abnormal and leftaroundabout did a great explanation of why. I would mention, however, that you may very well find that your ability to recognize things improves over time. It took me several years to develop the ability to pick frequencies out of a sound by listening to it and then deciding within about 10hz on the low end to 300hz on the high end of what frequency I need to adjust. I got better at hearing it over time as I became more familiar with what I was hearing and listening for what wasn't there rather than just what is there. – AJ Henderson Dec 23 '13 at 15:48

All of that is perfectly normal.

Boost vs. cut

What our ears do is not really a Fourier transform like in spectrum analysers1, it's more comparable to an auto-correlation function. For instance, we still recognise pitches without a problem even when the fundamental frequency is completely missing! This is useful in natural hearing environments, since reflections may in fact cancel out single harmonics completely, but the autocorrelation isn't greatly affected by that. And that's just why also a single band cut from an EQ isn't really very audible, at least if you don't sweep it around much (that would be how a phaser works). Incidentally, that's also the reason why sharp band cuts are a tool you can well use to fight feedback: even when those frequencies are then completely missing in the mix, our ears are able to make up for this.

It's quite the opposite for sharp band boosts. Those are naturally associated with actual sound sources or at least strong resonances, which is why our ears are specialised in recognising them. A single peak in Fourier spectrum does also show up heavily in an autocorrelation diagram, unlike a single notch. Practically, this is the reason why you should use notches to fight feedback, because the sharp peaks (feedback is essentially an overcritical resonance) are much more audible than sharp notches. Of course this makes it harder to hear where you need to put the notches; an effective if somewhat brutal practice is first tuning a sharp band boost to make it sound as bad as possible, and then pulling the G below 0 to transform it into a barely audible yet effective band cut.

Perfect pitch

That about recognising a note right on hearing is quite another issue. There are pretty few people who can do this, it's called absolute pitch and is subject to a considerable amount of study. Musicians may have this more often than average people, but most actually don't. It's not a necessary thing for being a good musician nor sound engineer; often helpful but perhaps also distracting sometimes.

When you hear a note and don't know what it is what do you do? Well, if you have the score you just look in and see, there it is. Or, if you know at least the harmonic context you realise "aha, that's the third in a IV chord, so in D-major that would be a b".

Seriously though, as a sound engineer you don't need to know about the musical pitches that badly, unless you want to communicate something to the musicians. Otherwise you basically just need a frequency value to put in as some EQ parameter or whatever. And reading out frequencies is best done with a dedicated device.

Technical help, analysers

IMO there's nothing wrong at all with using metering tools etc. to make up. Many guys will tell you these are evil, you should rely on your ears alone, and old analogue boxes with unlabelled magic knobs beat everything etc. etc.. Mostly bogus if you ask me. What's correct is that you shouldn't just apply generic wisdom like "always boost 80 Hz and 7 kHz on a bass drum", "always put compressor on vocals" etc. if the material in question doesn't require that. With enough experience, you will hear when some kind of fix is necessary, and if you don't hear it then you don't need it either. If you do hear it and have some idea about how it might sound better, then why shouldn't you use any tool available? Spectrum analysers, being directly Fourier-based, can do some stuff the ear is trained not to do, like sensing notches as well as peaks. They also have perfect pitch for sure, being designed through exact mathematical operations. Lots of information that can only be helpful, never hurt in coming up with the right parameter settings for EQ etc. – which is obviously much easier when you can just jump to precise values without having to do laborous step-by-step tweaks.

Sure, the more you can do with your ears alone the better. But it doesn't really matter how you obtain the information, as long as you produce a good end result. Anyone's ears are notoriously prone to the placebo effect, looking on meters is much more objective. Yet it's not like you're not working with your ears anymore. Ears remain terrific when it comes to judging overall sound, knowing which peak broadening is due to time-confinedness and which is actual frequency smearing, and identifying each of multiple sound sources. It's still your ears that tell you what needs to be done, even if it's you meters that tell you how to do it.

1Many spectrum analysers do not work by the usual short-time discrete Fourier transform but with seperate bandpass filters; but conceptually that's still a Fourier transform since it models the signal by sinuoids.

  • Great write-up :) – JoshP Dec 13 '13 at 0:38
  • Thanks for clearing that up. The links you included are very interesting as well. Even though the auto-correlation one is a bit too mathemagical for me to grasp, I get the picture :-) – Louis Somers Dec 14 '13 at 17:37

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