How to Hear Music?

I was in class earlier today, and our usually lecturer Omar had to fly off to Berlin so he handed us over to a guy named Lewis halfway through. Lewis’ style was different to Omar’s and he provided more practical examples of our learnings thus far. He also made an observation that one of the downsides of becoming an audio engineer is that it’s common for you to lose a lot of the enjoyment you used to gain from simply listening to music and begin to hear everything in more clinical analytical terms.

This thought terrified me somewhat at first, but with only a few hours of reflection since, I am beginning to come to terms with it.

Generally speaking, the majority of average music consumers listen to heavily produced music, and while it might be well performed, produced and mixed, I often find that kind of thing vacuous and dull, without life or spark. A lot of music I listen to has a very different production style that tends towards more organic sounds. A lot of it tends towards extremely electronic and artificial sounds. There is not a lot of crossover for me, although to say it was entirely absent would be a lie.

What I’m trying to get at is that a lot of modern rock and pop sounds try to sound organic, but are produced in a manner which uses all kinds of studio-trickery like Auto-tune, ADT and louder-is-better compression to pummel the music into an easily-digestible and inoffensive form. I tend away from this kind of music, partially because I find it pretty dull to begin with, but also because the sound of it is uninteresting to me, or in some cases disturbing and alienating.

Conversely, I listen to a lot of bands on Constellation Records (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Fly Pan Am, Silver Mt. Zion, Do Make Say Think to name but a few) and the production aesthetic for the label is generally a more hand-crafted feel, an intimacy and a warmth that you never really hear on major label releases. Most Constellation bands record to analogue tape, and many of them record whole band in one room for at least the basis of the tracks, so there’s leakage between microphones, you sometimes hear people shuffling their feet on the carpet or clearing their throats or whatever else. And this isn’t to say the production is bad, in fact far from it – Constellation have put out some of my favourite sounding records of the past decade.

Another example is Randall Dunn, a Seattle-based producer whose work I find universally wonderful. He records (or has recorded) Earth, Sunn O))), Sun City Girls, Secret Chiefs 3, Asva, Kayo Dot… Now unlike Constellation, Randall Dunn’s production is more layered and complex, but still warm and immediate. Take Earth’s album Hex:Or Printing in the Infernal Method, which is rooted in traditional American music, blues and country & western especially. This booklet that accompany this album is full of old black and white photos of the Old West. And the music sounds like, well, like it was recorded in the Old West. Of course, this is a trick, since the music refers back to the sparse guitar-oriented soundtracks to classic western movies rather than the actual music of the era. But by god does it work.

Another great Randall Dunn production is the little-known The Stares‘ album Spine to Sea. This is a pop album in the sense of traditional singer-songwriter productions rather than modern pop. It is rich and wide, helped no end by the wonderous orchestrations of Eyvind Kang, and yet it still sounds, as it should, as though these songs are being perfomed only for you.

I’ll get to my point now.

If I indeed end up recording music for a living, then I am certainly going to have to be able to listen to music analytically on an instrument-by-instrument basis, but I do not intend to over-produce things or get into the situation where I’m tweaking one instrument for so long I forget the track as a whole. At the end of the day, I don’t really believe that making these constant little changes over time ever really work in a track’s favour and I’d rather work on music that either has the human element, or isn’t pretending to have it.

I don’t doubt that I’ll listen to things differently, knowing more about how they were recorded, but I do doubt that’ll really affect my enjoyment. An anology I’d use is that I enjoy listening to director’s commentaries and the like, and their comments often reveal tricks and effects that I would never have otherwise noticed – and yet, if I’m transported by it I don’t care. Just because I know how they created a particular guitar tone, or the kind of room the drums were recorded, doesn’t mean the music should lose its capacity to move me. At least I hope not.

When I’m recording, as long as I’m working in an environment where I’m trying to capture the essence of a band, and not try and polish turds, then I think I’ll be okay. I might not be recording an artist whose music I particularly enjoy, but if they can deliver the goods performance-wise, and if I can be objective and honest, and the end result sounds the way they want it to, then I’ll be doing my job.

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