Critical Listening – Frameworks
Critical Listening is a vital skill for any Audio Engineer and as an aspiring Audio Engineer it is a skill I must develop. By being able to Critically Listen to a piece of music or sound I can deconstruct it and find out how it works, which will allow me to achieve similar sonic or musical results in my own projects(P. Palombi, 2014).
As an aspiring Audio developer for video game and film I will need at minimum two reliable frameworks, one for sound effects, taking into consideration such things as layering, dynamics, timing, equalisation, and one for music considering things like, key, harmonic progression, melody, tempo, equalisation, dynamics and effects. This will allow me to fully deconstruct the engineering behind hopefully all audio elements within any chosen medium. I will use this as a guide for how I specifically plan to listen for these qualities and what tools I can use to make my listening more accurate.
Musical analysis requires close examination of two broad concepts, composition and engineering. The way I analyze music at the moment draws inspiration from David L. Pages blog posts on critical listening(https://davidlintonpagedotcom.wordpress.com/),Paul Carrs guide/forum, The Elements of Music(https://paulcarr.org/2012/01/27/the-elements-of-music-a-good-start-to-basic-analysis/) and a documented guide on writing musical evaluation(http://mic.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/MUSICAL-ANALYSIS-WRITING-GUIDE-2012-edition2.pdf). Along with these I will continue to learn and adapt my analysis skills from things I pick up on my own and things learnt during my Bachelor of Audio.
When looking at the composition of a piece, if possible, I will attempt to isolate and discuss any purely musical elements I can hear within the piece as they relate to classical and contemporary music theory. I’m a great advocate of formalising world music so I will also attempt to adapt the ideas put forward in “Towards a Global Music Theory” to help better understand music as a whole, wherever it’s from or however it is presented.
Identifying the key of a song and any transpositions will give me a foundation for exploring the harmonic and melodic content. To identify the key of a song I will use an instrument and attempt to find the tonic note or root note and then continue to re-evaluate the different sections until I understand the home key and any possible transpositions. Depending on the piece, this could be identified simply by looking at the first note and chord or if the piece involves transpositions and modal mixture it could become more difficult and I may have to seek outside assistance.
Harmonic progression will be discussed when any pitches appear simultaneously resulting in some form of identifiable chord. Along with the analysis of individual chords within a piece I will also attempt to analyse the progression of the harmony. I will need an instrument to help me identify the individual chords and will use a score or midi editor within a DAW to outline the harmonic progression so I can study it closer.
I will exam the melody line or lines in a song and treat them as if they were monophonic, although I will note any harmonic signifiers within the melody lines(“Global Music Theory”). Unfortunately my ear isn’t as well trained as it could be so I will either have to use an instrument to assist me with discovering certain individual notes or access the information elsewhere. However I go about it, once I have discovered a melody I might benefit from recording it on a score or as midi information within a DAW.
Rhythm (Time Signature and Tempo)
Originally I had this section labeled simply as Time Signature and Tempo only, and although I believe they are still valuable to identify, the rhythm or “pulse” of a song, is what I now believe to be the most important aspect of a song within the time domain. After reading “Towards a Global Music Theory” I now understand that an accurate identification of a song’s rhythm will help in deconstructing songs from all over the world, not just western music that usually strictly relies on well-known time signatures for their accent patterns.
To keep things uniform however I will use the method presented in “Towards a Global Music Theory” for identifying a song’s rhythm and time component by listening and attempting to identify groups. Groups are most likely to be present as musical events in multitudes of 3 and 2, as most music from all over the world is in some way linked with these numbers. Along with these numbers, “rests” which in music are short or long periods of silence, usually linked with specific instrument lines, can be used to identify a where a group begins/ends or help to determine a group’s size.
By using this method I should be able to identify a time signature that fits with the music and use the grid in Pro tools along with perhaps a tempo tap to discover the tempo of the song. For example, this Etude by Robert Schumann which I have identified using this method to be in 3/16 time (Although it was already identified to me as 3/16, I wanted to try my method).
Arrangement will look at the instrumentation of a piece and attempt to identify the associated “color” and timbral quality of the instruments. Some pieces with more organic instruments will be easier to analyze and record. Pieces with synthesized or sampled sounds will need a closer inspection and greater care must be given when describing and analyzing the purpose of a synthesized texture. To do this I will listen through the song and list as many different instruments I can identify within the piece, then I will describe their overall “color” and try to rationalise their purpose within the song.
Structure and Form
The final part of musical analysis will look at the structure and form of the piece. Chorus/Verse sections will be identified if applicable and the sections will be recorded in accordance with standard music theory practices, using ABCD etc. to identify individual sections and then organising them in chronological order.
The following points will discuss a song’s characteristics in regards to its engineering. It is important to not only look at a piece for its musical qualities but also the technologies involved with recording and producing those musical ideas.
Gain staging or “balance” as it is referred to in Bobby Owsinskis “Mixing Engineers Handbook” is one of the most fundamental aspects of a song’s engineering. Simply, it is the volume or amplitude level and it can be looked at it two ways. Firstly it can be viewed as the amplitude of all elements at the same time or it can be broken up and viewed as amplitude for separate elements. The easiest way to look at the overall amplitude is to drop the track into a DAW and observe the metering. Getting specifics on the separate elements may be a little more difficult and will be down aurally. I will attempt to comment on the individual loudness of each element within a piece through critical listening, this will allow me to describe key instruments and how their individual loudness complements the overall piece.
Stereo Field refers to the panning of individual instruments and how this affects the overall mix. This can viewed as a whole through a DAW by using a stereo field plugin to view the overall balance of a song while it’s playing. The best way to illustrate stereo field is, coincidentally, through illustration. I will use a rough drawing to illustrate where each instrument is sitting in the stereo field. This will allow me to observe the different panning techniques used within a piece and will help me better understand the reasons behind certain panning decisions.
Equalisation is the adjustment of individual amplitudes across the spectral plane. The frequency spectrum of a piece can easily be identified within a DAW however again the test will be the identification of individual instruments and their spectral qualities. Being able to listen and identify certain equalisation decisions will help me to be able to make similar decisions myself to improve the overall quality of my mixes.
Dynamics involve the adjustment to a particular sounds amplitude envelope, it involves things like compressors, gates, limiters etc. Again it can viewed as a change to the overall song or as a touch to individual instruments. Critical listening will allow me to identify the use of compressors and the effect they have on a piece so that I can achieve similar results in my own work.
In effects I’ll be looking at any examples of reverb, delay, chorus etc. Any kind of effect added to a sound to enhance it. I’ll be looking to comment on whether certain reverbs come naturally or whether they are digital. I’ll be looking at differences between digital doubling of voices or actual recorded harmonies. Effects are a great way to add extra character to an individual sound or a piece as a whole, for example reverb on an entire mix to give it a sense of space or a chorus on a vocal to give it some power and thickness. These effects and above all else the reason for the use of these effects will be what I’ll be looking for when critically listening for special effects.
Finally I’ll attempt to identify how a piece was recorded, obviously with certain pieces this won’t be applicable such as electronically produced music. However in any case I will attempt to make a comment on things such as mic placement or type and if I can’t hear it I will attempt to source the information elsewhere. Whether a piece is electronically produced, organically produced or anything in between will be discussed in this final section before a conclusion will be made summarising the most interesting points of a song’s production.
Finally after all things are considered I will conclude on the overall effect of the song and describe its most interesting points and what I learned from deconstructing its make-up. Noting any special details that may help me in current or future productions.
Phil Palombi, The Importance of Critical Listening, July 6th 2014, Available from URL: http://www.philpalombi.com/2014/07/the-importance-of-critical-listening-part-1/