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June 30, 2010

The Art of Listening

by soundlandscapes

Sound recording is, as someone famously said about football, a game of two halves. With the air of depression (for some of us at least) surrounding the early exit of France and England from the 2010 football World Cup perhaps that isn’t the most timely analogy but nevertheless the analogy holds true. Sound recording may not be a game but it is certainly an art of two halves – recording and listening. 

Popular music producers understand this very well. The finished product we hear is often compressed, expanded, equalised, sampled and otherwise manipulated so that it often bears little relationship to the sound that the artists produced in the first place. All this is done to provide the quite specific listening experience envisaged by the producer. Radio and TV producers do the same with programme sound. They recognise that most people do not listen to their programmes in specially treated sound studios through highly sophisticated monitor loudspeakers. Most of us listen to radio and TV programmes at home, in the car, on a computer via the internet, in a hotel room or a variety of other places probably none of which have the ideal acoustics of the monitoring studio. The programmes engineers recognise this and adjust the sound output to take account of the probably less than ideal listening conditions of the audience.

For those of us involved in sound recording, but not in the professional recording business with an audience of millions, the distinction between recording and listening is still important.

With the technology available today it is possible for anyone to record sound to a high standard with affordable equipment. ‘Affordable’ of course is a relative term. In general terms, the more you pay the more you get especially where microphones are concerned.  But even the most expensive recording equipment will count for little if the ultimate listening experience isn’t at the forefront of the sound recordist’s mind.

When making a recording the sound recordist needs to consider the following question; “What am I trying to achieve?” For example, is the recording intended to be a faithful reproduction of what you heard at the time of recording or is it raw material destined to be used in a different context later on?

Most of the recording I do is street, or ambient, recording. My objective is to produce a faithful sound record of a particular atmosphere, place or definitive sound at a specific moment in time. It follows therefore that I am trying to reproduce the sounds I record exactly as I heard them at the time of recording. It is important to remember this when it comes to listening to the recordings.

There is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is something we do instinctively but listening is something we have to work at. Listening is an art rather than an instinctive act.

There are four main components that affect the listening process – the means by which you listen to a recording, the amount of processing applied to the original recording, the volume at which you listen to the recording and the amount of effort you put into the listening process.

The means by which you listen to a recording is important but it doesn’t mean that you have to spend thousands on state-of-the-art loudspeaker systems and even more thousands sound-proofing your sitting room. It does mean though that you should give yourself at least a fighting chance of having a good listening experience. Money spent on good loudspeakers or good headphones is always money well spent but the aim is to try to match the quality of the listening experience to the quality of the recording. For example, if you listen to a genuine binaural recording using loudpeakers some of the binaural effect will be lost or, if you make a high quality recording and then play it back on the recorder’s internal loudspeaker outside in the street something will get lost in the process.

The post-recording processing of sound is, I admit, a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine. Any processing of a sound recording affects the listening experience. Sometimes, processing can significantly enhance a sound recording and consequently enhance the listening experience but, if overused, it more often than not detracts from the listening experience. It’s a matter of taste. In my ambient street recordings I am searching more for authenticity rather than artistry so for me less is always more as far as processing is concerned. Lest you should think that I am a complete dinosaur in respect of sound processing, there are some sound artists who’s work I admire enormously who make full use of sound processing with stunning effect.

The volume at which you listen to sound recordings is crucial and, for me, it is perhaps the most important element of the listening process. The key is to listen to the recording at the same level that you would have heard the original sound. The full-on sound of a metro train arriving at a station is much louder than the sound of a wood pigeon in the far distance and this difference should be respected in the listening process. The temptation always seems to be to raise the level of the lower sound to make it seemingly easier to listen to but this misses the point. As far as ambient recordings are concerned, the sound level is more often than not a function of distance and it is important to maintain this spatial effect in the listening process. Loudness can also affect the mood of a recording as is shown in the recordings included with this post. Before you listen to those, let’s consider the final component that affects the listening process – the amount of effort you put into actually listening.

As I said earlier, there is a difference between hearing and listening. Listening requires effort whereas hearing is instinctive. The more effort you apply to the listening process the more you will hear. Listening to a recording once will give you a sense of what the recording is about, listening for a second and third time will add more of the detail and give a sense of what the recording is trying to say. A good recording accompanied by good listening will transfer not only the recording but also the sense of the recording from the mind of the recordist to the mind of the listener.

Here are two very different recordings both saying different things.

The first is a recording of the start of the Trans-African rally recorded in Paris in 2007. I made the recording standing some ten metres or so away from the motorcycles and cars as they left Paris at the start of the rally. It is recorded in stereo, but not binaural stereo. My object was to record a sense of the occasion, the excitement and the enthusiasm.

Trans-African Rally Start – 2007

The second recording is very different. It is my attempt to record silence in the Eglise Saint-Gervais in Paris. Of course, no church is completely silent as this recording shows. Listen for the two rings of a telephone bell, a woman’s sigh, distant church bells, the inevitable door banging and high-heel shoes. This recording was made in binaural stereo.

Silence; Eglise Saint-Gervais

The recording of the rally is intended to be loud and punchy, the recording in the church is intended to be the opposite. Experiment with the sound levels at which you listen to these recordings and find which level suits each recording best. My tip is that for the church recording less is very definitely more.

If you’re like me, the recording inside the church makes for the more challenging listening but is also perhaps the most rewarding.

As always, it’s a matter of taste.

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