Q: A journeyman recordist asks how he could improve his ability to compare and differentiate the sound of different pieces of gear or different gear settings. He begins by commenting on confusion about what is meant when someone suggests a given microphone works in the mix. Is it, he wonders, that the mic is well suited to a given aesthetic or musical style or simply that when applied to a given source, it will produce a sound that, by contrast, flatters the other instruments?
A: Well, I’m not so sure that mic dichotomy (mic in mix context) is really a dichotomy, more like two sides of the same coin… a given mic ‘works in a mix’ in a creative context because its particular sound is — in a loose manner of speaking — a sort of ‘filter’ that is applied to that mic’s subject (target source) that doesn’t necessarily flatter the instrument by itself, but, rather, helps that target instrument ‘fit’ into the mix.
With regard to the difficulty of comparing sounds, on one level, you are at least ahead of those folks who seem to believe that they hear the same thing when they listen to a given source in different contexts and environments. In reality, very tiny changes in everything from your listening position to the pressure and contents of your Eustachian tubes [the tubes connecting your oral cavity and sinuses with your ears] can and does affect what you perceive — so it’s only natural that, when really concentrating on what you’re listening to, you would continuously hear things differently on a minute to minute, day to day basis.
But, of course, that can drive you nuts. And the human auditory processing system, the totality of it, has evolved mechanisms which allow us to selectively ignore aspects of that ever-changing sound, focusing on what is similar — and then subconsciously ‘processing’ all the tiny, ever-varying qualities as perceptual cues that help interpret things like the direction a sound is coming from, whether it’s moving, what the sound source’s immediate acoustic environment is like (ie, echo and refraction components) and so on.
Often, when folks start really focusing on sound, it’s sort of like Wiley Coyote running of the cliff and not starting to fall until he looks down and sees no ground under his feet.
Imagine how difficult it would be to play tennis or golf if you were constantly focused on every detail of your performance — and, in fact, that is one of the problem that beginning athletes often have, becoming too conscious of performance and technique details.
When learning such a sport, you have to focus on details to some extent, but, at a certain point, you have to start integrating — and trusting — what you’ve learned and allowing your subconscious and motor systems to do their thing.
Of course, the analogy isn’t perfect, since recordists must be able to continually change the ‘zoom level’ of their attention to these audio details — sometimes zooming in to focus on very minute details — and then zooming back out for a big picture view.
Part of that is a memory issue, as well. One can develop one’s ability to sort of form a ‘snapshot’ of the timbre and textures of a given sound… it’s something I started working on developing when I was 13. (I was a woefully underfunded teen audiophile; I didn’t play music until I was 20 but I was what they used to call a ‘hi fi nut.’) So I don’t, myself, have a solid grip on exactly how I developed whatever such skills I have — but a large part of it, I believe, is sort of thumbnailing key dynamic and tonal elements.
That, of course, is something that will also shift with attention and focus… your brain (most likely) doesn’t have ‘enough RAM’ to hold the entire sound in memory [although keep in mind that there is a very short term memory system attached in a very direct neural manner to the auditory system which has been called, not surprisingly, the auditory memory system — it’s sort of like a small memory cache that is neurally proximate to the neural system of the ears and it’s the bit of very short term memory that allows you to, for typically a very brief period, ‘replay’ a snippet of sound. That’s how, at times, you hear someone say something and you can’t make it out, but, after a few moments, it occurs to you that they were saying such-and-such. What’s been going on in the background is that your brain has sliced off a few process threads (in a manner of speaking) in order to replay the not-understood phrase and compare it to phrases that might have been uttered and sounded like the original sound.
Now, that auditory memory has some ‘hard-wired’ limits on capacity — but the listener can attempt to use a sort of bucket brigade strategy, looping the brief contents of auditory memory back around and re-inputting them… but like an analog bucket brigage, the contents of the ‘bucket’ degrade with every refresh.
Still, one can use that basic functionality in order to augment natural abilities, ‘holding onto’ the memory of a brief sound for increased periods.
There is an added benefit/danger there, because such bucket brigade ‘repetition’ of the impression of the sound is a form of what memory scientists have sometimes called rehearsal and which is one strategy for entering an impression (thumbnail, if you will) of a sound or sonic texture into long-term memory.