Why Textures Matter. 6 Simple Steps to Train Your Ears Faster

Cover/ Thumbnail Photo Credit : Drew Ressler /Rukes www.rukes.com 

When I was new I'd always look for the magic pill. I'd read everything I could thinking that there was just one KEY to making beautiful mixes. 

I thought I needed a better EQ

I thought I needed a better compressor

I thought I needed better presets.

In fact, one time I thought pro's got "better sounds" and everyone else had to use bad sounds...I was that lost.

I spent hundreds of hours searching for this magic formula. I thought it must be out there...somewhere.

Flash forward a good number of years, I found the magic formula...and it wasn't what I thought. 

The difference between a "pro" and a newbie?

Simple, the pro hears the mix in insane detail. They can hunt out where elements are located ( left/right/center) what depth in the mix(front/back) and more important than both of these, they know what textures work together to make a great mix.

You may think proper levels, proper EQ and proper compression are the key to a beautiful mix.

While they are part of the equation they aren't everything. In fact the best eqing and compression in the world won't fix this issue.

The problem?

Lack of proper textures, on a small small scale.

( for this post, texture = timbre or the difference in "sonic content/tone color/ tone quality. Example, when you play a piano at the same level/key as a guitar, they both have different textures. When you play a sine wave at 220hz  and play a saw at 220hz with the same intensity, they will sound different. They have different textures. )

Now this could be seen as simply, " do I put a piano here, do I put a guitar there" but its much much deeper than that.

Let's look at 2 producers.

Producer A has been producing for 4 years.

Producer B has been producing for 4 months.

Now, when Producer A sits down to make his song, he is going to already have 4 years of back logged ear training to know " what sounds good". He knows that certain sounds, certain elements, certain textures belong in certain spots. Not only that, he knows at what intensity these textures should be placed at. While spots could be pan position or amount forward in the mix, I am talking about things on a very very small scale.

Let me try to break it down.

Producer A, from experience of trail and error over the years knows that he needs a boost in a certain texture around 200hz in order to make the bass fill that gap in the mix. He knows that maybe a sine wave in this region, or a saw with distortion , or a element with a fast attack will work well there. It could be the difference between 25% open cut off and 40% open cut off.

The issue is this can't be directly taught, your ears need to be able to hear this for you to make the necessary adjustments.

Producer B may have the same set up, the same presets, but he will mold them differently. He could put the bass in a less than ideal range. He could not be using the best sound for that situation, he may even be lacking bulk in a certain frequency range of the preset. 

It isn't that he doesn't know what to do, they are doing the " same things" it's that producer A has better ears from years of practice, and can craft his sounds to fit in his mix.

Again, its small things that make a massive difference. It could be that your lead is 25% too bright and needs a slower attack. It could be that your release on your synth is conflicting with your current delay and reverb. There are legit, thousands of tiny possible errors that add up to the less than ideal mix. 

That's the problem, once you get past a certain " level" of mixing, feedback becomes fairly useless. Your "levels" may be solid, but your not using ideal sounds in the mix. Your textures aren't ideal.

Again, I am talking on a small small scale here. I'm not saying you should mix a bunch of different textures, I'm not saying you need a saw wave here or a sine wave there. I'm simply saying you aren't using ideal sounds.

This is actually the hardest part I have to deal with when giving feedback, if the persons levels are solid, if the concept is there but the textures and sonic quality of the elements are lacking its rather hard to get that point across.

Saying things like " you aren't using ideal sounds, make them better if you can" doesn't really work. Saying things like, boost xyz doesn't really work. The root problem however is a simple one...

Your ears haven't developed to hear what needs to be done in the mix. Your ears don't have the ability to hear what elements texture belongs where.  

This is why when your new, you go through a stage ( at least I did) where you think your mixes are pro level, your ears are telling you they are, but your ears simply aren't developed enough to hear how the pro tracks truly sound. I had about 6 months where I thought I had pro level mixes, only to later realize how far from the truth that was.

That really opened up my eyes to the simple fact, your ears can play tricks on you.  In fact, you ears will play tricks on you.

To hammer this point home, I am going to use Rob Swire ( Knife Party/ Pendulum) as an example. 

Just say a new producer and Rob are given the same preset. Let's even say they have the same tools, same studio, same everything. In fact, let's assume that can't change the basic sound concept of the preset and have to use the same melody.

The end result? Rob's preset is going to sound light years " better" than the new producer, this isn't because he knows a ton of " tricks" ( tho sound design knowledge is needed) its because over the years he's learned how to perfectly craft sounds to have great textures. He knows what works and what doesn't, his ears hear sounds in amazing detail.

Not only has he learned how to craft sounds, he's learned how to craft sounds that mix together ideally.

The thing with mixing is, you have to have all the sounds in their ideal form for the best outcome. If you have less than ideal starting sounds, the mix will suffer.

This is why learning sound design is important, but there is also a lot more to it than just how to make a sick wub wub or how to make a Mord Fustang Arp. You need to craft the sounds that work together in the mix you are currently working on. It's hard to give a do this do that on this subject because it is so in depth. In fact, there is no right answer in this for every situation.

Now, you may be saying. Well, if I learn sound design, If I learn how to make sounds won't that fix the problem.

Yes and no.

It will help the problem, but it won't fix the problem as your ears still won't be developed enough to hear what needs to be done.

This will be part of my upcoming blog posts, where I try to help people not only design sounds better, but also hear the mix clearer through sound design

While I feel sound design knowledge is great on its own (and fun) the true beauty in sound design is when you can design sounds to fit in the mix, this only comes with developed ears and a ton of practice. 

Although I don't think there are any magic pills to train your ears,( though in the future, I promise to try to provide the best solution I can) I truly hope my upcoming posts will at least start to take you down that path.

So, you may be asking...

" Ok, so I need sound design skills to help develop my ears, cool, how can I start training them TODAY"

Luckily, most of the " training" of your ears is already stuff your doing. However, if you think about these activities in a new light maybe you can speed up the process.

Again, I bet you do most of these already, but simply focusing on them may speed up the process.

6 Simple steps to train your ears quicker

1. Reference Tracks are your best friend. 

Simply put, the only way to learn how the best mixers in the world make their tracks is to learn to do as they do. I'm sure most people use them, however I've found you ideally want to compare on the same volume loudness.

Many people use reference tracks to see how " loud" the track needs to be, however, for the sake of mixing compare the levels of the elements at roughly the same loudness by adjusting the external volume knob as needed. Don't fret to hard about loudness just yet, work on getting elements in the same space as the pro's.

Lastly, you want to ideally compare a mp3 or wav to another of the same type.Comparing your tracks to streamed stuff isn't the best due to upload quality/playback, for example Soundclouds 128kbps isn't going to sound as good as a beatport mp3 download. The same goes for youtube as you don't know the quality of the original.

2. Visualize and compare each element of the mix.

When your starting out, this may be a bit out there. Once your ears start to develop though, you should be able to visualize each elements spot in the mix.

For example, when I am mixing I "see" the mix infront of me. Each element is in a certain spot, could be up front 100% or 50% towards the back of the mix and over about 25%.

I then mentally see what elements interact with it.

So If I place a bassline that I don't want to shine through the top of the mix, I would use a cut off/EQ to clean what is needed off the top( I would also design the sound to fit/be clean in the first place). After cleaning the area around that sound, I then place my next element, directly into the "pocket" I created for it. 

The ONLY way I am able to do this is by picturing each element directly in front of me.

3. Sound Textures are king.

I truly feel the best way to learn textures is by producing your own elements (presets) or simply using someone else's presets and shaping them with a clear understanding of what your doing.

The reason being this will train your ears faster than simply placing pre made presets and adjusting its placement in the mix.

Without this its really hard to get your ears to hear the detail they need to achieve clean mixes.

When I started out I couldn't tell saw from square, I truly had no " skill" or level of ear development. 

Over the years this changed to be able to pinpoint what the sound was made up of. The reason why this is ideal is because once you learn what makes up the sounds of pro tracks, you can do as they do and truly use their mixes as reference tracks.

4. Laser Focus

Perhaps the greatest tool to develop is the use of laser focus.  

It wasn't until I sat down to write this blog did I realize how key this is.

The other day I was listening to the radio and a vocal track came on with uber clear vocals. For whatever reason I wanted to know how much delay/ verb was on them to gain this clarity. I found myself pretty much blocking out all of the mix and focusing solo ly on the delay and verb from the vocals. Much like turning off the mixer channels for the other elements just in my mind.

Looking back, I realize I do this all the time on most elements, I block out everything I don't need to hear and focus on what makes up that one sound.  Try to start doing this when using reference tracks, than copy what that artist is doing for the sound you are after. It will take some time to develop your ears to be able to do this though, so just keep at it. 

5.Don't worry about Loudness, yet

I use to spend way to much time worrying about the loudness of my tracks, in fact that's pretty much all I cared about.  The reason being was I thought my tracks where solid, pro level stuff just not loud ( they weren't, not even close, remember as I said my ears lied to me) . In my quest for loudness I pretty much threw out all clarity and blinding copied the loudness of pro tracks, ignoring all the other much more important stuff ( like having great sound textures). 

When training your ears, focus on textures and placements, loudness will come later and it can always be mastered if you so desire.

6. Learn Your Speakers, Inside and Out

In my early days, I used to produce on everything I owned.

Earbuds, laptop speakers,bassy headphone, I even hooked up my 5.1 surround sound to try to produce better. The thing was, every week or so I'd switch whatever I was using. I'd buy $100 headphones and when my mixes still sucked I'd buy $150 headphones, over and over again. Not only did I go broke, I never learned ANY of them well.

By learning I mean, you KNOW how your playback device sounds. I don't care if you have low end gear or a 10k studio, if you learn your gear and know how pro tracks sound on it, than you can try to mimic the reference tracks a LOT better.

By switching gear all the time like I did, I never learned how the pro tracks sounded on my device, I was always blindly mixing hoping for the best. It wasn't until I stuck with ONE playback device did reference tracks start to actually help...a lot.  

You don't need high end gear when you start, just get whatever you can afford, but learn that ONE device to the best of your ability. 

So, basic recap.

- Having clean tracks is about having amazing textures on every element, that not only are designed to sound nice but also mix together.

- There isn't any "magic" secret to this, the majority of it is just training your ears to hear better.

-I feel sound design will speed this process up, it will allow you to train your ears at a much faster pace.

In the end, simply realizing that its going to take time for your ears to develop will help you keep your sanity. If you get frustrated with your mix quality don't fret, truly if you put in the time the majority of your "issues" will auto correct as your ears hear in more detail.

Awesome, there you have it. Open up your DAW and start training those ears. 

Ton's more on this soon,


Posted on February 23, 2015 and filed under Music Production.