Hit songs are marvelous teachers. It doesn’t matter whether you like the song or the artist, the recording captured some sort of magic that makes millions of people want to listen to it. That makes it worthy of analysis because there’s always something we can learn.
If you really want to understand an audio recording and hear it in a new way, here are a few pointers on what to listen for. I’m going to break it down to a general technique, and then add an additional advanced technique for experienced musicians, engineers and producers, since they already have more refined listening skills.
General Listening Technique
While this might seem like a long list, these are just some of the things that an experienced studio ear will hear almost automatically. You can train yourself to do the same pretty easily. Just start with a few at a time, and before you know it, you’ll naturally be listening through the song, instead of just hearing it. Beware that after listening like this, you can sometimes get too analytical and lose the enjoyment of the song for awhile (it happens to most first year college music and audio students).
• Listen for the instruments that are providing the pulse to the song. All music, even dream-like ambient, has a pulse, and that’s the first thing you want to notice.
• Listen to the ambience. Does a vocal or an instrument sound like it’s in the room right in front of you, or in a club, or a church, or a cave? Is there an audible reverb tail? Can you hear a repeat or reverb trail after it stops playing?
• Listen to the clarity of the mix. Can you hear each instrument and vocal clearly in the mix? Are some buried so you can’t distinguish what they are? Can you identify all the instruments that you’re hearing?
• Listen to the clarity of each instrument or vocal. Does it sound lifelike or distorted? Is there an effect used to alter its sound?
• Try to identify each section of the song. Is something new happening the second and third time you hear a verse or chorus? Is there a new vocal or instrument introduced? Is one taken away? Is an effect added or subtracted?
• Try to identify the loudest thing in the mix. Is the vocal louder than the other instruments or is it lower than the rest of the mix elements? Is the bass out in front of the drums or are the drums front and center?
• Identify the hook of the song. What instrument or vocal plays it? When does it occur? Is it built around a lyric? Does it even have a hook that’s obvious?
• Listen to the stereo soundfield of the song. Are there instruments or vocals that only appear on one side? Are there instruments that appear on both sides? Is the dry instrument on one side with its ambience on the other?
• Listen to the overall timbre of the song. Does it seem bright? Bassy? Is there an instrument or vocal that stands out because of it’s timbre?
• Listen to the dynamics of the song. Does it breath volume-wise with the song’s pulse? Does it sound lifeless or do the instruments and vocals sound natural like you’d hear in a club?
• What’s the mood of the song? Is it happy or sad? Can you tell why? Is it because of the tempo? The key of the song?
• Is the song fun to listen to? Why?
The following is for those who have more studio experience so you can listen with a bit more precision.
• Listen for the time signature. Where’s the downbeat and how many beats until the next one?
• Listen for the number of different sections in the song. Do the sections repeat? Does the song have a bridge? Is there an interlude between sections?
• Listen for the number of bars in each section. How long is each section? Is it the same length the next time it repeats? Are there any extra bars of music? All music isn’t symmetrical in that it won’t necessarily have 4, 8, 12, or 16 bar sections, and in many cases you’ll find an extra bar before or after a section.
• Listen to the chord pattern(s) of the song. Does it change from the verse to the chorus or bridge? Does it change the next time the section repeats? Is there a key change in the song?
• Listen to the song’s melody. Are there big jumps, and if so, in what section are they?
• Listen for any delays on individual instruments. Is the delay timed to the track so the repeats are in synch with the pulse of the song? Is the same delay used on multiple instruments or are there different ones?
• Listen to the ambience of the song. Is there more than one environment? Does each one have the same decay? Does each one have the same timbre?
• Listen for the compression in the song. Can you identify which instruments are compressed? Can you hear the compressor working? Does the song sound more or less compressed than other songs that you’re listening to?
• Are there any doubled instruments or vocals? Are they panned in stereo?
There are a number of other listening details beside these that experienced studio ears utilize, but these are a good place to start. Of course, don’t get so hung up on these points that you lose enjoyment of the song as that would defeat the purpose of what you’re trying to accomplish, which is a better understanding of the production details. Remember, every hit, regardless of its genre, is a great teacher. Good listening!
You can read more from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.