Improving Your Production Chops By Learning How To Listen To A Hit

Whenever I do song critiques or hit song analysis for my Hit Makers Club members, I can always bet I’ll get the same two comments, “How did you know to listen for that?” and “I’ve listened to this song dozens of times but I’ve never heard that before!” That’s because we’ve grown up hearing, but not really listening, especially when it comes to music. A quick way to improve your production chops is to learn from the hits, and that means “listening through the song.”

Improve your production chops by learning from a hit on Bobby Owsinski's Music Production Blog

“Listening through” means that we’re analyzing what we’re hearing. We temporarily remove ourselves from enjoyment mode and try to heighten our ability to understand what we’re listening to. You’d be surprised how much you can learn from almost any hit song when you do this.

You don’t have to like the song or the genre of music or the artist either. Any hit has managed to capture some sort of magic, so we want to see if we can isolate that lightening in a bottle. We might never get there, but we’ll learn a lot in the process, which will enhance our production chops as a result.

Here are a few things to start to listen more closely to (it will work on your own songs as well).

  • Listen for the instrument providing the song’s pulse. All music, even dream-like ambient, has a pulse, and that’s the first thing you want to notice.
  • Listen for 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 it repeat after it stops playing?
  • Listing 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 and timbre each instrument and 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 section? 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 band? Is the bass out in front of the drums?
  • Identify the hook of the song. What instrument or vocal plays it? When does it occur? Is it built around a lyric? Does the song even have one?
  • 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?
  • Listen to the overall timbre of the song. Does it seem bright? Bassy? Is there an instrument or vocal that stands out because of its 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?
  • Is the song fun to listen to? Why?

There are another dozen listen-to’s that can be added to the above list, but what’s there is a great way to get started. I promise that if you do this for the next few weeks your production chops will get better and you’ll start to see the difference in your own recordings.

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