Notes from the Underground: Comparative and Critical Listening

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Notes from the Underground: Comparative and Critical Listening

Comparative and critical listening
Words by Christopher Brownbill

We live in a world of toys and tinsel and everyone is trying to sell us something that will improve our quality of creativity.

Hello readers, today I want to talk about comparative and critical listening, and what I’ve learnt from exercising objective outlook on musical equipment.

We live in a world of toys and tinsel and everyone is trying to sell us something that will improve our quality of creativity. A very dangerous premise as insecure music makers who feel like we are faking it at the best of times. We are always on the hunt for something that will make us sound better or even improve the sonics of something by even a few percentile, essentially asking to be manipulated and sold cumbersome fancy items described as “warm”, “punchy”, “game changing” or “ground breaking”. The problem is that a bunch of gear out there is actually kinda ground breaking. Differentiating the pragmatic from the impractical is a journey that drains the wallet and repopulates it slowly. I know this struggle intimately. For the majority of my life I have been purchasing and scrutinizing every potential link in the signal chain. From the ubiquitous and reputable items changing hands amongst the local scene to the hens teeth found at the far flung corners of Okinawa craigslist. I have been here, there and everywhere searching for the puzzle pieces and I am battle scarred but still meddling, for curiosity and examination can never be razed in a world of sound.

Critical listening

If you ask any recordist what their lightbulb moment was, they may state that thick rockwool and purpose built diffusers changed their whole recording/mixing game. They might say that a swiss army tube vocal microphone was the answer to all their problems. It could be the power amp they are monitoring with, or a scalloped guitar neck innovating how they play and write music. I wish I could tell you where and how I saved money and sleep but all of our budgets and goals are different.

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This is where we need to look beyond how we feel and probe only what is coming out of the speakers. If we are concerned about our own goings on in the comfort of our living room, other people don’t matter (ask any hi fi enthusiast), but if we are to exist not in a vacuum and we are to help others make recordings, then what is coming out of the speakers is the be-all and end-all.

Our preconceived notions can be very misleading to us as consumers. Our cognitive bias is so strong that our brains fill in gaps that aren’t there. Listening, after all, isn’t about our ears. It’s all in our brains. This isn’t a theory but a measurable fact. How fancy the equipment looks, who endorses it, the size of it, the cost and where it traveled from also manipulates our perspective. It relates to a basic phenomenon observed since the 70’s as demonstrated on a scientific level by Harry McGurk and John McDonald.

The McGurk effect

Discussions on the perceptual phenomenon known as the McGurk Effect do the rounds on audio forums such as gear space and Reddit routinely. This is an exercise that portrays the interaction between hearing and vision in speech perception. It occurs when the auditory component of one sound is paired with the visual component of another sound, leading to a perception of a third sound. For example, if a video shows someone mouthing the syllables “ga, ga, ga,” while a different audio track plays the syllables “ba, ba, ba,” viewers often perceive the sound as “da, da, da.” This effect highlights how our brains integrate visual and auditory information and it completely melts my brain:

This is an incredibly simple experiment that is based on incremental movements of the lips and the illusion our brain creates. So if obfuscation is this typical in our day to day lives, then why are we making complex decisions based on infinitesimal differences in frequency response so haphazardly in a working environment?

Have any of you been in a situation where you have upgraded converters, say from a $2k converter unit to a $5k box. Upon assessment, “it sounds a bit deeper maybe, the top end feels a touch less brittle.. I think?! Regardless, it’s more money so it must be making all these recordings sound better I guess.” Our brains tell us so much of what we want to hear. The problem is once we pack something away or sell it, order a new piece of gear, plug it in and bring up the fader, it’s not really a blind AB test. This is where the art of comparative listening comes into play.

HOFA 4U+ Blind Test

A few years ago German software company HOFA sent me the first version of their plugin called 4U blind test and this turned out to be the biggest game changer in my journey. I suspect it was originally developed for comparing mixes and masters (which is its primary function in my facility these days), but it is incredibly useful for comparing different equipment such has converters, guitar sounds, microphones, compressors, effects, literally anything that is ready to be placed in a DAW for scrutiny. It allows me to shed all preconceptions and ideas I’ve had about anything I’m working with and just listen without any bias. The plug-in has amazing features such as peak level display that allows volume matching, an ability to shuffle the auditions and also space to rate and make notes. There is also a free version for a max of four sound sources which is often enough.

Hofa Blind Test

This elementary yet genius piece of software has become such a life (and money) saver for me and I couldn’t recommend it enough. If you don’t happen to be in a metropolitan area in which a store is willing to lend you equipment for auditioning, the internet has become a treasure trove of blind tests for you to load into a DAW and assess if it is in fact sonically useful to you.

I have now compiled countless embarrassing moments of loading in various recordings and deeming that the expensive thing I’ve bought doesn’t really matter as much as I thought it did. As for one example, I had the opportunity to blind test an original Neve 1073 ripped out of a 1970’s A88 console against a few modern reproductions plus a JLM NV500 module. The $15k original module barely won by an eyelash, and in contention to a $700 DIY kit you can probably guess which module we decided to fill our console with.

The lesson of the day is to never listen with your eyes or your conscious mind, only with the part of your brain that is naked. Happy testing.

Chris Brownbill is a Meanjin based recording engineer. He is originally from the Sunshine Coast where he cut his teeth recording local bands before moving slightly North when he was 20 to open Sun Distortion, an all ages community space and recording facility. Shortly after the closure of this space, Chris was selected to attend an engineering workshop in France with Steve Albini and Greg Norman.

Upon return, the first form of Underground Audio was opened in 2015 and was based in West End. Underground is now located on the North side and Chris is there every day of the week either tracking bands or as a technical staff. Contact Underground Audio here.