How come my tracks don’t sound like a commercial release?
Part 1: Ear Fatigue
News flash…Your ears fatigue Very quickly at high listening levels (yes, that means your ears do indeed get ‘tired’). When your ears are fatigued, your brains ability to register & seperate frequencies is dramstically reduced. Tha means your hearing becomes ‘muddy’!!
What is it about dance music that really drives us on? Why do we fell so empowered by it to move and shake?
Because the air being pushed by the massive (& extremely loud) speakers in your favourite club are quite literally pushing you around! The gravity effect of a kick and bass over a loud PA (public address) system is quite literally physics moving your body.
Don’t believe me? Next time you are in a club where the music is pounding your body (as well as your poor ears), try and move your self up and down (some call it dancing) in the opposite direction to the kick drum. i.e. move upwards when the kick strikes, and move downwards inbetween the kicks. I guarantee you it will feel awkward, uncomfortable and down right unnatural. Not to mention everyone around looking at you like your an alien! Get my point? Music is sound, and sound is physical.
So…. Why did I bother running you through that little episode and whats it got to do with Ear Fatigue? Well, quite simply, your ears are able to fatigue at levels much lower than that experienced in a club. And it is up to you to protect them from this fatigue to ensure you are making the most informed decisions possible about your music. If what I’ve said so far means nothing to you, perhaps skip the rest of this article and keep turning up your mixer to full. Good luck getting a decent sound, let alone being able to hear in 10 years.
Okay, thats all good and well, but what am I supposed to do about it and how do I know if my ears are ‘fatigued’?
The phenomenon known as TTS (Temporary Threshold Shift) basically means after prolonged exposure to loud listening levels, your ears’ ability to actually hear is reduced. You’re going temporarily Deaf! Don’t freak out, as the name suggests, this is temporary. But if you keep it up, can lead to permanent loss of hearing.
This handy site has provided a nice little chart with some real life decibel comparisons and even how long you can listen to certain levels before causing yourself damage. You’ll notice that increasing the volume from 90db to 95db (train whistle at 500 feet to a subway train at 200 feet) reduces the safe listening times from 8 hours to 4 hours! Don’t know what 90db is? Get yourself one of these valuable assets. A decent meter will only set you back about $100aud, and it will save you a lifetime of hearing if you use it… a wise investment if you ask me.
So, if you’re still wondering how loud you should be monitoring your productions, well that is a relative question. How long do you want to sit at the computer for? A good & safe place to start is: 8 hrs = 90db; 4 hrs = 95db; 2 hrs = 100db. Overall, if you stick to around 90db, you’ll protect your ears (you only have one pair!) and produce better music (since you won’t fatigue as quickly).
Now, if you thought I’d be finished, you’re wrong. Sound level is only one part of the ‘fatigue’ equation. Another very important area which often gets no attention, especially when you are feeling ‘in the zone’, is how long you spend listening to any one piece of audio. The longer you spend listening exclusively to one loop, one vocal part or one whole track, the quicker your ability to make objective mixing decisions fades.
Comparison is your best friend in this situation. The longer you listen to one piece of music, or one EQ setting, the quicker your ears adjust and get ‘comfortable’ with what they are hearing. This is a nasty trick your ears play on you and the only way to combat the adjustment is by making regular comparisons to other sounds.
If you are mixing your track, working on levels, panning, eq, compression etc, then by now you should have already chosen a commercial song from which to draw inspiration. Deciding which track is best suited to your needs is a personal choice but things to keep in mind are:
- Does it have the groove, energy, direction I want to achieve?
- Do I like the ‘sound’ of the song?
i.e. Is the Kick/Bass prominent and punchy enough? Can I see myself going mental to this on the dance-floor (or not… if that’s your direction). Are the different elements of the song (snare, hats, melody, pads etc) clear and cohesive or are they muddy and jumbled?
Once you’ve chosen the right track from which to compare, you should do so regularly.
For simplicity and speed, load the track into your project on an empty audio track, mute it and drop the channel volume until it matches the master bus when your own song is playing. Now that its at the same level, you can easily hit the ‘Solo’ button for a quick reference to what should be considered a professionally mixed & mastered track. You can make things even faster and intuitive by assigning the reference tracks solo button to a Hot-Key on your keyboard.
Now when you are making important decisions about how much bass to have, how loud the snare should be, how far back the pads should sit etc, you have an accurate place to compare your own project to. Sure it will be very challenging if not impossible to achieve exactly the same sonic signature, but with a lot of practice and perseverance you will find your sound quality improving dramatically.
Make sure when you are working with these tools that you check sooner rather than later. Don’t leave it until you’ve been at it for an hour, or even 10 minutes. The ear will adapt within seconds to fine EQ adjustments, and within minutes to a whole song.
This same technique can be applied when making EQ adjustments. The trick here is to ‘bypass’ the EQ instead:
- You have decided a certain sound requires an EQ tweak
- Reach for the EQ and start affecting the areas you feel necessary
- Turn the EQ off (or bypass the zones you have changed) and listen to the sound as it was previously
- Turn the EQ back on and compare to what you were trying to achieve
- Repeat until you have the sound just as you need it without making it sound worse
If you leave too much time between swapping the EQ in & out, you run the risk of allowing your ears to get used to your newly EQ’d sound. This will greatly hinder your ability to make objective decisions regarding your music.
In summary, your ears are your best friend and should be treated with respect. These friends like variety, hate loud noise for long periods of time and only have one lifetime. Once they are damaged, they are gone for good.
Monitor your music at safe levels for the appropriate lengths of time and you will find your ears lasting a very long time. Make quick comparisons to music that you would consider very well made, to a professional standard, and you will find the decisions you make in regards to your own sound become much easier and yield better results.
If you have any questions about this article or want to get into further detail, leave a comment and I’ll get back to you as soon as I’m able.
Good luck on your musical journey,