A number of years ago I took part in a critical listening exercise where participants where given a piece of music and 3 hours to provide a critical assessment of it. The piece of music lasted just over 4 minutes so during those hours I got very familiar with it, but I didn’t really get much beyond scratching the surface of it, in terms of critical listening. The point of the exercise was to enlighten us as to the difference between ‘hearing’ and ‘critical listening’. For those 3 hours I was receptive to the music, I heard it, absorbed it, liked and disliked aspects of it, but I wasn’t able to engage a more critical mindset and turn my receptive listening into an active evaluation of the music. At that early stage in my career as an engineer I simply didn’t know how to set about the process.
In his book ‘Critical Listening for Audio Professionals’ F. Alton Everest puts this down to experience. The experience of active engagement with sound, built up over an extended period of time, which gives the listener a frame of reference, thereby facilitating the ‘critical’ part of the process. As Everest points out, regardless of what analysis tools we might have at our disposal, we, as engineers, are the final arbiter of a sound’s quality, deciding whether it is fit for purpose. Thus the ‘critical’ nature of the listening.
I think it’s important to note that my 3 hour failure at critical listening was on more than one front (falling on my sword here for the benefit of the piece). Not only was I unable to engage a critical mindset in terms of the quality of the sounds, but also as to the relative quality of the composition. I couldn’t listen objectively to the music and get past a simple like/dislike matrix, to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the composition itself. I feel it’s important to make this distinction as I now find myself applying the same critical evaluation to sound design and mixing elements. My own critical listening strategy employs a combination of the above ; I still need to retain a subjective response, the simple fact that I like (or dislike) something often indicates it bears further scrutiny. Then I can bring to bear some objectivity, both in terms of the sound’s technical quality, as well as it’s appropriateness, musicality etc.
The Critical Listening environment
I don’t believe critical listening can only take place in a purpose built space, but it is generally held that there are certain characteristics that are desirable in a listening room. In a controlled listening environment we might strive to achieve a background noise level of 20dBA (sometimes known as NR20 or NC20) but in practical terms this proves difficult. In reality sound will exploit any air gap that might exist between your listening space and the noisy outside world. Worse than that, mechanical transmission through foundations, floor slabs, even shared electrical conduits, can thwart your quest for silence. And that’s not considering the sound you bring into the room with you. Short of putting all your studio equipment in another room (or one of the above boxes) you invariably have to deal with fan sound if you intend to work with audio.
Whilst we will likely never achieve a level of absolute silence in our listening room there is some research that indicates that this might not be an entirely desirable state of affairs anyway. A study by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2012 has shown that exposure to a certain level of ambient noise can actually increase creativity. This is by no means a new concept but only recently have studies been carried out into the phenomenon. Previously it was taken for granted as anecdotally proven by taking into account the number of authors who claim to have written best sellers in their local coffee shop.
Just to be clear here, I’m not claiming that your Magma chassis is inadvertently spurring your creativity, or that you need to take your work to the nearest café (though you can try it virtually if you want with this handy site. And, yes, there is an app for it). Unfortunately, given the nature of sound work, this sort of creativity turbo boosting would seem to be off-limits to us. But perhaps the core concept of ‘distracted focus’ is still something worth investigating. There is some evidence to support dimmer lighting in the working environment can foster creativity (though I imagine that’s one thing we’ve already got nailed down). Recently a colleague indicted the advantages to having a musical instrument on hand in the office, for those inevitable moments of reflection. Simply noodling on a guitar while thinking about the problem seemed to help move things along.
I’d be interested to hear of any other creativity enhancing strategies readers might have, especially if any of you cannot possibly function without absolute silence? Perhaps, as we work with sound all the time, we’re already on the bleeding edge of creativity. That’s a nice thought.