Practical Exercises for Critical Listening
Sound designers by nature have an inherent curiosity towards sound. We explore the way sounds work every time we approach a project. With each new opportunity to design a sound, we ask ourselves questions such as: What object/event produced the sound(s)? Where is the sound source located in relation to the listener, and just as importantly, how does (or how will) the sound impact an audience’s emotional state when heard?
It goes without saying that the sheer act of producing our own sonic work, and by critically listening to and dissecting the works of others (as Berrak Nil Boya explored and extrapolated on in her recent post) will inherently make us stronger and better critical listeners. Though along with these practices, it is invaluable to also step away from evaluating completed, produced works and critically listen to some alternate sound sources, and in some potentially new ways; just like exercising a muscle, the more angles you can target your critical listening “muscle”, the stronger and more well-rounded it becomes.
The question then must be, other than by evaluating an already existing game or film’s audio as it was intended, how, and what, can we listen to in order to hone our listening abilities?
This post looks to add to this conversation by offering a few exercises I’ve picked up and augmented over the years and still use to this day. Once again, just like any exercise routine, training your critical listening is an on-going responsibility for any sound designer (though vitally important early in your career, continued practice is essential to maintain a high level of critical listening fitness).
During my university years, I had a professor that asked the class to pair up and then take turns leading each other around the college campus blindfolded. The sighted individual would guide their blindfolded partner only when necessary to avoid imminent environmental dangers, but for the most part, they were supposed to stay silent.
As I took my turn and placed a blindfold over my eyes, an overwhelming feeling of confusion and fear paralyzed me from walking in any direction; I needed time to orient myself to this new scenario. The sounds I heard did not provide me with enough information; I was used to having my vision as an immense auditory crutch (unknowingly hindering my full ability to listen).
After a few minutes, the sonic confusion started to make a small semblance of sense and I attempted to walk around. As I walked slowly, and listened deeper and deeper, certain sounds became more pronounced and the importance of causal listening became very clear. I needed to pay a lot more attention to the sonic world around me in order move in any direction at all.
For a short time during this exercise, I was able to hear what the world had to offer without the distraction of visuals. Obviously an individual that is permanently blind lives within their sonic world in a way that sighted individuals will never fully grasp, though this is a small step in that direction (and it is a very exciting direction to explore).
To witness something incredible, check out Terry Garrett’s listening abilities as he plays a video game (without being able to see):
The first “gig” that I took after graduation was an assistant engineering position that required late nights after everyone had left the studio (backing up sessions, filling out recall sheets, and other related tasks). While the files backed up and after I finished my other tasks, I found myself alone in an environment surrounded with unique sounds (specifically in the machine room) that I could use as audio cues in order to direct me without sight.
This led me to (on occasion) walk through the studio’s machine room and library with my eyes closed, listening for directional cues in the same manner that I experienced in that class in college. And though I was never injured (maybe a scratch or two) or broke any gear while doing these blind walks through the studio, I cannot with good conscience recommend that anyone actually try this (for your own safety, and job security).
Instead, there is an alternative to this that I still practice which is much less dangerous, and with time, is extremely effective at tuning yours ears in a similar manner. It is a very simple variation; instead of walking, just stand (or sit) still and listen with your eyes closed or blindfolded.
To do this effectively, find a safe location, bring a recording device (your smartphone works fine) and just sit or stand. Start recording, close your eyes and listen. This may take some time to adjust, but after a few minutes, what do you hear? Are sounds audible that a few minutes ago you were taking for granted (or just didn’t hear)? Keep listening. Do you hear anything else? Now you can start to think about how loud the sounds are that you are hearing. Where are the objects producing the sounds located in relation to you (panning position)?
The next step is to start orally documenting your observations by speaking your thoughts into the recording device. For instance, if you are seated in a park, you may hear the leaves of a tree rustling right above you and slightly to the right, you may hear children playing (voices, movement sounds) in the foreground, you may hear cars on a highway in the distant background panning from left to right behind you. You may hear the distant rumbles of thunder from an impending storm. Where are the thunder sounds coming from, and are successive thunder sounds moving closer or further from you? Think about how loud these sounds are in relation to each other and how they progressively change over time. We all know that a car engine is louder than the rustling of leaves, but it is all a matter of position/distance. How do these sounds mix and sound to you at that specific moment? Mention these specifics when documenting your listening experience. The more detail you document and hear, the better, though the specifics of what you say is less important than the physical process of critically listening with the intent of documenting the nuances of the soundscape.
Yes, this may look strange to bystanders and people may look at you funny (which you will only notice when you open your eyes), they may even think you are a bit off-kilter (as you talk to yourself), though that is to be expected, and for most of us recording folks, that is nothing we haven’t experienced before. Regardless, by doing this exercise, what you are subconsciously practicing is your ability to mix accurately, and that is worth every odd look in the world.
When we mix to picture (either for film, or even through game audio implementation), we are trying to simulate (and sometimes audibly enhance) reality. By listening and dissecting the sounds that we hear in the world around us (especially without using our vision), we are building up our sonic memory of what certain scenarios should naturally sound like. Over time, you will find that when mixing audio for a visual medium, you can close your eyes and listen to your mix and sounds that just don’t feel natural will jump out at you much quicker.
Please though, and I cannot stress this enough, make sure you are in a SAFE environment, you definitely do not want to put yourself in a location that could jeopardize your safety in any way. Please practice all these exercises responsibly.
Listening to Fear
Sound has immense power over the emotional states of our audience. Our ability to hear and instantaneously comprehend sounds that emanate from objects outside of our range of vision (for instance, behind us) makes hearing the most valuable fight-or-flight sense that we possess, and fear is one of the most universal emotions. In media, the genre that uses this mechanism most frequently is horror. In horror based games and films, our goal as sound designers is to evoke fear, panic, and even the release of tension (or fear) at the proper moments. This is why I recommend using a horror film (linear media such as a film works better than something like a game, which requires interaction) for the following exercise.
First, pick a horror film and turn it on. Then, turn off the audio and just watch the images of the film or game. What is supposed to be scary, more often than not, turns out to feel comical when it lacks its audio accompaniment. This is a true testament to the power and importance of effective sound design in visual media.
While this is a fun exercise to witness (and you can augment this by imagining what sounds should be there to stretch the value of this exercise), an even more effective variation is to turn off (or not view) the images on the screen and only listen the soundscape of the film. You will find that the soundscape of the film, even detached from the visuals, fulfills its emotional objective. You should feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up at the right moments, and you will feel the sense of fear, tension, and release in the way that the film intended (unlike, for the most part, when you watch the visual without sound). Now think about what sounds and combinations of sounds gave you the most sense of fear. Was it the vocal effect applied to the antagonist? Was it the music (what specifically about the music)? The sound design (remember to think specifics)? Was it the combination of numerous sonic elements and the mood the established as a whole? Again, your answers here are secondary to the experience of thinking about sound in this critical manner.
Reduced Listening of Sound Effect Libraries
The last exercise that I recommend focuses on the concept of reduced listening. We all have access to various sound libraries and we listen to them as needed when searching for sounds that we may be able to modify and use in our own sound design, though when we listen to sound effect libraries, we usually listen causally, meaning when we hear an audio file of a car door closing, we immediately recognize and associate that with the closing of a car door. For this exercise, try to break away from thinking in this manner. Listen to numerous (hundreds if you can) car door close sounds (as just a random example), but do not listen to them as the sounds of doors being closed, listen to these sounds as just that, sound. What frequency content does the sound asset contain? How loud or quiet are certain frequencies? What feeling does it give you? What makes it unique from the other hundred door close sounds that you listened to? What could you do with this sound? Could you layer it with other sounds, blending its frequency content with other audio to produce something new? If mixed with other sounds, what types of sounds could this door closing sound enhance (as one example, could I use it to enhance a thunder clap if I process and edit it to be a layer within the overall thunder sound)? What would happen if the sound was pitch shifted or filtered dramatically? What could it become? If you listen to a sound effect library with these questions in mind and disregard what the sound’s original source was, you will surely enhance your reduced listening abilities and find some interesting sonic material to use for a later project while you are at it.
The exploration of sound in nature and through these varied angles can lead to not only improved critical, active listening abilities, but also to the production of completely new sonic experiences as well. Taking a cue from the blindfolded listening exercise, when you can be intune and just listen to how sound works in our natural world, there is a much larger chance of finding creative inspiration from the sounds that are all around us. A perfect example of this comes from a former Designing Sound contributor and composer, Keith Lay and his Distance Music compositions. While briefly talking with him about the topic of listening, he mentioned to me that it was listening to thunder and the way it travels that inspired his recent compositional work (well worth checking out through his Kickstarter campaign – video below).
The main point of this post is to urge all sound designers to listen (critically) and listen often. Try to listen to different sources and in different ways. Work out your listening “muscle” as much as you can, your ears, and your sound design will thank you.