You may have noticed we do a lot of shootouts on the podcast. Outside of the podcast we’re doing informal shootouts all the time, figuring out which compressor to use or reverb. If you look online there are thousands of gear shootouts for anything you can think of. Audio engineers do this for a few reasons.
First of all, we do it because we’re geeks, we’re socially awkward and have very little else to talk about.
Secondly we do it to find the best tool for the job, sometimes that tool costs thousands of dollars, sometimes there’s something almost as good for less. We do it to help us make better decisions on what to buy.
And most importantly, and the reason that may not be apparent if you’ve ever looked at the discussions of a gear shootout, is we do it to train our ears to hear what’s different. It’s an exercise for our ears and brain which helps us improve our skills.
Here are a couple of preamp shootouts I found online that I tested myself with this week. The products themselves don’t matter so much as if I could hear and describe the differences.
In the first shootout a song was recorded on a $2300 Great River MP-2NV preamp and a $30 ART MP preamp. 3 tracks each, acoustic guitar, bass and vocals.
I know that I won’t be spending $2300 on a preamp in the near future and I probably won’t be buying a $30 preamp either. I listened anyway, the difference between these should be obvious based on price alone. It’s funny reading the thread on Gearslutz because 75% were wrong in identifying the more expensive preamp.
This next shootout is comparing the Focusrite preamps in a digidesign Control 24 with API 3124 on high gain double tracked guitars.
As with most preamp shootouts. The results are subtle but could have a major impact on the final product.
There are other types of ear training we can do besides gear shootouts
In my music theory classes in recording school we were regularly tested on pitch and intervals. I was pretty bad at it, but I’m now seeing how important it is to be able to recognize notes and chords by ear for vocal and instrument tuning, songwriting. Test yourself on this with just a keyboard.
Getting to know what different frequencies sound like is also important. Check out quiztones.net for an interactive frequency test. On the site you can test yourself identifying various sine wave frequencies, and boosting a specific frequency in white noise, guitar and drums. Learning to do this should help you EQ things faster.
Carefully listening to your favorite recordings is another way to get better at hearing details. Listen to each instrument, the balances, each frequency range, where things appear in the stereo image or depth. There is a lot going on that may not be noticed until you look for it.
Another thing to try is to learn what various styles of guitars or basses or amps sound like. Many online music stores have samples of each guitar. Get to know how a Strat compares to a Tele, Les Paul, hollow body Gretch, PRS etc. How a parlor size Martin compares to Yamaha, Gibson, Fender, Takamine etc. Learning to do recognize instruments helps you with composing and producing.
What do you do to train your ears?
It’s always nice to do some ear training (you are right about the social implications of being an audio nut too!), sometimes you can see peoples eyes glazing over when an engineer is in full conversational swing, lol