Gregory Scott marvels at the moment of clarity that occurs when you play a track to someone for the first time.
Every engineer I know and every engineer I have ever spoken to all report experiencing a truly bizarre and completely inexplicable phenomenon disguised as a normal, everyday scenario.
It goes something like this: you’ve been grinding away on a part, an arrangement or a mix, probably for longer than you should. Maybe you think it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever done, maybe there’s something vague and elusive that bugs you. Maybe you know it’s finished, maybe you think it needs something else but you’re not sure what.
So you decide to play what you’ve got for someone else – usually a friend, a significant other or a client – and you do it with them in the room. It’s the first time anyone other than you has heard it so you’re a little nervous, but you hit play and BAM: everything about the way you hear it changes, and you have instant clarity where before there was only a haze of suspicion.
Somehow, you suddenly and abruptly find yourself hearing the music through the other person’s ears.
you suddenly find yourself hearing the music through the other person’s ears
If you think about that for a second, it’s an astounding thing. After hours, possibly even days, of working on a tune and hearing it a very specific way, you are inexplicably and effortlessly able to hear everything from a completely different perspective. From the smallest of details to the biggest of the big pictures, your entire outlook is transformed, and there’s no going back.
It’s a phenomenon which affects us all, from complete beginners to the most experience artists and producers. Just last week, in his track-by-track rundown of his new album, Claustrophobia, Paul Rose mentioned this very thing in passing: “I remember playing an early version of ‘Television’ to George FitzGerald, who was staying at my flat at the time, and being pretty embarrassed by how it sounded – sometimes you only get an idea of what you really think of a track when you play it with someone else in the room.”
The magic of the third person perspective
I’m fascinated by this phenomenon, primarily because it seems to me there’s a magical quality to it, something we all take for granted but for which nobody has ever offered – or even attempted to offer – any kind of physical, physiological, neurological or even spiritual explanation. How does it happen? Why are our brains not only able to experience such a sudden shift in perception – why are they compelled to? There’s nothing voluntary about it, it happens to you.
in essence, you experience a deeply personal thing from an abruptly impersonal perspective.
Sometimes it doesn’t happen until a particular moment in the track, but more often it seems to happen right out of the gate. And you don’t just hear technical details, you can also perceive musical and emotional qualities that you couldn’t get at before; in essence, you experience a deeply personal thing from an abruptly impersonal perspective.
You suddenly hear how your previously full-bodied beat actually feels flat and anaemic, or how an underwhelming percussive part is actually tight and perfectly balanced. You can hear how the breakdown fails to unleash its fury down into the drop, or you get chills as it does exactly that. Maybe you also hear how the chorus is majestic and soaring, which then highlights the fact that the re-intro which comes right afterwards falls so flat.
And if you’ve ever played a new mix or work in progress for a client or a friend – in other words, if you’re alive and reading these words – you know that, aside from everything else alluded to above, there is one reality that you can pick up on instantly, completely, and with all the nuance and subtlety of a sledgehammer crashing down on your skull: you know whether or not the other listeners in the room are moved by the music, or whether they are politely waiting for the end of the song so they can either say something courteous and superficial like “that’s really nice”, or begin the generally uncomfortable process of saying something like “it’s great, but…”.
The moment of realisation
Often, that moment of realisation – the moment your focus shifts and you’re able to hear your own work through someone else’s ears for the first time – is devastating. At its worst it may mean throwing what you previously thought was a promising song or production onto the creative scrap heap.
it's an essential and invaluable experience
But more often it’s a positive experience, or at least an extremely helpful one. Indeed, I’d go further: it’s an essential and invaluable experience and one you can tap – for free – whenever you need perspective on a track where you’ve lost the ability to clearly hear what’s working and what isn’t. I routinely call on the lovely Sarah, my better half, for exactly that. She, like many women, has exquisite ears for the things that matter, and very little interest in the things that don’t.
Whenever I’m stuck, or unsure, or just needing a little direction for the next step, I tell her I need to use her ears for a minute. She graciously obliges, and usually within 10 seconds of hitting play I have all the information I need. I hit stop, she looks at me with her “you got it?” look, I flash my “I got it” look right back, and she leaves wordlessly. At that point I either hit delete, or I continue refining the part – but this time with a much clearer sense of purpose.
Hearing through someone else’s ears is one of the most powerful tools in my songwriting, mixing and production toolkit. Whenever and wherever you can, I heartily recommend exploiting it for all its worth.
Gregory Scott is an engineer, producer and the owner of Kush Audio.