Gregory Scott marvels at the moment of clarity that occurs when you play a track to someone for the first time.

Gregory Scott - Kush-Cafe

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.

Author Gregory Scott
14th April, 2015

Comments

  • I’ve totally experienced this before, especially in the realm of production. When your in the moment and the creative juices are flowing you feel that you’ve created the greatest piece of music known to man, but that euphoria is quickly reined in once another presence is invited to listen.

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  • playing your record on public (while dj set) makes same but 100-times stronger experience. nice article.

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  • “…headphones more suited to mixdowns.”

    and BOOM … gone is the credibility of the whole article…

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  • for some reason my dumb smartphone cached an article on headphones.

    this article was great. never happens to me. maybe it’s psycosomatic?

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  • This does work well but make sure you are using a reliably objective source. It can become frustrating hearing someone become overly critical if they are listening without an open mind before the track even begins. It can be misleading if they state the parts they would change even though they have expressed a dislike for the style of music, tempo, or overall feeling. Be careful not to disregard the feedback as well as it all could stem from a knee-jerk first impression. Most of the time in these cases it is their way of trying to help and give advice.

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  • Yeah, best to enlist a novice/punter. Show it to another engineer and you’re asking for trouble.

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  • I have spoke of this phenomenon many times to many different people. I can work on a mix until I’m blue in the face, and have lost all perspective, and then I play it once for someone, and without them uttering a single word, I know what needs to be fixed!

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  • When you show something you have worked so hard on to someone else for the first time, you want it to be, for their sake, the best it can be. It’s this desire to offer your best to another that causes you to apply your own universally stringent and nearly unattainable standard to your work – as if the new listener had the same standard by which your work was judged. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. The same happens when I listen to a real-time bounce with the intention to share… we put our hyper critical ears on, not just our work ears…

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  • Totally !

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  • Yes! Only happens with strangers for me though. Doesn’t trigger if it’s somebody close to me.

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  • Great article!

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  • Good to know that this is a phenomenon experienced by many. Thank you

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  • I like the psychological thrust of this article, since music involves change over time, it’s easy to become normalized to mix changes without considering alternatives — not unlike driving faster and becoming velocitized.

    Another way to hear things with a “fresh pair of ears” is right after a nap/sleep, when you’re still in that groggy innerstate and aren’t fully awake: your inner censor (mine, anyway) isn’t going to kick in as firmly and it can feel like someone else produced your track! I do this often.

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  • I thought this only happened to me!

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  • It’s called empathy. You’re unconsciously putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. So yes, magic 🙂

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  • 1) Science has already demonstrated that the outcome of an experiment changes if there is an observer involved: https://theobservereffect.wordpress.com/the-most-beautiful-experiment/

    2) Even just one person in the audience listening with a sense of magic rapture to my live performance -and I don’t even need to see who and where they are because I can feel them- or musicians on stage listening to each other with the same sense of wonder can trigger a massive wave of inspiration where the music seems to arrive effortlessly to my mind, fingers and feeling from a different dimension!

    3) When subject to a music test or scrutiny where there is a judge or teacher waiting to grade me, the opposite happens: mistakes appear out of nowhere and the performance becomes an act of endurance and survival

    4) You are a lucky man for having a wife that brings inspiration into your music, mine usually acts like the teacher judging me when I show her my music, unless everybody is going crazy in the audience, then she likes it!

    5) Wives apart, we can learn how to incorporate both perspectives into our point of view when we want to have a more objective point of view. After we experience many of these moments, they become second nature and we can trigger them into our consciousness even when we are alone

    6) We do influence each other in the end we are both waves and physical particles at the same time and music is the art of playing with waves!

    Thanks for the great article!

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  • ‘“…headphones more suited to mixdowns.”
    and BOOM … gone is the credibility of the whole article…’

    Actually, there goes yours.
    Not only are you quoting a different article, but there are people who (surprise) are able to mix on headphones, whether out of necessity or choice.

    At the very least, every mix should be checked on headphones.

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  • Excellent article.

    If no one else is available or willing at the moment, there are other such tricks:
    The “other room” test, for one.
    Also, putting the track in a shuffled playlist with other reference tracks. Best to listen while a bit distracted – cooking, doing dishes. What is right and wrong will show itself immediately.

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  • 100% yes! That moment, as someone else listens with me, where I cringe suddenly noticing how badly something is eq’d or is mixed way too quietly. I love how it kicks me in the ass.
    Always always necessary to play it for other people. Moreso than spending $$ on multiple pairs of speakers.
    If no one else is around then I bounce it to an mp3, throw it on my phone and go for a walk with it in a playlist. Just the other day on a walk I had forgotten about one of my tracks, it came up at random and found a dozen things to improve.

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  • This article is brilliant : )
    Plants and animals help a lot too

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  • I totally agree 🙂 Brilliant article! The whole reason why people love music is how it makes them *feel* .. and precisely why us musicians, music creators, and performers make it happen because how we love to make something that (as Mr. Gregory above said) *moves* others to feel, empathize, inspire, heal. 🙂 and THAT is something that is worth more than all the gold in China in my humble opinion 🙂 Supercheers man! 🙂 Very inspiring indeed 🙂

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  • Just ran into Trent Reznor, Hans Zimmer and Marco Beltrami expressing this too!:

    https://youtu.be/gSAF9_ZHjfc?t=21m29s (cued up)

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