We scour our mailbox for the most deserving recipient of the Attack readership’s collective advice in the first experiment in crowdsourced answers to all kinds of production and creative problems. No query is too small, no question too personal…

Studio tommy

This month we discuss the idea of teaching ourselves to hear more accurately. Can you train your ears, or are some people just born with better hearing? Join the discussion in the comments below.


My question for the reader help article is this. Can you teach yourself to hear better? Other producers I know seem to be able to pick out problems in a mix better than I can or hear the effects of things like EQ and compressors easier. My monitors (KRK Rokit 8) should be good enough so I think the problem is me. I obviously don’t have the “golden ears” people talk about! Are there any ways to improve?


James C



Submit your questions through the contact page.

27th March, 2015


  • This is a surprisingly neglected question on most forums (and almost never taught in audio schools) and it’s fundamentally important to raising your mixing game.

    A few things: firstly, listen deeply and consciously when playing music for pleasure. Sure, first listen let it wash over you, but second, third, fourth time around, listen to what’s going on. I think of it like moving one’s perception of a mix from 2D to 3D. When it’s in 3D you have a chance to delve inside it – focus your attention to the layers of stuff happening behind that front facade.

    I see similarities too with the wider societal interest in mindfulness. You need to concentrate on the musical moment and think as every var passes, what’s happening here, in terms of EQ and compression and structure and arrangement. Not all at once – have one run-through when you’re thinking about arrangement, next when you’re thinking about how EQ is used to make space in the mix and so on.

    Good speakers definitely help. But a good room setup helps more. Apparently mushy mixes that you can’t hear into – that sound impenetrable and flat – are often the result of poor listening environment. Good headphones can help if you’re in that boat.

    I remember a Sound On Sound article years ago that said listening to music at this deep level gave an added layer of enjoyment to music. A bit like someone passionate about film being able to enjoy the lighting and film type and saturation where most of us just see *the film*. And though it took me a long time to train my ears to hear inside mixes in this way, I feel like I’m getting there.

    Most of all it’s about practice. Keep on listening. Keep comparing your own mixes to pro mixes you love and respect. And enjoy that mindful listening. It’s a way of enjoying the art of the mix engineer as well as the producer / musicians / songwriter etc.

    Good luck – with time you’ll improve your listening.

  • James,

    For me the critical first step was intensely listening to what EQ did.

    During mixing I would spend hours making quite extreme EQ boosts to hear exactly what parts of the frequency spectrum where being affected.

    In time I got to know both what frequencies needed attention without having to spend so much time in trial and error.

    But also, critically, i was able to hear in third party tracks what was happening at 250Hz and 1,000Hz and so on.

    After I’d trained by ears with EQ I found it much easier to listen in to other harder-to-hear things, like tweaks to reverb and ambience and what a compressor was doing to an individual drum sound in a busy mix.

    That kind of forensic training I’d done with EQ seemed to pay off with other parts of the mixdown too.

  • It’s all in the speakers and the room. Your speakers are OK. But if your room is set up badly no amount of intensive listening will make a better mix. There are plenty of articles out there about setting up room well on a budget. Even for free there’s loads you can do to make the best of even the worst situation – like speakers and you in equilateral triangle and so on.

    Get the room right, the rest will follow in time.

  • What @Glumbo said.

    I remember the first time I sat in a properly laid out studio and listened to my own mix on nice speakers and it was literally like a new world opened up. I could hear EVERYTHING. Abrasive freqs; the detail in a low-level reverb tail; remnants of delays fading back into the mix I never even knew were there on my home system.

    The next day I bought new speakers and spent a week setting my room up properly.

    That hour in a proper studio was the most useful hour I’ve spent in my music life.

    And my music took a major step upwards.

  • The truth is that people listen to music and sounds differently depending on they’re knowledge of what’s actually occuring. When you take your enjoying music hat off and put your critical listening hat that’s when your ears will start developing.

    An easy way to develop your listening skills is putting yourself in a production scenario where you have to make qualitative decision, in dance music especially this often has to do with the quality of the source material. Is this hi-hat really gelling with my kick and is the envelope/swing working in the way that I want it to? A lot of producers make the mistake of falling in love with they’re music and avoid being critical of it. Drop your ego out of the equation and truly ask yourself if the sounds are right and working, that’s the key to good listening. The rest is only a matter of putting certain technical aspects of production into practice.

  • Report
  • Wow, thanks for picking my question. Really interesting answers already. I discovered this article by Ableton this week which I found really interesting.

  • Sorry, forgot the link. https://makingmusic.ableton.com/active-listening

  • The current trend for ‘conscious listening’ (like conscious uncoupling) is whack.

    Truth is many of history’s greatest mix engineers and producers – including the true innovators across genres – weren’t sitting around ‘training their ears’. They had a sound in their head and the balls to go out on a limb and craft that sound.

    Yes, they had many hours of practise and experience. But it wasn’t over-thought. It was just done.

    The respect came later.

  • there is a very good piece on this included in the new book Denis DeSantis has just released via ableton. It bascialy covers the difference between listening actively and passively. Its a short section but quite a good one.

  • Oh…Someone beat me to it 😀

  • I haven’t met a single person in my years in the industry whose ‘golden ears’ haven’t been the result of thousands of hours behind a mixing desk.

    The best of those ears – sported by mastering engineers – are on professionally who’ve been plying their craft for decades.

    Which is not to say it’s not worth trying some of the ideas above. Sorting your room sound out is a pre-requisite.

    But after that, it’s time that refines the skill.

  • Piece of advice i got recently: Turn down the volume when working on your final mix this way it’s easy to recognise sounds that are to loud or too quite!

  • Some great suggestions so far but most are top down. Here are a few bottom up suggestions.

    1) Understand frequency ranges where instruments tend to fall. Get a track that represents (to you) a well produced piece of music and load it into a DAW. Set up a low pass filter and a high pass filter each with no resonance. Close your eyes and sweep each filter, one at a time, and listen to when each instrument falls out. When something (like the kick drum) falls out open your eyes and take note of the frequency. You will be surprised where things fall. For instance I find the boom of a kick falls between 48 and 56 Hz and the punch is around 1 kHz.

    2) Carefully eq each instrumet. Use a high pass filter on everything. Set a band of a parametric eq to have an extremely high q and max the gain. Sweep the eq across the entire spectrum slowly and listen for the areas that bother you the most. This is a lot like tuning a guitar. When you find an area that really bothers you drop the gain to negative (between -2 and -6 is usually enough) and drop the q until it blends nicely. This will help you get a better sound and understand where problem frequencies fall for various instruments.

  • Your question is: Can you teach yourself to hear better?

    Yes. Teaching yourself is always a difficult task because you have no teacher to break a topic down into small and easy digestable bits, but it is possible. I too only know people who aqcuired these golden ears by decades of training, but I am talking about masters of their craft, who earn their money with listening and mixing. What you are possibly looking for are some techniques, which will help you getting better day by day. I’m certainly not a teacher, but would like to share my thoughts on this topic:

    – Listening at low and very low levels is always a good idea, because our ears work more exact at low levels, and it also prevents ear fatique.
    – Try to find words, that describe a sound. My main job is selling hearing aids, and I often recognize that people don’t know how to describe what they hear. What you can not describe, you can not think about. What you can not think about, you can not achieve.
    – When you found enough words to describe a sound, build categories.
    – try to listen to your favourite tracks on different speakers. Find words to describe the overall sound. Try to emulate that sound in your studio, using an EQ (you will not get exact results by only using eqing, but it will help you, training your ears.)

    Hope you find this helpful, have a great weekend.

  • Headphones + weight lifting + tread mill. Repeat. This has been my single best tool in critical listening.

  • https://www.trainyourears.com what do you think about this software?

  • Spend 25% of your time in the studio listening to other peoples music.

  • My father always told me that, you should born for music, and If you don’t come with “special hearing” you’ll not be able for music production. When I broke up that tought and start studing in a school of music, I realize that you don’t have to born with special hearing if not, you have to train your hearing. Obviously, some people seems to have special hearing with them, but if you train your ears you’ll be able to have that special listening. That requires, listen lots of music, train your ears in some frequencies ranges, put tracks in your favourite DAW and put in that channel spectrum analyzer, and watch and listen. The training is what is goint to take you to the next level.

  • Some tips:

    Cut the kicks of your favourite tracks, put an spectrum analyzer in the channel, and look how frequencies look. Close your eyes then, feel it, and insert and EQ and start boosting, or cuting some frequencies. Play with that kick, try different things. Then, search for a similar kick in your kick library and try to get the same sound of the kick that you hear before. This kind of things helps your listening and your productions.

  • Well.. so sure.. start with good monitors… there’s an argument for having different monitors that you can switch through to check different things.. and then accoustic treatment… These are the most important first steps…

    There are exersizes you can do… like to be able to hear differences of volume.. differences in frequency…

    A lot of people will tell you “to mix with your ears not with your eyes”… so not to use meeters or things that sorta show you what’s going on with what frequencies… but I think this is somewhat wrong.

    It’s not that you shouldn’t use meters and things that show you what’s going on in what frequencies.. it’s that you need to find the right relationship to these things.. AND… being able to see what’s going on… and at the same time hear what you are seeing.. I think there’s like an ear-educational value to that.

    Another thing… is to trust your self and your ears… Durring a production you’re ears get tired of hearing the same old thing kinda deal… and what you thought was good you now start to think isn’t so much… now you have to kinda apprecaite this fact.. and know that even if you think it sounds kinda bad.. it might not be that bad.. and how you manage this is another problem… how do you make choices under this condition? You need a strategy..

    One of the issues… I think.. is sorta how long you’ve been doing this for, what kinda experience you have.. Eventually you come to a situation where you have solutions for whatever problems show up.. at around this point.. I feel like you have a choice between using one of these solutions.. which I’d call an “off the shelf solution”… cause maybe it’s a technique everyone else uses.. or maybe it’s your own… and then there’s the “roll your own solution” approach. The latter means you gotta go on a little journey.. and trust your ears along the way… and in my experience.. it’s doing this kinda thing that not only gives you more arrows in your quiver.. but will result in some of the more interesting results.

    I think a lot of young producers beat them selves up a little too much about not being good enough… or there’s a kind of insecurity… in the ego… and you see this on forums all the time… the roll of insecurity… You shouldn’t really believe there are these “gods” of production… and then mere mortals.. and your a mere mortal…

    What you gotta do is kinda trust where you’re at, and work… and not let anything get in your way. I think the single biggest challenge is how do you motivate your self to have the kind of focus and work ethic that’ll make you great. That’s really hard when you go “um, but how am I going to make money doing this, I need to eat, I could be doing that thing over there, maybe there’s no way I could ever make money from this.. everyone says it’s like playing the lottery” kinda thing….

    Another thing is have some challenging listening in your diet. I think of listening to music as a kind of professional activity… to cultivate your sense of taste… and can you appreciate all different kinds of music… including like.. lets say way out there modernist classical.. or jazz…

    There’s a way that beauty in music has something to do with the listners ability to recognize patterns… and the pattern to skirt in and out of ambiguity…

    Err so I don’t know, stuff like that?

  • I’m just getting into music production myself, and the advice I’m finding here is both encouraging, and reassuring. I’ve listened to thousands of hours of music, mostly for pleasure, but now that I can see what people are doing to it- and how they’re doing it, I’m hearing even more when I listen. It’s good to know how a well-crafted track gets its thump and pulse, and how, even in the middle of a wall of sound, certain instruments stand out.

    As a ‘padawan’ producer, the only bit of advice I can give is- have fun. Keep it fun. Take breaks when you need to. Listen to genres you normally don’t listen to. Cleanse your audio palate with silence when necessary. And keep listening. (This has worked for both my writing and my career.)

  • I do a coop with a guy wich does music for 2 decades now. Often we discuss aboout what each of us hears in a certain mix, either our own stuff or from others.

    Thanks to that i think i trained my ears a lot. In first i really couldnt hear lots of the details witch he mentioned to me. After 2 years now, think i developed, and im able to hear them out myself.

    An other thing i thinked helped me was to listen exactly to the timing of a mix. For example if you move one track of the tune some milliseconds forward or back or if you work with groove patterns.

    Same expierience i did with djing…when i learned to beatmach with vinyl. It just need hours of practice until you can tell wich track is on what tempo/timing position and get a feeling for the right adjustment.
    And the more you do it the faster you get the adjustments.

    So i really think you can train your ears and that focusing on timing details helps in this process.

  • This stuff is awesome, cant recommend enough: https://www.trainyourears.com/mixlikeapro?rf=28

  • https://www.goldenears.philips.com/en/introduction.html

    Nice freebie, it’s what Philips Audio Engineers are trained with…

  • Playing with different effects on different types of sounds will train your ears. When I first got into production I didnt know what any of the effects did. Now I that I know what they all do I can pick out what effect is on what sound. Some people are blessed with golden ears but a little training can most certainly bring you up to their level.


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