Ear Training Exercises: How to Train Your Ears and Become a Better Mixer

ear training with headphonesGolden ears are a myth.

As long as you have never damaged your hearing, your ears are just as good as the best mixers in the world.

In fact, they probably have worse hearing than you after years of listening to music at high volume.

So what’s holding you back? Why can’t you mix like them?

The difference is that they are better at listening.

Listening and hearing are two different things…

You have the physical ability to hear the full extent of your mixes. What you’re really lacking are the listening skills that the professionals have developed.

Over time, your listening abilities will naturally improve. EQ becomes easier, you gain the ability to instantly identify frequencies, and the finer details of compression reveal themselves.

However, you can speed up that process with 3 easy steps.

 

Better Listening in 3 Easy Steps

There are 3 steps to better listening.

  1. Learn the frequency spectrum
  2. Train your ears with dedicated exercises and software
  3. Pay attention to frequencies when mixing

Try not to do all of these at once. Focus on one step at a time, following them in order.

Let’s break down each step….

 

Step 1 – Learn the Frequency Spectrum

I can remember when the frequency spectrum seemed very daunting.

I had no idea what 10kHz sounded like compared to 500Hz. I knew one was higher than the other – but that was about it.

To be honest, it took me years to really grasp the entire frequency spectrum.

Your goal is to be able to hear a frequency and identify it by ear (within a reasonable margin).

I will show you how to do this in step 2 – but before you can identify frequencies, you need to understand the frequency spectrum.

 

“Logarithmic? Is that something to do with rhythm”

Before we go over the important frequency ranges within the range of human hearing (and how they sound), we need to briefly cover some sciency stuff.

Don’t worry. It won’t take long…

You might already know that the frequency spectrum is logarithmic, not linear.

eq frequency spectrum
 

This means as the frequency increase, the gap between octaves grows. We don’t measure the range of human hearing in a linear way (more info here).

Instead of counting up in a normal fashion (10Hz, 20Hz, 30Hz, 40Hz, 50Hz etc.), we count in a ratio of 1:2 (10Hz, 20Hz, 40Hz, 80Hz, 160Hz etc.).

An octave above 100Hz is 200Hz. But an octave above 1kHz is 2kHz.

In the first case one octave is 100Hz, but in the second case one octave is 1,000Hz. That’s ten times larger!

A 100Hz difference in the low end is HUGE. But 100Hz in the top end is nothing.

100Hz and 200Hz sound very different. But 1kHz (1,000Hz) and 1.1kHz (1,100Hz) sound very similar.

 

How Certain Frequencies Sound

Every frequency range can be described as having a certain tonal quality.

Having the ability to pinpoint certain frequencies is great, but if you don’t know how that relates to tone, it isn’t much help.

There are five key areas of the frequency spectrum: Sub Bass, Bass, Midrange, High Mids and Highs.

I usually split the midrange down into 3 sections (Low Mids, Mids and High Mids) and the highs into 2 sections (treble and air). But, for the sake of simplicity, learn these 5 key ranges first.

You can hear the 5 key ranges below:

Next we can break down the spectrum into much smaller ranges and describe the tonal character of each range.

Study the chart below and keep it to hand when mixing. Just don’t become too reliant on it.

It will help you to learn how the various ranges within the spectrum sound. Eventually this will all come from memory.

Screen Shot 2016-10-31 at 10.47.48
 

Feel free to save this image to your computer and print it.

Here are some examples of different frequency ranges boosted on an electric guitar. Each example included a narrow boost of just over 10dB for some of the frequency ranges in the table above. I used a drastic boost to make the differences obvious.

 

Step 2 – Ear Training Exercises and Software

Over time, you will learn how to identify different frequencies by ear through mixing. But you can significantly speed up that process through focused practice.

It’s worth the small amount of time it takes. It’s a great skill to have, as it can significantly improve the quality and speed of your mixes.

For example, if I notice a ringing on a drum, I can hear that it’s around 800Hz. It might not be exactly 800Hz, but that gives me an area to start in.

If I couldn’t identify the frequency of the ringing, it would take me much longer to find it.

cutting drum ring
 

Another example – on a vocal, I might hear that the aggression of a voice is pleasing, and I want to enhance it.

Rather than using the ‘boost-and-sweep’ technique to find that element, I can instantly identify it (around 6kHz).

boosting vocal aggression
 

The quickest way to train your ears is with dedicated software.

There are many options. Some free, some paid.

Compared to the cost of a new piece of gear or a new plugin, it’s worth investing in some ear training software.

It will get you MUCH further than a new plugin ever could.

Here are some suggestions. I am not affiliated with any of these companies. These are just the best options I have found.

Free Training Exercises

Premium Frequency Ear Training Software

mac
 

Step 3 – Pay Attention to Frequencies When Mixing

It’s easy to mix without paying real attention to the frequencies that you are boosting or cutting.

This is one major downside of the ‘boost-and-sweep’ technique.

It’s a great technique for beginners, but try to avoid it where possible.

But, if you do use this technique, at least make a mental note of the frequency that you decide to cut/boost.

Instead of just finding an ugly frequency range and instantly cutting it out, take a second to observe the frequency. Think about how it sounds when you boost or cut this range. How would you describe the tone?

Here’s my preferred technique…

When I notice a resonance or frequency range that needs addressing, I hum the frequency. Then I think about what frequency that might be.

You don’t need to be exact – you just want to be in the rough area. With some practice, this is easier to do than it might seem.

This is a much better way to work. It fits with the rule of having an intention before you reach for an EQ, rather than loading up a plugin and just playing around.

Plus, you are training your ears at the same time.

Even if you like to mix with templates and don’t like my approach, that’s fine!

using templates
 

Just take note of the frequencies that you are adjusting when you load a template. Listen to how those different frequencies ranges sound.

 

Conclusion

Spending time on your listening skills is an important step in becoming a better mixer.

Even if you only set aside an hour a week, it shouldn’t take too long to really develop your abilities.

You will see a significant improvement in both your mixes and your enjoyment in mixing.

How do you train your ears? Have you just started mixing, or have you hit a wall and think your ears might be holding you back?

Do you have any other tips that you would like to share?

Leave a comment below.

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4 Responses to “Ear Training Exercises: How to Train Your Ears and Become a Better Mixer”

  • Wow! I wish I would have started doing this 20 years ago. Now I know how much I don’t know…..but I will learn.

    Thanks!

  • Thanks for the GREAT info. I learned a lot from this one little article. I feel I have a good ear but I don’t really understand the tech stuff. this helped a lot.

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