June 2005
Do You Hear What I Hear?

Learning to Listen in a Mediated World

by Paul D. Lehrman

There's a priceless moment on the Firesign Theatre's third album when an authority figure (a prosecutor who is somehow also an auctioneer) bellows, “What do I hear?” and a stoned voice from the back of the room responds, “That's metaphysically absurd, man. How can I know what you hear?”

This brings to mind two questions. First of all, as we're professionals who depend on our hearing to produce sounds that will appeal to other people's ears, how do we know what our audience is actually hearing? And second, for that matter, how do we know what we're hearing? These two questions are becoming even more prevalent today, as most music listeners are “enjoying” sounds on low-fi playback systems or headphones — far from the quality of studio monitors.

When it comes to our audience, you might as well ask, “What do you mean by ‘green’?” Physicists can agree on a range of wavelengths for “green,” while everyone else can point to different objects and get a general consensus from those around them that said objects are or are not the color in question. But no one can possibly put themselves into someone else's mind to see exactly how they experience “green.” As conscious beings, our perceptions are ours alone. Lily Tomlin's character Trudy the Bag Lady, in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, put it perfectly when she said, “Reality is nothing but a collective hunch.”

Similarly with sound, we can measure its volume, look at its spectrum, see how it changes over time and analyze the impulse response of the space in which it's produced. But there's that subjective response to the sound that's within our heads that can't be measured — at least not without a sensor on every brain cell and synapse involved.

Because we're in the business of shaping the reality of sounds, it's fairly important that our “hunches” be correct. And it's our ears that we trust. No amount of visual or data analysis will allow us to decide that a sound is “right” without hearing it.

How do we make that decision? A crucial part of the act of hearing is making comparisons between what our ears are telling us at the moment and the models that live in our memory of what we've heard before. From the moment our auditory faculties first kick in, those memories are established and baselines are formed. The first sounds all humans hear are their mothers, and then they hear other family members, then domestic sounds and gradually they take in the larger world outside. I imagine it's a safe bet to say that for most of us in this business, among those earliest aural experiences were the sounds of singing and musical instruments. Not only did these sounds intrigue and inspire us, but they provided us with the context in which we would listen and judge the sounds we would work with in our professional lives.

So we know what things are supposed to sound like. As professionals, we learn something else: What we're hearing through the studio monitors isn't the same as what we hear when there's a direct acoustic path from the sound source to our ears. Ideally, speakers would be totally flat with no distortion or phase error and with perfect dispersion, but even the best monitors are still far from being totally “transparent.” In addition, every indoor space that's not an anechoic chamber has its peculiar colorations, which are different from any other space. We need to be able to compensate for these distortions, consciously or unconsciously, and block out the sound of the speakers and the room as we listen. Our experience and training as professionals teach us how to eliminate the medium and concentrate on the source.

But this weird thing has happened in the past hundred or so years, and the trend is accelerating: The proportion of musical sounds that people are exposed to throughout their lives that are produced by “organic” means has been decreasing and is quickly approaching zero. This means that the baselines that we, and our audiences, need to determine what sounds “real” and what doesn't are disappearing.

The rest of this column, along with 56 more, is now available in The Insider Audio Bathroom Reader, published by Thomson Course Technology PTR.

Copyright ©2006 by Paul D. Lehrman