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Ear vs. Gear

Ear vs. Gear

By Sean Hill on February 06, 2013

When you listen to music, what do you use? Your ears. Think about it...your two ears are the only tool you have on your body to understand music. Your ears will cause your body to do other things like dance, play a guitar solo on air guitar, or air drum, but your ears are interpreting the sound that causes those reactions. Sure you can somewhat "feel" low-end frequencies, but your ears are still the devices that interpret those frequencies into music. You obviously can't see, taste, touch, or smell the music coming out of the speakers in the car, from your iPod, or in a movie theater.

When you go into a studio, what do you expect to see? Watching any amount of music television will lead anyone to expect to see a big mixing board with 50 faders, flashing lights, isolation booths, acoustical treatments all over the walls, 4 different sounding pairs of "true" speakers (which is ironic in itself), and so on and so forth. Why do we expect to see anything at all? Shouldn't our ears tell us everything we need to know about a studio?

This expectation from an artist to "see" something when they visit a studio WILL lead them to pick the wrong studio for their album. The single most important thing an artist should be looking at is the portfolio of past projects of the studio. If you, as the artist, like what you hear in the portfolio, odds are that you are going to like the way your project turns out.

Many years ago I personally knew a young artist who chose a studio because of the amount of preamps, microphones, and facilities they had over my own studio at the time. Was I disappointed? Sure. I felt like I could have produced an excellent record with the artist, but how could I compete with a studio that has me beat in almost every category in gear?

Fast forward three months and I get a copy of the EP. I popped the CD in with full expectation to hear an amazingly polished sounding recording. I, like most of us, figured that with all that gear, all those mics, it should sound incredible. When I say the production was awful, the mix was more than bad, and vocals were ear piercing...that's being nice.

After listening to the EP I went to the studio's website and listened to some of their portfolio. All the mixes were comparable to my disappointed friend's mix. She admits her mistake now as she was also concerned about the other mixes she had heard on their website, but you can't time travel back and get your money back and change the mix once it's printed!!! Watching my friend go through that experience taught me something very invaluable that I'm trying to impart here...only use your ears!

The fact is that a studio can "out-gear" another studio by tens-of-thousands of dollars means absolutely nothing if they don't have the people in place to properly capture the sound, mix it, and master it with excellence.

Always remember that anyone can press record. It's true. All I have to do is press space bar. What you are "looking" for when you choose a studio has nothing to do with what your eyes can see as physical reality, it has to do with aural reality. You shouldn't even be looking for a studio...you should be listening for one.

You'd almost be better off to visit studios in a blindfold because your eyes will lie to you. They will tell you that all those flashing lights must do something unexplainable, out of all those microphones there must be one that's going to capture my voice, out of all the software and plug-ins on their computers that there must be one that will make my album sound great. I wish it were true, because I would just go to the bank, take out a fat loan and just buy a massive ton of gear.

Close your eyes and trust your ears.

Sean is a full-time producer and songwriter in Lawrenceville, GA. 

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Sean Hill

Sean Hill (Guest Writer)

Sean is a full-time producer and songwriter in Lawrenceville, GA.