Quiet Listening
Monday, February 15, 2010 at 5:51PM
Trey Gunn in ears, listening, time

I have been experimenting with a new kind of listening over the last year.

For reasons partially, but not completely, clear to me I am finding that my ear has developed a kind of threshold. This threshold is not just volume oriented, it is also information oriented. Once I cross this threshold my ears shut down -- both internally and externally. Meaning that not only does my inner ear shut down and I cannot bear to listen anymore, but my physical ears don't want any more sound either. They kind of stuff themselves up.

This threshold seemed to get crossed with volume over a period of time. Even with the simplest music, the louder the volume the shorter the time span I can take. This seems to range from several hours to 15 minutes in one sitting, I am guessing.

But the threshold also gets crossed with density of musical information. Meaning the density and intensity of musical/sonic information can push me over this threshold even if the volume level and the duration threshold are long from being crossed.

This has been quite challenging for me with the current CD I am working on - the Normalizer project with Marco Minnemann's drumming (release date May 18, 2010.) The musical density can be enormous. Just the drums, alone, can be quite a dense listening experience. At the end of the day, I have found ways to strip out the textures and musical ideas so that the ears have space to breath, but the process of getting there has been one of enduring tons and tons of density.

The way I have generally been working on this project -- after extended pondering of each section -- is to start throwing ideas on to the drum tracks. It often takes three to five "throws" to find something that sticks. But even once I have found something that sticks, it doesn't mean I have landed on success. I have to find another idea to counter to the first one. I really need three elements/statements that can interact before I really know how a section is going to flow: the drumming, the main idea and a counter idea.

This process of throwing stuff on, finding a partner for each idea, weeding through each one and it's combinations, can be extremely fatiguing to my ears. Just juggling all the sounds and possibilities has crossed my 'ear threshold' so many times - not to mention mixing each section -- that I have had to come up with a new kind of listening strategy.

And here it is:

Turn down the volume

It's pretty simple and obvious, but somehow quiet radical. Especially when I turn down the volume, a lot. And I mean A LOT. Turn it way, way, way down, so the music is extremely quiet. Percolating just above the ambience of the room.

In my studio, this is pretty quiet. And a challenge to rise to. When I first started playing around with this Quiet Listening, I had to fight the constant urge to turn it up. Even though it isn't really necessary. Sure, if you are in full on engineer mode, then you need to hear everything clearly and sharply and this means giving some power to the sound. But if you are composing/producing and developing ideas, there is no reason, whatsoever, that you can't get a clear sense with the volume extremely low. In fact you may get a clearer impression, as the music has to speak from it's own authority, not from the power of it's sound.

This Quiet Listening has had a fairly strong impact on my workflow. Not only can I work longer, I feel like I can work more thoroughly and I have a clearer sense of what is the focus in the music.

And interestingly enough, I have begun trying it with general listening and the experience is quite something. Usually you turn up the volume to meet your ears - and this is one kind of listening experience. But what happens when you listen quietly? You turn up the ears to meet the music. It's a very, very different experience to be sending the ears out to the music rather than the other way round. It IS challenging and places a demand on the listening. But, and here is the interesting part, this demand doesn't fatigue my ears. It doesn't push my threshold, where I would have thought it might.

There is some kind of 'secret something' in all of this, that I am sure will emerge with further application.

I look forward to hearing about everyone else's experience with listening in these different ways.

Article originally appeared on Trey Gunn (http://www.treygunn.com/).
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