Tony Maserati The Importance of Ear Training




The standard definition of “ear training” is learning to hear and identify note intervals, scales, chord types and so forth. But in this excerpt from Tony Maserati Mixing Lifeboats Episode 1, Tony talks about the importance of a different kind of ear training: learning the sonic signatures of the gear and software in your studio.

He explains that knowing how your gear and software sound and react at various settings and in different situations helps you come up with good ideas for using them.

Knowledge is Power

Tony also talks about how in the tape era, engineers—or more likely assistant engineers—would write down detailed information about the gear they used on a session. They’d want to be able to replicate the setup and sounds they got if it was necessary to recall the session.

They’d even go as far as to write down the serial number of the mics used. Why? If the studio had, say, three Neumann U87s, there might be slight sonic differences between them. Choosing the right one helped the accuracy of the recall.

To demonstrate the kind of ear training he’s talking about, Tony plays three different tracks that were captured when recording the arpeggiated intro guitar on “Lifeboats.” On one, the amp was mic’ed with a Shure SM57, another with a Royer R-121 ribbon mic, and the third was a DI track. He stresses that each of those mics has its recognizable sound and that it’s essential for an engineer to know the difference. “It takes practice and a lot of repetition,” he says.

The guitar intro on “Lifeboats” was recorded to three tracks: a DI track and two amp tracks, one mic'ed with an SM57 and one with an R-121.

Limit Yourself

As Tony mentioned, you can train your ears regarding software, too. For example, it’s important to get to know your processing plug-ins thoroughly.

If you own a lot of plug-ins, consider temporarily limiting yourself to a small subset of them. Start with your favorites in each category so that you comprehensively learn their sound and features. You’ll be glad you did because you’ll probably discover capabilities that you didn’t know were there. Once you’ve learned the intricacies of the plug-ins in your reduced set, then start branching out more.

As Tony mentions, one way to help familiarize yourself with your gear—whether hardware or software—is to study the manuals. Don’t just open one when you run into something you’re not sure of; read it from top to bottom and try out the various features as you learn about them.

Generically Speaking

In addition to learning the characteristics of specific pieces of gear and software, it’s also helpful to familiarize yourself with the generic characteristics of different gear types. For example, with microphones, knowing that a condenser mic will be brighter and capture more transients than a dynamic mic. Or that a ribbon mic will typically have a rounder sound and less high end than a condenser or dynamic mic, and so forth. Experiment with your mics on various sources to learn their sonic attributes.

It’s also useful to know the differing sonic characteristics of classic gear. If you’re working in a commercial studio you’re likely to find hardware versions and in a home studio, plug-in emulations. In the compressor realm, three of the most iconic are the UREI 1176, dbx 160 and Teletronix LA-2A.

UAD emulations of three classic compressors, each with a characteristic sound.

It’s also helpful to understand the generic differences between gear types. For example, how FET, VCA, vari-mu and Opto compressors sound and react differently. Or the different characteristics of tube saturation, tape saturation and transformer saturation.

Can You Hear It?

Just for fun, here’s a little mini-quiz for your ears. The first set of examples will demonstrate different reverb types, and the second set saturation. Press the button at the bottom of the page to reveal the answers.

We’ll start with reverb. For each example, you’ll hear a recording of an electric guitar with a fair amount of reverb on it. One is a hall reverb, one is a chamber reverb, and another is a plate reverb. Can you tell which is which?

EX 1a


EX 1b


EX 1c


The three reverbs used in examples 1a - 1c, with their settings.

This time we’ll test your ear for generic saturation types—to be precise, digital emulations of generic saturation types. Each example features the same drum passage, but a different saturation type. One is tape, one is tube, and one is transformer. Can you tell the difference?

EX 2a


EX 2b


EX 2c


The saturation plug-ins used in examples 2a - 2c, with their settings.

These were pretty challenging examples. Don’t worry if you didn’t guess the right answers. But do take Tony’s advice and study your gear. The more you do it, the more control you’ll have over the tools in your studio, which will make it easier to implement your creative ideas.

Reveal Answers
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