Personal Audio Tune-Up: For the price of a plug-in, make an investment in yourself.

There are a few things about the analog signal processing era that I miss. One I miss most is the old-style equalizer with all the sliding faders right on the front panel.
But it’s probably not for the reasons you might think.

I’ll be the first to admit that the old analog equalizers often made audio worse rather than better when inserted in the signal chain. Admittedly not an ideal selling proposition, but there was one thing they did better than digital: They had a tactile and instantaneous relationship between listening to the music and the sliding of the knobs. Move a fader and it immediately sounded different. In the process, they taught you how to listen better.

I cut my audio teeth on the old BSR FEW series equalizer back in Junior High. It was a truly awful plastic-housed contraption, with a fake wood grain covering, that you inserted between your stereo’s preamplifier and amplifier. This was the device that taught at least one budding columnist and audio novice how to get the inputs and outputs properly connected.

Why do I reminisce over such nonsense, when inserting such a dreadful box meant having to pick which version of bad was best? To make matters worse, there was virtually no way of guaranteeing your buddies wouldn’t fiddle with your setting the moment you left the room.

Those not raised with these contraptions may not appreciate my perspective about how important the old BSR was in my career development.

The old analog equalizers taught you more about listening in a few minutes than most anything else could in months. Slide a knob on the right up and your high frequencies sounded brighter. Slide the ones on the left down and the bass disappeared. There were no fancy graphic spectrum analyzers back then, so you had to listen to the music carefully. Ultimately, that silly little box helped improve my critical listening and analysis skills.

The digital one-box wonders of today are remarkable in comparison. You often get complete control over time, energy and frequency in a space smaller than the old BSR. Get the settings right, and it makes your audio system sound much better. With today’s test instrumentation’s capabilities, you barely have to listen at all anymore.

Usually, the digital interface is some sort of elegant mouse or touchpad-driven device. Alas, the tactile sensations and connections between your fingers, your brain and the music are mostly missing in comparison to their analog predecessors. The sense of immediacy is missing, and change often involves some multi-step programming process.

Typically, what digital takes away, it often gives back somewhere else—and that’s no different in this case. At the risk of sounding like a bad infomercial, I’d like to tout something that may be of interest. I don’t know if there’s a competitor to it on the market and I have no commercial interest, either. Still, for a mere 29 Euros, you can download a program called Train Your Ears EQ Edition:

The program helps the audio engineer speed up the audio learning process though a series of audio quizzes. You listen to the same track before and after audio processing and, eventually, you learn what makes something sound dull, overly bright or honky. The goal is for you to develop a frequency memory in a much shorter amount of time than over other techniques.

Imagine exposing yourself to hundreds of differently processed audio signals where you have to guess what parameters have been changed. Doing that in a studio environment would take years, but with this program, you can do it in minutes and repeat the lesson until you get the answer correct. The software grades you on each of your selections, providing immediate feedback.

This is an excellent tool to train your listening skills. Whether in the studio, on a construction site or supporting a live band, you’re paid to know what you’re doing and this will help you do so. Improving your ability to listen and react appropriately is vital to every audio engineer.

Our particular field of endeavor transcends the technical and artistic trades more often than many would admit. Ultimately, we are paid to entertain and inform our audiences to the best of our abilities.

One of our most important skills is our own personal listening acuity, and this one speeds up the improvements. So, for the price of a plug-in, I’m suggesting you make a little investment in yourself. A few months with this program and you’ll be a better audio engineer. It’s time well spent and will improve your level of professionalism.

It’s important to remember that your listening skills and ability to understand the needs of your customer are far more important than the latest industry fads. If you want to be great at what you do, you are your best tool and worthy of the investment.

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