The acoustics in your studio are perfect, or at least you know their imperfections well enough to account for them in your own listening. And when you listen back to your music during production, you feel like you’re hearing everything there is to hear. But sometimes, when you leave the track playing and walk around for a moment, you find that the music suddenly takes on an entirely different perspective. What causes this feeling, and is there something in it that you can use to your creative advantage when composing?
Room acoustics, monitoring options, and listening positions are popular topics on the production side of electronic music-making, but there may also be things we can use (or misuse) in these areas to help us on the creative side.
Instead of always trying to maximize the quality of your listening environment, try occasionally listening in a deliberately “bad” way. Particularly during the creation phase, doing this might help you hear things that are acoustic illusions which you might find musically interesting enough to actually incorporate into your music.
For example, rather than exclusively listening from the “sweet spot” in your studio, try regularly varying your listening position, and see what sorts of sounds emerge. Standing in the corner of your studio, for example, may dramatically change the way you perceive bass and other low-frequency components. Although you’d never want to do this when mixing, doing it while composing might reveal unusual bass elements (such as phantom pitches) that sound great. At this point, you’ll need to take note of what these artifacts are so that you can actually create them in your song.
A more extreme version of this idea is to listen from an entirely different room—either through a wall or through a closed or open doorway. Because of the way different frequencies transmit through walls, you are likely to hear a completely different mix when listening from outside of the studio. Again, this is not a suggested way to approach mixing your track, but the artifacts and imperfections you hear as a result of this “bad” approach to listening may be compositionally useful. (Note: Obviously, if your studio is completely soundproofed then this technique won’t work unless you leave the door open.)
One interesting approach when composing with headphones is to take the headphones off and turn the volume up high enough so that you can still hear the music. You will generally lose all of the mid and low frequencies when listening this way, and all that will be left is the high- frequency content. But you may hear relationships between parts (or even artifacts like phantom notes and rhythms) that are entirely absent in the music itself.
Finally, another type of “bad” listening is to turn the volume down so that the music is just barely perceptible. This can yield similar results to the headphones suggestion mentioned earlier but will generally preserve a bit more low end. However, because our ears are not equally sensitive at all frequencies, you’re likely to hear certain ranges more clearly than others at low volumes, and this too may help to reveal phantom elements that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Remember—with all of these techniques, you’re listening for illusions: elements of the music that aren’t really there, but which are suggested by the strained or otherwise imperfect listening conditions. Once you find these (and provided you like them), you’ll need to figure out how to get them into the music itself so that they can be heard by listeners in normal listening environments as well.