Learning From Listening (and Whitesnake)

Clearing out my email inbox brought a reminder that Whitesnake, an 80s band synomous with power ballads, big hair and less-than-subtle music videos, will soon be touring Singapore.

I won’t be attending the concert. But, I couldn’t resist a quick trip down YouTube memory lane. It was fascinating to compare two versions of one their best known hit, “Here I Go Again.” The first version is the original, from 1982, the second is the more well known global hit, from 1987.

There’s a lot to learn from comparing the two versions. I’m not talking about the videos. Clearly, one has a leggy redhead with a death-wish (who hangs out of cars like that?) and one doesn’t. No, I’m talking about the sound, orchestration and arrangement of each song.

One of the best ways to learn about contemporary music production is to make these sorts of comparisons. Listen to the vocals, the guitars, the keyboards and the drums in each version. What’s different about the tones, timbre and texture of each part?

There’s quite a lot that has been done to make the 1987 version sound so different from the 1982 version. Instrument choices, mic techniques, eq, compression and reverb settings and, of course, personnel changes. If you are a musician, or involved in sound production, then grab a notepad and see if you can identify at least 25 production differences between the two versions.

This kind of exercise is called critical listening and it’s one of the best ways to learn about music production and improve your skills in the studio. In fact, it’s so important, BerkleeMusic even have a course covering the skill set. You’ll also find several goods books on subject as well.

It should go without saying that if you really want to get into critical listening, you’ll need a good environment and a good source. This isn’t really the sort of thing you will do on a busy underground train with your mp3 player and cheap headphones (and I’ll admit, doing it with YouTube videos is of limited value as well). You’ll also want to do it when you have time to make some notes and listen back to sections of the music again (and again and again).

Of course, the value of critical listening comes when you apply the things you’ve heard to your own music. I started out trying to copy not just the notes and solos of my favourite guitarists, but also their tones and sounds. It’s all about building a vocabulary of sound, for your instrument and for everything you record in your projects.

The same is true when you start mixing. Listening carefully to Motown tunes, or Blue Note recordings, or 70s West Coast rock will each give you different ideas about how to combine instruments, pan them in the stereo realm and adjust their sounds with eq and compression. The more approaches you become familiar with, the more moves will be at your disposal when you try to create a sonic signature for your music.

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  • Jeff Shattuck - 11th October 2011

    Cool exercise. I hear lots of differences but mainly it’s the keyboard part at the beginning (tone, melody), an Randy Rhodes guitar tone and brighter vocals. Plus, the tempo has but upped a notch, I think.

  • Toni - 12th October 2011

    I seem to suffer critical listening – it’s a real problem that, where ever I am, I listen to the sound of the music I hear instead of just enjoying it. Playing bass and using the GR33 has only made that worse than it used to be, where I’d *only* analyse the guitar tone and technique.

    Guess I should be grateful not to play drums!

    But I can see why that’s a good exercise for anyone serious about recording and music production. There was a European band called The Cardigans, whose single ‘Love me love me’ used a range of conventional and unusual guitar tones and textures to colour the track. Listening to that track taught me not to discount odd tones for very specific uses.

  • Jake T - 16th October 2011

    At the expense of totally missing the point of this post, can I just say: wow, the original sounds tiny.

  • Eric Keaveny - 28th October 2011

    Excellent article, i will repost to my FB pages for sure, thanks.

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In his Tokyo studio Fernando combines his life-long passions for art and technology. On the road, he is always looking to take the next wrong turn, just to see what kind of images and stories might unfold. A photographer & writer, with a background in music, Fernando has lived in Chile, Australia, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. Read More.


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