Holistic, Micro and Macro Foci in Listening
Mastering can be thought of on many different levels. At an intense level it can be considered as changing slight nuances, adjusting tonality and microscopic elements of a piece of music all the way through to the wider concepts that make an album which might be segued over 45 minutes.
One concept to consider is what we call the holistic, micro and macro foci of the music, as discussed in What is Music Production by Hepworth-Sawyer and Golding (Focal Press 2011). This builds upon work from Katz and others and discusses the way in which we can actively or passively listen to music.
In essence, the concept assumes that listeners are either passive or active. An active listener would be concentrating on the music at hand, whereas someone working or cooking with the radio on in the background would be considered a passive listener – passive not just in terms of their attention to the music, but the listening position and acoustic environment.
Across this is also the added dimension of whether the listener is considering the whole of the sound, in this case a macro focus, or is listening intently on one aspect and concentrating on the micro. It could be argued that a keen guitarist emulating a guitar hero is more likely to focus on the guitar than on the whole, and could be therefore considered a micro listener. In contrast, a mix engineer can zoom out to work in the macro focus too, taking in the whole of the music as necessary and then switching into the micro (emphasized by the use of a solo button perhaps) to make repairs or edits to certain aspects of the mix.
This micro and macro listening model is intended to be thought of within the confines of a single song. The mastering engineer has to be able to switch between these two modes on a song-by-song basis, but will spend more time in the macro, listening to almost everything all at the same time.
This concept also embraces what is known as ‘holistic’ listening. This is intended to reflect the mastering engineer’s traditional role of zooming out further and considering the whole of an album and making edits accordingly, within the micro and macro foci.
Another concept is the ability to switch modes of listening from micro, to macro, to holistic depending on the work you’re engaged in or the requirements of your task. Additionally, it is worth considering the way in which the material you’re working on will be listened to both passively or actively.
A so-called listening switch can be a useful concept to keep handy. Imagine if you could engage and disengage your interest in the music you’re listening to – a subjective/objective switch, if you like. It is worth considering that much of the listening public probably focus in on singing and the melody, paying much less attention to the backing. However, a music professional will either concentrate on the whole together or certain aspects across the arrangement.
Consider how you listen to a new single you’ve bought and how you become familiar with the music. Is it the vocal hook that has gained your attention, or is it a culmination of a number of factors? Try listening to the music both objectively and subjectively, and then trying to remain in a macro state listening to everything at the same time, perceiving levels all at the same time in different frequency bands, then in micro focusing on a particular element (without the ability to solo it!).
Excerpt from Practical Mastering: A Guide to Mastering in the Modern Studio by Mark Cousins and Russ Hepworth-Sawyer © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.