Ever heard the one about the audiophile with two hearing aids?
I’m kidding — there’s no joke for that setup. I’ve actually seen it enough times to know it’s entirely possible to be an engaged lover of music and playback technology even with a microphone and speaker in each ear.
More common than the hearing aid-aided audiophile is the aging mastering engineer. Audio is one realm where those with the “golden ears” can turn out great music for decades. Despite science saying our hearing will never be better than at birth — and that by 60, the frequency spectrum will be commonly diminished — many of the best mastering and recording engineers in the business are there, or beyond, already.
The term golden ears doesn’t describe someone who got their head boxed by King Midas — it means a person who can hear deeply into music and recorded sound and retrieve all sorts of information about it. Regardless of the strength of the hearing mechanism, it’s the brain connected to that mechanism that allows these folks to know good sound.
The brain! Doesn’t it make sense that the actual library of all sounds we’ve each individually heard and archived isn’t a small part of the hearing equation? It is, in fact, most of the deal. My friend with the hearing aids knows exactly how an upright bass should sound because he’s spent a lot of time in his life listening to real upright basses.
I think the most pivotal experience in my audio journey that equipped my brain with real listening ability was my time behind the mixing board. Among other things, the act of changing the sounds with subtle twists of the knob over time gave me the ability to hear a tone and roughly tell you its frequency (wave cycles per second).
The brain’s role in interpreting what the hearing mechanism is sending is much more complicated than simply matching a frequency with a sound. Thanks to evolutionary defense mechanisms, a large part of our brain processing of audio focuses on the timing of specific tones, rather than just frequency. This allowed early humans to quickly locate an approaching saber-toothed tiger by hearing the twig snap under its feet and comparing the timing of the signals.
Most guitar string plucks or Hammond B3 stabs contain bass frequencies mixed into the other harmonics and tones that make those things sound like themselves. When you’re listening to a recording, if the timing of the tones altogether isn’t right, our brain is less convinced the instrument is real.
It takes an excellent audio system to convince you that a player or instrument is in the same room with you. Most recorded sound in our lives is played back on compromised systems, and just as a copy of a copy of a copy will deteriorate but still represent the original, many of us miss out on that realistic hearing effect.
But I know at least one guy with two hearing aids that can pick out the problems with a recorded upright bass faster than I can. With hearing aids, you can make new friends with state-of-the-art hearing devices, but to make it all work, you must keep the old. After all, one’s silver and the other … well, you get the idea.