During the first listen-through of an object-theater exhibit project (Home Place Minnesota) for the Minnesota History Center, one of the exhibit’s curators, a highly-nervous new staff member, asked me whether the fiddle used to record the background music for a Finnish immigrant story was a genuine Finnish violin (though the voice talent wasn’t a Finn). I replied “of course.” Curator mollified, onward and upward with the arts. The fiddle could have been made anywhere, woulda sounded the same.
Ah… that’s a bit like the old “psychological headphone trick” – here’s how it works: in a recording session with a first-time-in-the-studio band, let’s say the bass-guitar player wasn’t hearing his own instrument – he was obviously super-nervous, it was his first session, and he just wasn’t hearing his own instrument (only a random example, no offense intended, bassists). Unfortunately, the bass guitar volume was at ear-bleeding intensity in the rest of the band’s headphones. What was a recording engineer to do? On the talkback I said “I’m really sorry! I gave you the wrong headphones. I’m bringing you the bass headphones now.” All that was necessary was that the “bass headphones” were different-looking, regardless of the actual bass response. The bass player snarled “well, about time – I can finally hear my bass! Now it’s way too loud!” Once the issue was fixed and the headphone mix restored to a normal balance, the bass player – and the band – relaxed. By assuring the nervous player that it was my error, we had a smooth session. It cost me absolutely nothing to take the blame and keep the session moving.
It’s not only others who are susceptible to being fooled by a mind trick. I was changing the channel settings on a mixing session years ago, and the changes sounded good to me. After the session was finished, I was zeroing-out the mixing console and noticed that the module I had supposedly changed was, in fact, not activated. I had “psychologically headphone tricked” myself into believing – because I was moving a knob on the console – that I was effecting an improvement.
This holds true for a lot of situations. For example, if you buy a great pair of speakers, you might convince yourself that they do sound great, even though they’re placed in a nasty-sounding room. Acoustic treatments would improve the room, and allow you to hear how great these marvelous speakers actually sound. The world is full of psychological tricks that we play on others and ourselves, and not always intentionally or consciously. Beware, is all I’m sayin’, of this tendency to believe something because you’ve changed the headphones, moved a knob, or paid for nice gear.
The moral of all this? The mind is a wonderful thing, if you pay attention to how easily it can be fooled.