like everybody here I love listening to music, I'm also a guitarist who's been playing the instrument for over 10 years and I'm not bad at it. But sometimes I struggle to isolate and follow instruments in my head when they overlap. Most of the time I can hear a specific instrument I'm focusing my attention to and it's main rhythm but I struggle with nuances and I lose some notes when more instruments are playing at the same time (e.g guitar with distortion, drums, bass and voice). The most difficult part to isolate for me is bass, it's really hard to pick it up except some parts (for example Police songs or very rhythmic and bass driven songs). The weird thing is that I have a pretty good hear for solos and vocals because they are always sitting on top of the mix. I transcribed and played Teen Town by Jaco Pastorius without big problems. That said I have a decent equipment (studio monitor Yamaha HS7 and ATHM50x headphones coupled with a scarlett 2i2) and I always listen to lossless music. How can I improve the instruments separation in my head??

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    There's only so much you can do, separation-wise. Humans are incredible good at this already, but there's a physical/mathematical limit. At some mixing ratios, it's just not possible anymore to say whether some collection of frequencies are a note of a quiet instrument back in the mix, or merely a coincidental collective of harmonics from other instrument. Bass in particular has a problem when mixed together with distorted guitar playing e.g. powerchords, because those have intermodulation frequencies covering all harmonics of the bass. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 16:08
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    Listen to more live music. It doesn't matter how good your audio gear is, you are listening to something that has been artificially processed into two audio channels, however many instruments are playing. I can tell which individual player in a 60-piece orchestra is playing out of tune when listening live, but you will never be able to do that if you only listen to recordings.
    – user19146
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 16:31
  • You may be interested in reading up on Bregman's notion of auditory stream segregation.
    – Richard
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 17:21
  • that's a really interesting article, this is a fascinating field, I did my master degree thesis about blind source separation and I achieved a decent separation of a monaural source of bass and drums with artificial neural networks
    – MadManMoon
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 18:02

4 Answers 4



But for analysis, you can take the track and apply a low-pass/high-cut filter to it such that the frequencies above the typical bass-guitar-note range are eliminated. You will be able to pick out the bass line (and some drums) much more easily.

  • I do it, I use Transcribe! I also use a trick which is cut everything above 300 Hz and pitch everything one octave up and suddenly the bass is clear, but obviously that doesnt work for guitars or other instruments buried in the mix!
    – MadManMoon
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 15:55
  • For guitars, you need to "notch" the filter: cut the lows and the highs. None of this is going to be perfect.
    – Yorik
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 15:58

I have a pretty good ear for solos and vocals because they are always sitting on top of the mix

You just put your finger on it right there. When instruments are mixed together into a stereo recording, information is lost. Some of that information is what we need to hear to separate instruments from each other in our brains.

When a track is emphasized in a mix, it's usually to make sure we can still hear it separately, so that information is preserved for that track (by making it louder, using EQ, etc.).

  • you mean that when a source is panned stereo is not "reverberated" (even because it's close to impossible!) in a way that the human ear perceive it as a correct spatialization?
    – MadManMoon
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 18:10
  • @GianlucaCalabria I'm sorry, I can't quite figure out you question in the comment. What I mean is if you record 24 tracks of audio and then mix all of those tracks down to just 2 tracks, you have to be throwing away information. That's one way to look at mixing: deciding what should and shouldn't be audible when you're done. There are many acoustic and psychoacoustic phenomena that affect our ability to hear and decode all of the sound hitting our ears, like masking, and mixing involves being aware of that and working within those limitations. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 18:18
  • that's clear, what I meant is: take for instance that you are surrounded by 6 musicians playing 6 patterns, even with your eyes closed you could separate the sources clearly due to the correct spatialization and reverberation of the sources (and we human have a system that perceive in stereo) so my thought is if (and that's close to impossible) one would be able to mix music this way (with a correct spatialization) there would be no problem in separate the sources
    – MadManMoon
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 18:48
  • @GianlucaCalabria Yes I think we agree. If we extend your example to recordings, imagine recording those six instruments to six tracks and then instead of mixing them down to two tracks and throwing away a lot of information, we keep them as six separate tracks and play them back through six separate speakers, all placed around you in a circle. Then you would have much greater ease of discrimination between the parts. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 19:51
  • Anecdotally, but in agreement, I have a truly amazing friend who can transcribe entire orchestral score in a single pass - by playing 4 bars, pausing the audio, then writing the entire 60 staves 'downwards', top to bottom ... really, I've watched him, many times !! His transcription rarely matches the original score... but if then re-played by another orchestra, you cannot then tell the difference. He scores the phycho-acoustics.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 20:22

I listened to a specific rock record the other day from a band that I was totally obsessed with in High School. I hadn't listened to that band in a long time-like almost a decade! It was fun being taken back to those moments in my life. I noticed something interesting, though. I was hearing things in those songs that I hadn't noticed before. I KNOW those songs. I have listened to them a lot. I know every note in the solos, but still, I was hearing new bits from the other instruments.

Here is my point: It takes repeated, intentional practice over a long period of time to develop a good ear. It's the same as developing your skill as a player, or anything else that is worth learning. I have grown a lot musically speaking since High School. As a musician, my hours of experience have increased exponentially since then, and my ability has improved as a result of that.

This may sound like an obvious suggestion, but give it a try. Always be a learner. The moment you decide that you have "made it" is the moment that you stop growing. It's actually even worse than that You'll get worse! You have to keep pushing yourself, or your skill will begin to atrophy.

Edit: I just read my post, and decided that it was too big picture. Here is a practical suggestion to give balance. Give a look at an app called Capo. It's available on Mac and iOS. It's a great practice tool. It lets you change playback speed, key, and filter out frequency ranges. I use it all the time for learning parts of songs more quickly! I love the selective looping functions.

  • I bet you didn't listen to the track on the same equipment as previously! Better equipment = better, more accurate sound.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 10:42
  • Nah man. Same car. If anything my stereo is getting worn out actually. I bought the car new in High School. I have to turn the speakers up louder to get the same volume these days. haha
    – zjdrummond
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 22:14

Maybe spending a little time playing bass (since you already know guitar, this shouldn't be so hard) will help bring that part of the range into clearer focus. Also, going over some "how to" books on bass could help by providing more common patterns and logic that will help sharpen the process by giving you more things to listen for.

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