Did you know you have a dominant ear? Here’s why, and how you can use it to your advantage
We all remember the first time we bought our first pair of really good near-field monitors...you know, the time you went from the $200 pair to the $1000+ pair. In my case, I went from a cheap set of Hi-Fi speakers, to some inexpensive Behringer near-fields, to a $3400 pair of PMC's...quite a leap. By the way, never despise the day of small beginnings...if you haven't had this experience yet, it's coming...and it's awesome!
One of the reference tracks I love to use is Sting's "Be Still My Beating Heart", from his '87 album Nothing Like the Sun. I remember listening to it for the first time on the PMC's, and noticing that I could actually hear the reverb tails on his voice, panned off to the edges. I'd never noticed details like that before.
As I've grown as a mix engineer one thing I've noticed is that I consistently hear certain details better with my right ear. At first I was concerned that in my advanced age (37!) perhaps I was beginning to notice the after-effects of one-too-many listens to Siamese Dream (at ear-splitting volumes) in high school. The thought never crossed my mind that, as with our eyes, hands, and feet, we also have a dominant ear...it's normal, and it even has a fancy name: Auditory Hemispheric Dominance (AHD).
We've all heard that right-handed people are left-brain dominant, and vice-versa. It's true that our brains process data contralaterally (one hemisphere of the brain handles the opposite hemisphere of the body), and this is reflected in our ear dominance as well. In a recent study, researchers discovered that about 70% of righties hold their cell phone to their right ear, and about 70% of lefties held their cell phones to their left ear. A different study conducted in Italy observed 286 people conversing at a noisy nightclub. Once again, about 70% of the interactions occurred on the right side of the listener, demonstrating not only the link between handedness and ear dominance (studies indicate 70% - 90% of humans are right-handed), but its occurrence "in the wild", outside of the laboratory environment.
I've noticed that one consequence of this reality is that I will almost always prefer certain things panned to the right, versus the left. It's not that it's significant enough to unbalance the stereo image, it just means that I might not be as adventurous with my panning as I could be...now that I'm aware of this tendency I focus even more on my panning, and feel I'm better able to normalize the sound of things panned across the stereo image, without preferring one side to the other.
I also find it has reinforced the importance of getting out of the sterile environment between two near-field monitors, and listening to the music in a position where the stereo image is largely collapsed to mono (the old "stand outside the studio door" trick, among others). This helps me identify when I might still be favoring one side more than the other, because things panned hard left sound louder than I'm expecting, and things panned hard right sound softer.
Although, maybe this isn't a good thing...in the Italian study, they also measured how often they were successfully able to bum a cigarette off of their fellow clubbers, by asking them in their left ear vs. their right...turns out that they got significantly more cigarettes when asking in the right ear. This confirms observations from other studies that in addition to hemispheric dominance, the two hemispheres of the brain process social approach and avoidance behavior differently. In other words: our brains seem hard-wired to interpret social interaction more positively via the right ear. Might that also mean that one way to maximize the impact of a mix is to focus emotive elements in the right half of the stereo spectrum?