Great music sounds amazing when you listen to it over great speakers, but earbuds and headphones can deliver an extra degree of detail. Here are some audio tricks and treats that you can easily miss on speakers, but might surprise you when experienced on earbuds or headphones.
This Doors single features singer Jim Morrison whispering the lyrics underneath his lead vocal, mixed low and doused in reverb. It’s something that can barely be heard on speakers but reveals itself well when listening on headphones — almost as if Morrison himself is standing behind you whispering in your ear. Spookier still, it was the last song ever recorded by the group and the last singing that Morrison ever did in the studio. Said Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek in a 2014 interview with Uncut magazine: “How prophetic is that? A whisper fading away into eternity, where he is now.” In addition, there’s an epic fade to silence — over 20 seconds long, with the sound of a thunderstorm raging in your ears. Check it out here.
Here’s a moody groove from Radiohead’s In Rainbows album that features über-stereo panning best appreciated over earbuds or headphones. It begins with the drums on the right and a number of percussion elements on the left. As the song develops, voices can be heard in the left and right channels independently, followed by strings, keyboards, bass and, eventually, a full chorus spread across the entire soundscape, complete with ambient reverb effects. For the recording of the album, producer Nigel Godrich moved the band to a stately Georgian home almost 50 miles outside their hometown of Oxford. “On ‘Reckoner,’” Godrich recalled in a Rolling Stone interview, “people were all over the house, shaking things and getting this groove going, then chopping it up into little pieces and putting it back together. It was a lot of fun.” Check it out here.
This classic Led Zeppelin track always got me as a kid. Not only is it one of the group’s most iconic songs, it features one of the most memorable guitar riffs of all time, accompanied by an electronic instrument called a theremin, which soars in the middle of the song. In addition, there’s something really interesting going on during the middle “way down inside” Robert Plant vocal break — a studio accident that stemmed from the fact that he originally recorded it on two different tracks. When the mix team of guitarist/producer Jimmy Page and engineer Eddie Kramer realized that the headphone bleed from the first track couldn’t be removed, they instead doused it in reverb and used it as an effect. Kramer also made extensive use of panning to “fling” Page’s guitar solo from one side to the other, which can clearly be heard in earbuds. Check it out here.
An F-bomb on a Beatles record? Better believe it, and it comes on one of the group’s biggest hits, too: “Hey Jude.” Listen closely on earbuds or headphones at the start of the third verse (underneath the “then you begin” lyric at around the three minute mark), and you’ll hear Paul McCartney swearing softly as he hits a clunker on the piano … and you’ll probably never unhear it. In his 2006 memoir Here, There and Everywhere (co-authored by Yamaha blog editor Howard Massey), legendary Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick recalls John Lennon insisting the two curse words be left in, albeit buried just low enough so that they are barely audible. “Most people won’t ever spot it … but we’ll know it’s there,” Lennon explained gleefully. Check it out here.
This song from Christine Aguilera’s fourth studio album Stripped is especially fun when experienced on headphones. If you listen closely, you’ll hear faint nuggets of subtle rhythm underneath the track whenever she sings — it’s especially clear at around 3:47, just before the ending. The sound actually came from an old backing track playing in the headphones as Aguilera was doing her vocal overdub. Mix engineer Dave Pensado later explained that he left it in because it added to the honesty of the song. Check it out here.
Instead of going into a traditional studio, the group Ben Folds Five decided to record their 1997 album Whatever and Ever Amen in the front room of a rented house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. As often happens when tracks are laid down outside of a professional facility, noises can creep in. As the band was recording the song “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” someone’s cell phone rang. Instead of taking it out, they left it in and it can clearly be heard at the 2:56 mark, along with the laugh of bass player Robert Sledge. They liked the timing of it, so they just made it part of the song! Check it out here.
The aptly titled track “Moving in Stereo,” from The Cars’ eponymous debut album, will keep your ears entertained with sounds that are constantly shifting from one side to the other. In the intro, the single guitar begins in the right channel only, with a synthesizer swimming in both ears. Vocals from singer Benjamin Orr start out hard left, then move to the center, then over to the right before moving back to the middle for the rest of the song. Bonus ear candy: Put on headphones and from time to time, you’ll hear what sounds like Christmas bells being shaken faintly in your left ear. Check it out here.
Enjoy these great songs on quality earbuds or headphones such as those offered by Yamaha.