Have I dreamed of being a fly on the wall as Ryan Tedder and Jeff Bhasker laid down beats for OneRepublic's "Can't Stop"? The answer is yes, and I'm not the only person with such a wish. It would be incredible to compare your favorite artist's raw tracks and outtakes against the finalized tune, but I'll go out on a limb and say that most (none) of us will ever have that chance. Instead, here are three of the easiest, next-best approaches to re-experiencing your favorite songs.
This is undoubtedly the most obvious method: listen everywhere. Crank Coldplay's "Always In My Head" on your phone, in the car, through headphones, buds and any sort of speaker you can find, really. Each setting packs a radically different sonic experience. For instance, by comparing Kimbra's "90s Music" through my Sony MDR 7506s and a pair of single driver buds, I was able to identify some ambient melodic movement in the background and its placement in the mix. Plus, you might become privy to a groove or two that you wouldn't have otherwise.
Listen in Mono. Every great song eventually fills the 98-degree air surrounding a beach volleyball game, blasting from a 2-inch speaker dangling on a poll. That being said, the ability to mix a track that sounds great in both mono and stereo is an important skill, if not just for the sake of knowledge. It's also a great way to reveal potential errors in your own production: if your vocals are overly present in mono and lacking in stereo, you probably need to make an adjustment.
There are few artists that can fit an unhealthy amount of samples and loops into a song and it still sound amazing. Ellie Goulding is one of them. Throw one of her tracks through a variety of different EQ settings and you might be surprised at how many different sounds are heard. You could even take it one step further and fiddle with a graphic EQ until you discover something unique. Specifically, this can be an awesome approach to identify interesting background vocal techniques.
If you were to limit audio down to pan and pitch, you'd still have quite a bit of 2D space to work with. Picking up the directional placement of an instrument can be easy with a nice pair of headphones. But taking a look at where a vocal or guitar sits in terms of frequency can shed new light on a track's production, especially since both normally fall in same range. Pull up a spectrum analyzer and watch the spikes and fluctuations that your favorite mixes invoke on the graph. That way, you can get a stronger idea where each individual instrument resides.
Really, there's no better way to learn than simply getting down and dirty. Grab a song, throw it in your DAW and start building it from the ground up. Reverse engineer that thing. You won't only gain new intimacy with the beloved audio, you'll also begin to master your software's tools and features.