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A Sound Education

Golden Ears

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“My dear girl, there are some things that just aren't done, such as drinking Dom Perignon '53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That's just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!”
James Bond
"Goldfinger" (United Artists)

The other day, someone said to me, "You must have golden ears." He was referring to my profession as an audio engineer. He assumed that I physically had much better hearing than the average person. I don't. In fact, I often have trouble hearing conversations at loud parties and can't hear high-pitched whines that drive 20-somethings crazy. But I do think I have better hearing than a lot of other middle-aged folks only because I've protected it all these years.

So I explained to my acquaintance that I have trained myself to listen for things that the average person might not hear right away. When I mentor students about ear training, I usually start out playing a few audio clips and have them tell me everything they hear. I then make my list of things I hear, highlighting the "back" sounds - things not so obvious like rumbles, backgrounds, clicks, etc. Once I point them out, the students' eyes light up when they hear them. I tell them to listen "around" the sound, to disregard the in-your-face front sound and listen to everything else behind it.

We all have the ability to use our senses to filter out the obvious and reveal something obscure. That hidden sound, smell, or taste is usually familiar to us (but sometimes it's something completely foreign to us). If you've never had Cincinnati-style chili, that first bite will have you pondering as to why this is so different than other chilis you've had. After 2, 3, 4, maybe even 5 bites you will start to shove aside the obvious flavors like beef, tomatoes, garlic, and peppers. You'll start analyzing the spices like the chili powder, cayenne, and cumin. Then it will hit you: it's the cinnamon. Oh, and there's a little bit of clove in there. And some vinegar, too. Now you will taste those on your next bite.

When I break down a recording and listen for faults, I am usually comparing my memory of an individual sound to what I'm hearing. I know what a ground loop buzz sounds like as well as a running air conditioner. I'm familiar with mouth clicks, throat gurgles, raspy breaths, sibilance, and plosives. I've created distortion, over-modulation, hiss, crosstalk, mic bleed, comb filtering, phasing, and off-axis positioning - mostly by mistake. So when I listen around the sound, I can usually pick up on most of these if they are there. That doesn't mean I hear more than someone else, it means that I listen differently.

I'm not always listening for bad stuff by the way. I enjoy being surprised by something new, like when I hear a guitar part I've never heard before in a classic recording. Sometimes an album that's been remastered or remixed will reveal these gems, or maybe it's from just being tuned in more to the background instruments. Whatever the case, it's always fun. It's a little less thrilling to be shown the underlying part, but still satisfying. For instance, VH1's "Behind the Music" series will often isolate tracks and uncover buried accompaniments. Sometimes they will mute that track, and the song all of a sudden becomes bare without it. You heard it all along, but you didn't listen to it before.

I spent a lot of my younger days playing trombone, most of it in ensembles like marching band, wind symphonies, and jazz groups. Although I can pick out the sound of a trombone instantly, I trained myself to listen to other instruments as well. Sometimes I would need to play counterpart to the trumpets, so listening was key. But I confess that sometimes it was from being lazy. You see, there were often long periods of time in a classical piece where the brass section just sat and counted measure after measure of rests. So I trained myself to listen to what was going on just before I had to pick up my trombone, blow out the spit, and put it to my mouth. I knew that when the clarinets did that little two measure run, I was my turn.

Ear training is not easy. You may be adept at picking out one type of sound, and fail miserably at another. Being a musician, I found identifying tones easier than identifying problems like distortion. It also took me a long time to identify narrow frequencies when adjusting equalization. Knowing that the human male voice resonates between 100-300 Hz helps in grabbing the right knob to adjust. But like playing music, the ability to be able to quickly narrow that down even further takes practice.

Want to train yourself? There are plenty of paid and free ear training courses on the web. For the best success, set realistic goals for yourself. If you want to run better live sound at your church, then buckling down and learning to hear common feedback frequencies will help. If you are just interested in listening to music with an educated ear, then playing recordings of solo instruments, taking a basic music theory course, and watching documentaries on the making of classic recordings will educate you. If your ultimate goal is to work as an audio engineer, then you'll need comprehensive training.

Ear Training With Elvis

Here's some fun stuff you can do right now to limber up your ears. Let's listen to an old Elvis classic, "Little Sister." It's important to play this through good headphones or monitor speakers – phone or iPad speakers won't cut it. Click on this YouTube link and listen to the first 30 seconds or so and then come back here.

Okay, great song, great players, and of course great vocals. Let's listen again, but this time ignore Elvis's vocals and just listen to Hank Garland's electric guitar. Notice how Hank goes from single note accents to chord fills on a distinctive-sounding Fender Jazz guitar. Come back here when you're done, I'll be waiting.

If you were successful, then you just listened "around" the sound of Elvis. Now, I want you to listen to Bob Moore's bass guitar. What's noteworthy is that it's electric, and Bob Moore and a lot of other Nashville bassists usually played upright acoustic basses. Listen to the hard picking style of his bass notes and how they compliment Garland's guitar riffs. Come back when you're done.

Now let's zero in on the drums, specifically the snare drum. The song is in 4/4, that is 4 beats on the quarter note to a measure. Which beats the drummer chooses to emphasize affects the feel of the song. In "Little Sister," the snare is playing on the 2nd and 4th beats, which creates a backbeat. In rock, blues, and jazz, a backbeat can give a song a relaxed feel. In more traditional music the 1st and 3rd beats are accented, as in the Sousa march "Stars and Stripes Forever," which drives the song forward. To give "Little Sister" just a bit of interest, the beat on 2 is double. Listen to the snare doing (1)-TAP/TAP-(3)-TAP, (1)-TAP/TAP-(3)-TAP. And while you're listening to the drums, listen to the closed high-hat keeping time on all the eighth notes: 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and. It has the effect of keeping the song from relaxing too much. Go listen and come back when you're done, I'll be tapping my foot along.

Now let's go back to the vocals. Of course Elvis nails it. With all the movement of the guitar, bass, and drums behind him, Elvis keeps his vocals smooth and almost crooning. When you're listening this time, imagine no instruments behind him. Picture Elvis singing in an empty church acapella. At about 1:35, the extraordinary Jordanaires come in with backing vocals. And listen to Ray Walker's low, low bass notes. Come back here when you're done, I'll be flipping my collar up.

Here's one last test to see if you were really listening. The Youtube video I linked to was in stereo. This helped to isolate some of the instruments for you, such as the guitar and hi-hat in the left, and the electric bass on the right. Now click on this YouTube link and listen to the mono version. Mono was the choice of the day since stereo was a new fangled thing. Try to pick out all the parts again. It's a little harder, but I've revealed them to you in our listening exercise.

Here's another great song from the same session, "(Marie's the name of) His Latest Flame." This one's in mono, so try to pick out the instruments in this one. Also pay particular attention to the luscious natural reverb under Elvis' voice.

Ear Training With Edison

Here's one more ear training exercise - but with a twist. So far we've listened to music that was recorded with great fidelity. This example has the opposite - the music is masked by poor fidelity. It's a recording on an Edison yellow paraffine cylinder from 1888. It's a choir of 4,000 voices singing Handel's "Israel in Egypt." The overriding sound of the player's mechanics may overwhelm you at first, but stick with it. You'll hear the slow, sweet harmonies of the choir start to pop out from underneath the static and thwak, thwak, thwak of the cylinder spinning. Keep in mind that at the time it was a revolutionary recording. If I were listening to it in 1888, I would probably be amazed and hear the music over the static. See what you think by listening here.

If you've successfully heard everything I've thrown at you, then congratulations! You're on your way to having golden ears. For some ear candy, I recommend picking up remastered CDs of your favorite albums. Or better yet, pick up remixed albums. If done with great care, they retain the same mix levels of the originals, but have less noise and more punch. Some of my favorites are:

  • "Sticky Fingers" by the Rolling Stones (Deluxe Edition, 2CD) on Amazon (Remastered)
  • "Beatles Anthology" 1, 2, 3 & 4 Box sets. On Amazon (Outtakes, alternates, and new material)
  • "Chicago II" Steven Wilson Remix. On Amazon (Wilson deftly remixes the entire album to make it sound "right." Pick up any Steven Wilson remix for an amazing experience)
  • "Band on the Run" Paul McCartney & Wings, 2CD, 1DVD set. On Walmart.com (Remastered, alternate versions)
  • "Ellington At Newport 1956" 2CD. On Amazon. (Remastered version that never saw the light of day until now. Original release was a studio re-creation because of bad mic placement during the live set)
  • "Smackwater Jack" by Quincy Jones. On Amazon (Remastered. Includes "Theme from Ironside" and "What's Going On?")