The First Day Of School

The new semester has begun; I got up early today to run Charlie around the neighbor before a quick stop at the studio and a ride down the 405 freeway to the university. It’s some three months since I pulled into the parking lot and climbed the two flights of stairs to my office. I downloaded my rosters and headed to my first class, Audio Production. This is a second year course. All of the students in this class have progressed through Introduction to Audio Recording and Advanced Audio Recording as well as synthesis and computer music. Now it’s time to put everything they’ve learned in those classes to work on a larger scale. Each member of the class will be producing a 2-3 minute “pitch” piece about their talents and or a creative project they’d like to do.

One of the central components of the culminating project is a “sound alike” recording. The students are supposed to select a commercial recording by a prominent artist and produce a track that sounds as close to the model as possible. The skills required include critical listening…an ability that is crucial to enjoying music as a listener. But how do you learn to listen? By practicing, of course. You might ask why should listening to music be anything but a passive experience done without any training or stress. Think of it this way…have you ever listened to a piece of music and been totally confused by the melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic construction of it? I know I certainly have. When I was first exposed to music composed in the 20th century, I was completely confused. It was completely unintelligible to these ears. But after repeated listening and realizing a few of the compositional concepts behind the work, I came to appreciate works that left had left me baffled previously.

The same process can be used to fine tune your own listening chops. There are online programs that you can use to progressively improve your listening skills. The best and most widely know was developed by Phillips. It’s called the Golden Ears Training Program and you can check it out by clicking here. It’s a very comprehensive program and requires you to have a very good listening setup and a very good set of headphones. The better the playback audio associated with your computer the better experience you’ll have with the tests.

They are broken down into five distinct areas:

Timbre – Timbre training allows you to hear differences in the tonal characteristics of a sound. The harmonic spectrum of an acoustically rich sound is changed and you are challenged to tell them apart.

Details – This portion of the training focuses on hearing details in the music. Things that reduce detail in a sound recording are lack of high frequencies, excessive distortion, or levels of noise that mask lower amplitude sounds…details.

Spatial Impression – I personally dislike the term used to describe the sense of space and depth that can be reproduced in a recording, but this is another one of the areas they have in the program. Some recordings have depth and spaciousness and others don’t. There is no qualitative association with either parameter. I find my own recordings to be very spacious and possessing great depth but I don’t expect the same sound in a typical studio recording.

Bass – The “quality of low frequencies” is how the Phillips people describe this section. The ability to hear and discriminate low frequencies requires a very good set of phones…this should be really be done using speakers and perhaps even a sub.

Loudness – They refer to loudness as “sound power” but it would better be called dynamic range. It’s the ability to be able to hear both quiet and loud passages in a selection of music AND recognize when a sound is dynamically compressed.

The Phillips Golden Ears Training Program will help you reliably detect subtle difference in music sound according to these parameters. I can tell you that it takes a while to make it through the various levels of this program: Basic, Bronze, Silver and finally Golden Ears. I highly recommend this program.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

12 thoughts on “The First Day Of School

  • Marc Lombardi

    Very glad to see your comments on this as I had been meaning to ask. I completed nearly through the Silver level using my system with Magneplanar 3.7 speakers, Outlaw subs and electronics, and my well-treated room. However I was stumped at the MP3 test! No matter how many times I tried I could not manage better than random results. An online search revealed similar frustration from many people. Perhaps my equipment (or ears) are not up to the challenge, but for sure I think the choice of music lacked the tonal range and complexity to reveal subtle differences. What are your thoughts on that particular part of the test?

    • Listening for artifacts in a well done MP3 files is very challenging. You’re right that you have to start with very good source tracks and count on pieces that have lots of high frequencies and a few quiet moments.

  • “requires you to have a very good listening setup and a very good set of headphones. The better the playback audio associated with your computer the better experience you’ll have with the tests.”

    I have the required headphone setup in a Emotiva Stealth DC-1 DAC/Phone Amp and Senn HD 650 phones, but my current speaker setup is very mid-fi. Is that what your referring to as “requiring a good listening setup”?

    • I think you should be able to progress through the training using your system…especially the headphone setup.

  • I have personally found that the more I have upgraded my system, and the more I have “learned how to listen”, the less I have enjoyed the SONG as a whole. I used to take things as a whole, and would come away tapping my toes or singing the lyrics, now I risk keying too much on the bass line, or the squeak of the guitar strings, or other minute details that take away from my understanding and enjoyment of the whole. I listen to pieces rather than the part. Many times, especially with contemporary music, I get more enjoyment out of hearing it on a low quality system such as my car radio, than on my expensive home system. Does anyone else have a similar experience?

    • Very interesting Larry…and surprising. But I know what you mean. I find this especially true with my own recordings…but it can happen with anything you start to analyze too much.

    • HI, i guess this is a strange analogy in some ways.

      I completed a geology course and also used to do rock climbing. Before i did the course i would take in the beauty the overall emotional mystery of the mountains and challenges, afterwards i almost felt i had lost my soul when i would look at the same mountains and see anticlines and uncomformaties etc. They are all part of the scene and always where but my focus shifted its a strange thing and difficult to reverse. As for the car perhaps we are in the compressed for punchiness loudness wars minefield? All the best.

  • Hi Mark, Thanks for the article. I started the Golden ears test last year, i think and never got round to finishing it.
    I have experience with audio recording and have a degree in a related subject, so i know these tests and training are very important. Though many us gain the appropriate skills / ears from experience. I have just graduated my Silver Ears and i’m delighted. Its a great test and highly recommended for engineers and audiophiles alike.

    • It takes a long time to hone one’s skills in critical listening. I’ve been through the Golden Ears Training a few times…although during my years as a mastering engineer, I did critical listening everyday.

  • Preston Burke

    Recently I purchased the 24/96 Flac album “Killing Me Softly” from HD Tracks. I also have the original Atlantic cd from 1973 and several original vinyls (no longer used). The tonal characteristics of the the 2 different media (cd, flac) are substantial to me. I first saw Roberta Flack in 1969 at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit and fell totally for the sound of her voice and over the years have seen her in person many times. The HDtrack version seems to be slightly lower in pitch but more detailed compared to the 1973 CD. IHer voice on the flac is more mature than I remember from that earlier part of her career. The tone is slightly lower and similar to her voice some 10 years later. Since I do not know the provenance of the HD version and also do not know how the CD and vinyl versions were altered for recording I can only reference my memories from her live performances. As an active audiophile for almost 60 years I now find I am questioning which recorded version is accurate. My memory tells me the live performances were more like the older CDs from the early 70’s. I know my hearing has changed but some things are indelibly “burned in”. Your thoughts “please”.

    • Accuracy isn’t really the major consideration in a music production. It might be for classical or jazz but for pop/rock/country etc. all that matters is whether the sound experience works for you and for the others that will hear the record. Recordings go through a lot of steps…and changes can be made at each stage…who knows what Roberta Flack’s masters have been through.

    • Preston – Meridian is demonstrating MQA with Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly”. That should be the best version in digital form. Since you know that track so well it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on it, compared to HD Tracks and vinyl. Now, if you can just get to a MQA demo… 😉


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