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.