Hypothesis: Through 10 minute sessions of daily ear training I will increase the speed and accuracy of my pitch detection and EQ application.
Why: I’m sick of guessing and sweeping with the parametric EQ. I want to nail it every time. I don’t want to fear microphone feedback anymore. Ringing out stage monitors is a waste of time. I want to quickly remove any feedback as it occurs.
Results: After 30 days I made a 13% increase in my EQ ability and tripled the speed and accuracy of my pitch detection.
When it comes to listening abilities, I have always had a growth mindset. I don’t think I’ll ever have golden ears, but I do believe that I can train my ability up to a useful level. This is very important for me and all live sound engineers because we need shortcuts to survive.
During my Live Mix Mastery pilot course last year, I talked to a lot of sound engineers about their biggest problems out in the field. I got a variety of different answers, but the common trend among all of them was the need for speed. Everyone I talked to was confident that they could overcome any obstacle thrown at them if only they had enough time. As a result, I put together all of the best time saving techniques I’ve learned over the years and taught them to 20 students over four weeks.
Every technique I taught has been field tested to deliver results except for two things: pitch memory for feedback detection and EQ training for faster mixing.
With Live Mix Mastery I had a great opportunity to test this with a group of professional audio engineers. Here are the steps we took:
- User Ear Doctor in SoundGym to test your hearing.
- Schedule 10 minutes of daily ear training in your calendar. Three minutes playing Audio Frequency Trainer and seven minutes cycling through games on SoundGym.
Logically, playing these games to improve our ear training to increase our speed in the field makes sense. But I had never really taken the time to practice with a system and measure my results.
What is pitch memory?
You have listened to your favorite song so many times that you can start singing it right now with pitch accuracy. Unless you were born with perfect pitch (yes, this exists) then you memorized those pitches through repetition. This is how the kid at guitar camp with me was able to identify almost any pitch. Songs were his reference. He had learned to play so many of them that playing any note would trigger his memory of a song and then its location on his fretboard. For me at the age of 18, this was mind-blowing.
I had my first taste of this in college when I set my wake up alarm to the song How It Feels to be Something On by Sunny Day Real Estate. One day I was walking into a piano rehearsal room, humming that song, sat down, and realized that I was singing a perfect A. By accident, I had taught myself pitch memory.
One of the first things you learn in music school is the interval relationships between notes on a scale in western music. Once you’ve got the pitch of any note, you can find the pitch of any other note through the memorized interval or by simply following a chromatic scale. The good news for musicians is that there are only 12 notes. The bad news for sound engineers is that microphone feedback could potentially happen at any frequency. And I guarantee you that it will never happen at the exact frequency of one of the sliders of your graphic EQ.
The only thing that graphic EQs are really good for is ear training, which is exactly what we used them for in Live Mix Mastery. Why did we use 1/3 octave spaced frequencies instead of 1/12 octave, which would relate more to our musical experience up until now? Three reasons:
- I didn’t think of it at the time.
- Audio Frequency Trainer was the best game I could find.
- Audio engineers are more familiar with the whole numbers seen on a graphic EQ. It’s a lot easier to work with 1K, 1.25K, and 1.6K than it is to work with 987.77, 1046.5, and 1174.66.
Audio Frequency Trainer will allow you to set a minimum and maximum test frequency, which is why we visited the Ear Doctor first. There are four levels that increase in difficulty by adding more frequencies to identify. I quickly moved out of Beginner, spent about two week on Intermediate, but never graduated from Pro. That shit is hard!
A technique that I used here, which I found helpful, was to move quickly and get emotional. My intention was to send signals to my brain’s pleasure and pain centers that this was important stuff.
Unfortunately, what I didn’t get to do was try out some feedback detection in the field, yet. I will come back and update this article when I do.
Another important thing I learned is that pitch memory either improves or deteriorates. I stopped practicing after the course ended and while I haven’t slide all the way back down to Beginner, I also haven’t been able to maintain a perfect score on Intermediate.
The mystery of EQ
For many people, EQ is a big mystery. It’s one of the most difficult skills to train because we are always under enormous pressure. Wouldn’t we all love to have 30 minutes to listen to a kick mic while searching for the perfect frequencies to boost or cut. Those of you who have tried this have either never done so again, or moved into lighting.
EQ training at home is another thing that always made sense, logically, but I had never sat down to prove. Although none of these games we used are the same as work in the field with all of the chaos of a live room, they do provide the next best solution in terms of variety and tracking. Any time I have a few minutes I can log into SoundGym and play a game. At the moment, unfortunately, the games are not available for mobile, which is why I schedule my practice sessions for times when I know I will be home.
The great thing about this experiment that we embarked on together is that we didn’t have to worry about how to EQ. We just played the game and watched our results improve. The most enjoyable discovery for me was connecting the sounds I have known for years to specific frequencies. Previously I may have know where I needed to hear a filter, but would have had to guess and sweep up to it. The game Peak Master helped me to finally connect those sounds to frequencies. Here’s what one of my students, Sergio, said about it:
I had a big improvement detecting bothering or missing frequencies by ear.
And here’s what Martin said:
I was able to improve my skills to identify and remove distracting elements in my mix in less time. I no longer think, “Hmm, the electric guitar sounds weird somehow.” Now I can identify that the problem is in the low mids and make a dip at 300Hz, for example.
So it looks like we hit our goal in terms of increasing speed.
My big takeaway from this whole experience is to stop wondering how to EQ and improve my hearing instincts instead through ear training. Everyone knows when they hear a problem. The skill is finding it fast.
Did I prove my hypothesis?
Although my students did see improvements in the field in increased speed and accuracy of pitch detection and EQ application, I personally haven’t done enough work to give a firm Yes. That being said, I’m really happy to have discovered a method I can track instead of just hoping for golden ears.