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Technical Ear Training: Mastering The Art Of The Invisible

“Lighting is visible, costumes are visible, scenery or sets in a movie are visible, but sound is the invisible 300-pound gorilla in the room..."

The main benefit of Technical Ear Training is that it allows audio engineers to work more quickly and effectively.

“For most audio engineers,” Ryan notes, “if there is something wrong with what they’re listening to, they’ll turn up a frequency and they’ll move it back and forth until they find the bad thing and turn it down –- it’s like hunt and peck on a keyboard. This training teaches students to hear that a problem exists, identify the frequency of the problem from an internal reference and modify the audio spectrum accordingly.”

The program began during the Spring 2013 semester. While it started as a one-semester special topics course, Ryan hopes for it to become a required two-semester sequence for all audio majors. He went through two years of technical ear training while earning his doctorate in Sound System Engineering at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and has introduced the program to Webster University.

“During the time I was taking the ear training courses, I was doing a lot of work with music festivals where you don’t have much of a sound check,” he says. “You get the band set up on stage and you start to build a mix as they start playing. The summer before I started taking ear training, it would take me 30 minutes to get a band to the point where they sounded right. After two years of training, it took me five minutes.”

Kody Dennis, a student in the class, said the course has helped him in a similar way in his work at Fellowship at The Point church.

“I think the point that I really noticed the difference was about four or five weeks into the semester,” says Dennis. “I was working at the church and there was a strange resonance in the voice coming out of the main speakers. I remember being very excited because it was a slight issue, but I was able to hear it and know exactly what frequency the problem was at and fix it in a matter of seconds.”

Ryan working with a student in a Technical Ear Training course. (Photo by Inocencio Boc)

As students complete their assigned exercises, the training software records the students’ scores, and also data regarding response time, indecisiveness and reliance on an external reference. These data help Ryan give accurate feedback about each student’s performance and also provide insight into the ways that the students are learning the material.

“We’re at the beginning stages of our research,” he explains. “The goal is to study the students’ developmental and learning processes in an attempt to determine more effective and efficient ways of teaching this material.”

Developing this very sensitive hearing can be a challenge but for the students, the work is worth it.

“The class is fast paced and it never gets easy because there is only one way to teach yourself how to hear these very small and specific nuances,” says Mark Krus, a student in the class. “But it becomes a natural thing that you can hone in on and it’s already a powerful tool on my work-belt after less than eight weeks. I use what I learn in Technical Ear Training every day and will for the rest of my career.”

Jennifer Starkey is an writer and public relations professional based in St. Louis. You can follow her on Twitter at @JennyStarkey.

Go here for more information on Technical Ear Training and the Audio Aesthetics and Technology department.

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