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Listening courses offered to audio majors
A new course is teaching something different to audio students — how to use their ears. Through perceptual coaching, Webster Assistant Professor Tim Ryan is working to produce “Masters of Sound.”
“The skills that audio engineers learn over a lifetime – we’ve found a shortcut,” Ryan said. “We have found a way to teach people these skills in a very short period of time, compared to a lifetime at least.”
Ryan said the technical ear courses passed the curriculum committee in last January. The year-long training is now officially part of Webster’s audio program. Currently only four schools in the United States offering technical ear training with the hands-on method Ryan uses.
The technical ear training class has around 20 students. Ryan breaks the class down into sections of four students each, and holds 50 minute sessions with them. This allows for one-on-one instruction and coaching.
Ryan explained the course teaches audio students to use modes of perception through comparison and correction. It can help students be more consistent, accurate and decisive when it comes to sound. They learn to differentiate between tone ranges and low and high frequencies using their hearing. The ability to adjust recording, broadcast and sound equipment becomes automatic and swift once the different sound spectrum regions can be mentally distinguished with the ear.
Senior Paul Schneider, an audio production major, decided to take the technical ear classes. He said the goal of audio production is to release a solid quality product. The big thing about technical ear training is it teaches equalization.
“You can use software or a microphone or something, but if you don’t understand how to make it sound good you won’t have as much of a good product,” Schneider said. “Anyone can learn the tools, but it takes a certain practice to learn how to hear things and make them sound good.”
Schneider said he goes to concerts and it is now a “natural thing” to listen to what the sound engineers are doing. He can hear exactly what they are changing or where the sound is off.
“It seems like it’s common sense that we would (have ear training) and learn how to actually hear before we use the tools to make things sound good,” Schneider said. “For some reason there is a lack of schools practicing it.”
Ryan uses his background in live sound work as an example. He has worked as a mix engineer for many music festivals and large music venues. Usually, there are only a few minutes between bands on stage. A sound check to ensure the audio equipment, such as microphones, are working and sounding correct begins when a band starts playing. Ryan said the first song can sound off in tone until adjustments or the equalization process can be completed.
“It would take me about 20 to 30 minutes to get (the equipment) up and running, and sounding good,” Ryan said. “After two years of (ear) training it would take me less than five minutes.”
Ryan said he found spare “bits and pieces” of equipment in storage no one else wanted and that was the start of getting the training off the ground. Funding for the project was a new pair of speakers purchased through department budget. The $20 student lab fee covers the Cloud server space for the training software.
Jason Corey, chair and associate professor of the department of performing arts technology at University of Michigan, also teaches technical ear training and authored a book on the topic in 2010. He said his classes are taught in a lecture and class demonstration style with required lab time.
“One of the critical things for audio professionals is being able to translate what they hear into parameters that they can control using audio hardware and software,” Corey said.
Corey said his students’ get a “leg up” on other professionals who are starting out, that have not had technical ear training. It sometimes takes several years to accumulate the skills on the job that ear training can give. He said he thinks the concept of ear training is gaining more widespread use in academics and sound industry.
Ryan said technical ear training has been around for at least 20 years. He learned the concept at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, while studying for his doctorate in Sound System Engineering. Ryan credits his former professor and mentor, Rene Quesnel, as the person who invented the specialized training. McGill started the program, but kept it a tightly guarded secret.
Ryan said McGill only trained six students yearly with the ear training concept and roughly only 120 people have had this particular style of training in the last two decades. When Quesnel retired he gave the teaching methodology to Ryan and a few others.
Schneider said the best way for him to market himself to potential employers is to have the chance to show his skills.
“Talking the talk can only take you so far in this industry. As long as I have the opportunity to show off my work,” Schneider said. “Maybe stamp on there that I found a certain type of training and that I believe that I can give you a better product.”