Listen Up: How to Train Your Ear
Some musical education can help expand your audio experience and have you hearing tunes in a whole new way.
ear training
November 05, 2007 by Robert Archer

According to Owsinki, focusing on such distortion and frequency balance within a recording would be beneficial to anyone wanting to develop his or her listening abilities. A quality audio system, he says, should be capable of conveying the efforts of the recorded musicians, the engineer and producer so long as the recording isn’t heavily compressed. Owsinki explains that compression is a studio technology designed to maximize the loudness levels of a recording regardless of what equipment it is played on. The problem with compressed audio, he notes, is that it can strip the recording of its dynamics and naturalness and, when compression is overused, it can be detrimental to the quality of the recording. “Compression and limiting has always been used. It’s just that today it’s overused pretty much up and down the delivery chain,” he says, adding, “It basically started in the ‘50s when record labels and artists heard some records play louder on the radio or jukebox than others.”

The common misconception, Owsinki says, is that if a recording plays louder, it must be better. “So the labels and artists began forcing the transfer engineers to cut their discs hotter and hotter,” he explains. “This became an art and the ‘mastering engineer’ was born.” He adds, “During the ‘90s, this was carried to the extreme thanks to a compilation CD out of Nashville. If one cut was quieter than the next, then the belief was that a program director would immediately skip it for a louder one. So, every label literally forced mastering engineers to squash the audio more and more in an effort to make it loud.”

A Musical Reference
Have you ever wondered how Eddie Van Halen made some of the sounds on those classic Van Halen records or why albums from artists like Queen, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd sound so polished and perfect?  Many of the sound effects that are used to enhance popular music are designed to bring to fruition the artist’s vision of how a song and record should sound. In addition, other techniques, such as “multitrack recording,” microphone placement and “punch-ins,” are also used during the recording process to contribute to the music-making process. Focusing specifically on the sound effects used by musicians and recording engineers is a great way of deducing the artist’s vision for the piece as well as a means of identifying trends within a recording.

According to Maggio, the most commonly used effects in music can be divided into two categories. “There are two types of basic effects, generally — sound altering and time altering,” he says. “Sound altering effects include, for example, distortion, equalization and wah. Time altering or modulation effects include delay, chorus and phasing. What they do is take a signal and, in the case of chorus, for example, cause a split-second delay to create two almost separate sounds. A 12-string guitar is a natural chorus because you are doubling the pitch of the notes. Distortion clips the sound until it breaks up,” he explains.

Here are some popular songs that Maggio points to that prominently demonstrate sound altering and time altering effects:

  • Pink Floyd’s “Run like Hell” — delay.
  • The Police’s “Walking on the Moon” — chorus and delay.
  • U2’s “Where the Streets have no Name” — Maggio says this song is a good example of how a musician may take an approach that employs these effects to construct an entire song. “The Edge plays single notes and he syncs the tempo to play in between the repeat of delay notes,” he explains. “The result is you have four notes playing at once, or a cascading effect, decaying after the initial note.”
  • Van Halen’s “Unchained” — Maggio says this song uses one of the famous guitar player’s favorite staple effects. “Eddie Van Halen plays the opening three-chord phrase and then he kicks in the flanger to make it sound like a jet taking off.”
  • Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” and Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” — wah.
  • Prince’s “When Doves Cry” — equalization
  • Electric Light Orchestra’s (ELO) “Telephone Line” — compressed vocals.
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Robert Archer - Senior Editor, CE Pro
Bob is a dedicated audiophile who has been writing about A/V for Electronic House sister publication CE Pro since 2000.

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