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drmcclainphd

Just Listen To You!

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I was doing some additional tracks on a recording using a minimal set up, playing the original back into headphones using only one ear cup and monitoring the guitar with the other. I started by listening to the original and then removed one ear cup. Strangely, the pitch seemed to shift down slightly. So I tried it several times, and it was true. Removing one ear cup flatted it enough to notice. Maybe to a trained ear only, but it can still be there whether you can hear it or not. Since many singers record vocals using only one cup (and often plugging the other ear with a finger) I thought this might be a big problem. So I did some research on it and here's the result.

High sound pressure levels cause your eardrum to stretch more. Loud music in open air has a high SPL (sound pressure level; that's where decibels are used), but less volume in a small, closed space, such as within an ear and ear cup, can do the same. With both on it sounds normal because it's not shifted by much and both ears hear the same thing. But remove one so it can hear a lower SPL signal and that ear doesn't get stretched and so gets the "true" pitch and can compare it with the other ear's signal.

From this we can learn a few things:

If you use headphones for monitoring a recording session, keep the volume low to keep it in tune. Just listening, who cares if it's off by a Hertz or two,

Similarly, don't use this set up to tune from. Tune in open air, even if it's an electronic tuner in your computer or some such. Use both ears open to air.

Volume (signal intensity) is not loudness, Sound Pressure Level is. The same volume coming out of your headphones when laying on the table open to the air is much louder when the environment is a tiny little enclosed space. Bring your headhones closer to your ear and it gets louder and you get closer. But when you place it on your ear suddently there's a huge jump as the space where the air vibrates becomes enclosed and the air pressure of the sonic waves stuck in there goes up. Open headphones have the problem less, ear buds less still, and open air listening doesn't have it at all.

Plus a bit from my own (actual, scientific, auditory) research: don't eat (or even chew gum) when you need to hear pitch accurately. The changing pressure on the back side of your ear drum, due to varying pressure being fed up through your eustachian tubes, changes the apparenty pitch. You'd never know it with both ears open or both covered with ear cups, but can hear it with only one ear covered, and how often do you do that? BUT, eat something or chew gum BEFORE you start, for the same reason they suggest gum on airplane flights. If your ears need to "pop" because of built up pressure, it can change the apparent pitch. Pop them before you start, then no more chewing until your done. This last bit of advice is also useful for helping to keep salsa off your Strat, lasanga off your Les Paul and onion dip off your Ovation (but MAN could you mix up a huge batch of dip in that big plastic body!).

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Kirk Lorange    128

I've noticed that too, dr. A definite sharpening of the pitch when the headphones go on. It's very disconcerting when trying to sing vocals to an existing track wearing headphones.

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I've noticed that too, dr. A definite sharpening of the pitch when the headphones go on. It's very disconcerting when trying to sing vocals to an existing track wearing headphones.

It's probably one of those things you don't notice until something makes you, like someone telling you. My eye doctor tells me he regularly gets adults, even older ones, coming in with a complaint that turns out to be "floaters" which everyone always has. But once you notice it, there's no going back. Once you've heard pitch shifting with volume you can hear it just with a change in volume, even in open air. I can hear it in the car when I turn loud music down, but not when turning it up. Likely the loundness masks the effect. It probably is more apparent in those with good pitch perception, naturally or through training. Some claim they can't hear small pitch difference, but they're there. I was involved in research that showed people with just common pitch perception couldn't perceive small differences, but their brains were detecting small differences every bit as well as professional musicians with absolute pitch. Even if someone can't detect it, they shouldn't think nobody else will. If they make a recording with this error in it, others might listen and think it sounds off.

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eddiez152    129

Interesting read on this subject. I notice the same and not that it makes much difference to anyone except me but constantly fighting these differences when trying to record. Never could put it into writing or an oratory explanation.

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DAMPDX    1

Great post! Useful subject! This will be helpful for me to consider in the future, because I sometimes wear headphones and sometimes not (depends who is home at the time hahaa!)

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Rockerbob    47

Meniere's disease has made my ears out of tune with each other, in open air or headphones.  Just one of the many joys of Meniere's.

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