Sonarworks in Education / Gabe Herman
At the Hartt School, Music Production & Technology students learn recording technology the same way they learn their instruments. Because our students are already accomplished musicians, we have the ability to dive right into critical listening and technical ear training early. They already understand how to use their ears to manipulate sound on their instruments, how to musically react in ensembles, and some even have perfect pitch. Even with these advantages, students still find the process of ear training to be daunting and difficult.
My colleagues and I are always on the lookout for opportunities to integrate new technology that can improve the student experience and elevate our pedagogy. Over the last year, our decision to install Sonarworks into our curriculum and studio facilities has dramatically improved the quality of instruction and augmented our teaching experience in unexpected ways.
In our curriculum, we have courses and modules that challenge students to develop critical listening skills throughout their four year degree. This includes dedicated critical listening classes where students learn to identify frequencies at various amplitudes across octaves in both pink-noise and program material. We assign recording and mix projects where students are instructed in methods for both creative and corrective EQ, compression, and other audio effects. Students are regularly asked to conduct assessments of different genres in order to broaden their grasp of appropriate production methods as well as assess standardized treatments of instruments and their placement in the sound field. I could go on, but the list of examples of how we teach critical listening is endless because it is so deeply embedded into all of our curricula. What is unique about these projects and assignments is the way in which they encourage students to establish a parallel between how they think about their practice of music and how it relates to how they learn to critically listen.
Musicians generally learn new skills on their instrument using the “System of Four” (S.O.4). This system is comprised of four discreet steps: 1. Learn – This is the presentation of new information in either a lesson with a teacher, or through self-discovery. 2. Practice – This comes from the repetition of the new skill until it has been internalized and can be performed without error. 3. Rehearse – Once the skill is internalized, the student now must practice performing the skill in context. This usually happens in an ensemble until the performance is steady and is ready to become a vehicle through which additional expression can be made. 4. Perform – This is when the skill is fully mastered. The skill is effortless, and has become a reflexive, second nature.
Perhaps the most significant two steps in this process are “Practice” and “Rehearse” due to the fact that these are the areas that typically require the most time invested on the part of the student. These are the critical hours where a student will either grow or develop bad habits in the absence of the instructor.
When we apply the paradigm of S.O.4 to critical listening pedagogy, we must reasonably assume that students are able to execute all four steps. While our program produces some exceptional engineers with excellent ears, we have noticed that there are two areas where students have to really dig in. For most, “Practice” and “Rehearse” are often complicated by a lack of access to adequate listening space and equipment. Teaching labs for us consist of acoustically treated recording studio control rooms with reference monitors. These are not at all similar to the at-home listening environments students use to complete their assignments. At Hartt, (and I suspect at other schools too) students prefer to practice critical listening in headphones. This is for a myriad of reasons. For one, headphones are more convenient to busy student schedules. It is very easy to grab a minute or two to run listening tests at the library or on breaks between classes. At home, shared living spaces like dorm rooms and apartments require isolation out of respect, so headphones are a must. This is especially true late at night when others might be asleep. What is interesting to me is that when I asked why my students prefer to work in headphones, the most common response is simply that they do not have any other option. Most students have yet to invest in loudspeakers and those that have feel less inclined to treat their spaces because they are living in temporary housing. Even though students know that acoustically treating their room is the best answer, we cannot practically force them to treat their spaces. Whenever possible, we encourage students to complete their homework in our studios. We are a small program and can offer 24/7 access to our facilities, but the fact is that there just aren’t enough hours in the day, nor days in the week to give everyone in the program equal time to complete their work in a teaching lab.
So why can’t headphones offer an adequate substitute for a treated listening environment? The truth is, they are a necessary stand-in, especially for the problems listed above. Many professional engineers use headphones all the time and can create excellent recordings and mixes with them. These engineers will also tell you that all headphones come with their own learning curve. Each manufacturer designs every model with its own distinct non-linear frequency response. This is not necessarily a bad thing when used to enjoy music. While some cheaper models may have non-linearities caused by manufacturing choices dictated by cost, pricier reference models are intentionally voiced with enhancements to lows, mids, and highs because extensive research suggests that the average listener enjoys music more with these curves applied. All of this can be problematic for students who are just learning how to mix. Students often wonder why corrective EQ choices made in one model of headphones do not translate well to others, and even less so in loudspeakers. Headphones also create an opportunity for students to listen too loudly, causing quick ear fatigue, or worse, damage to their hearing (especially in the US where output levels are not regulated on portable devices). Additionally, the lack of cross-talk in headphones create a distorted sense of mono elements as being “inside-of-your-head” instead of the SRA created by two well placed left-right monitors. Headphones also create an exaggerated stereo field which can lead to timid stereo placement choices as well as confusion over how much spatial processing like reverb may be necessary.
When we ask students to practice critical listening as a part of their coursework, we have always had to assume that their practice and rehearse time would be in some way compromised by these limitations and that was just the way it was.
The software developed by Sonarworks has greatly improved the quality of Learn/Practice/Rehearse/Perform for our facilities, coursework and critical listening assignments. This software can apply a correction to any one of over 200 different types of professional headphones resulting in a relatively flat, consistent performance. This offers an outstanding potential in a classroom setting where each student may own a different brand of headphones. With this software, a teacher can assign a project with confidence that every student has equal access to the same basic listening environment and equipment. The TruFi app for mobile devices has really been useful in that it provides the same correction software when listening on a phone. This has been extremely well received by students as they do comparative and critical listening from their Spotify accounts or from their iTunes libraries. For those students with loudspeakers, the studio edition of the software comes with a calibration microphone and an easy to use software that guides them through a 30+ point measurement process in a fun and engaging way. With this tool, students can enjoy better performance from their home studio speakers and more consistency between their headphones and their speakers.
One of the things that surprised me the most was the amount of impact it had on students’ curiosity about how headphones work and what the technical and sonic differences between them are. I have really enjoyed conversations with students about headphone design issues, how earbuds differ from cans, and why headphones don’t always translate well to the loudspeaker environment. After pointing them to some excellent articles in the AES online journal, I was encouraged by their enthusiasm for the complicated science of headphone measurement and I look forward to how this will spark engagement in their acoustics classes. All of these conversations were a direct result of the Sonarworks demo.
Another unexpected outcome was the augmented use of our secondary teaching lab. This space is smaller than our primary teaching lab and lacks significant acoustic treatment. With two PMC monitors and a HORUS and HAPPI powered Pyramix system, there is a lot of equipment in this room that students want to use, but the acoustics of the space were dissimilar to our flagship studio. With the measurement and correction provided by Reference 4 and the calibration mic, we were surprised at the dramatic improvement at the listening position. Students now have no problem at all working in either of these spaces and they are creating excellent work in both. Of course, we will continue to improve the acoustic treatments in both of these rooms, and it is great to know that as we do, we can re-calibrate to get even more performance out of our investment. It’s been beneficial for students to see faculty enthusiasm over this too. Many students had not yet been able to visualize in their own ears the impact that speaker/room calibration until they were able to play with the correction in this space for themselves. The ability to bypass the correction and hear the immediate difference is a powerful, stark, contrast that is impossible to ignore—even when making subtle corrections.
The largest rewards have come in watching the quality of student mixes improve. Using Sonarworks has mitigated second-guess syndrome in student’s work in headphones and has increased the accuracy of their applied corrective EQ. During tracking sessions, students are more confident in the amount of low end they are capturing in bass, kick and snare tracks leading to better raw material to work from. When a student’s choices in a mix are reinforced by good translation between speakers, it boosts their confidence and they have more enthusiasm for the work they are doing. The energy from this has been palpable at Hartt, and we couldn’t be more grateful for what this software has done for our program. Next year, all incoming freshman will be required to purchase the headphone edition of Sonarworks.