Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Perfect Pitch

I've been dusting off my musicality lately. It's been a while, about ten years, since I studied any theory or played an instrument regularly. Now that I'm mixing for a good sized band every weekend at church it's helping me out a lot to brush off the rust. Not only does it help to have played and teched a few different instruments (piano, trumpet, guitar, bass, drums) but knowing about chord progressions and dynamics help me get more in touch with my players.

The thing I wanted to write about today is perfect pitch. That's the ability to hear a note and identify it or to have a letter given to you and be able to reproduce that note. It sounds like something that only a highly trained musician would be able to do but in fact it's genetic. You can actually demonstrate perfect pitch by say, humming the first note of a song you know. If you get it spot on, you've got perfect pitch. The more familiar you are with your instrument (or voice) the easier it gets. 

There's also relative pitch, which is the ability to jump a given interval from a given pitch. Someone plays an A and asks you to go up a third and you play or sing a C. That's a lot more useful as a player, especially when doing things like transposing a song to a different key. But are either of these skills of any use to a sound guy?

Perfect pitch is extremely useful. Hearing a squeal of feedback and being able to snap your hand directly to the correct fader on a graphic equalizer is what gets people the big bucks. It's just a different mapping of the same skill.  Instead of your brain thinking of a musical pitch, you think of a number of hertz.  
Relative pitch is only slightly less useful, you just have to train a bit more to get there. You need to get so you know a couple good reference tones. Say for example, the lowest note you can sing, and a 1 kHz test tone. If you know that you can sing down to about 200 Hz then you can work an interval off of that to find low and low mid frequency tones. An octave down is 100 Hz, a third up lands you around the 125 Hz fader. Train yourself to whistle roughly a 1k tone and you can go from the mids right on up by thirds or fifths or octaves. It might only land you close to the right fader but with practice you can get pretty fast. 8 kHz is only three octaves up from 1 kHz.

I probably owe a few apologies to people I've tried to teach EQ to in the past. I had always figured it was something you should just be able to learn with practice. It turns out that there are some pretty specific conditions that all need to be just right in your brain to set you up to be a good mixer.  Just like some people can't carry a tune in a bucket, some people just can't hear well enough to sculpt a mix.

The best drummers can hear more than a dozen rhythms at once and keep them straight in their heads, then go on to play eight or more of them at the same time (that's two per limb!) When you hear sound they synapses in your brain actually fire at the same frequency as the tones you're hearing. Someone with a tin ear just doesn't have the hardware to make anything out of it but mud, sort of like being aurally colorblind.  

So if you're trying to improve your skills at the mix and you're finding it difficult, don't feel bad, it might be in your genes. That doesn't mean you should hang it up and go be an insurance salesman, but it might mean you'd be better in another position, or that you need to work on your head before your mixes and EQ skills come together. Learning to play an instrument would be a great way to work at it.

There have been a number of computer based trainers in the past. Just Google "feedback trainer" and you're sure to find a few, even for free. There's also an iOS app out that's getting good reviews. Here's a link to an article about it. ProSoundWeb on QuizTones

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