Every rookie gets caught at some point twiddling EQ knobs on a console or forever sweeping through a digital parametric for just the right sound. I’m always on the lookout for great teaching tools, especially when they can be used even in an online class. This last week, I did some research on ear training apps. TrainYourEars EQ Edition won me over, especially for school use.

What’s the Value of Ear Training?

I asked a lifelong live sound engineer what he’d teach if he was hired by a college to do live sound instruction. He said the ability to pick out frequencies and adjust them accordingly is by far the most important thing to learn, and he’d spend most of the time on that one skill. Enter EQ ear training apps. The goal, of course, is to produce students that have the proverbial “golden ears”—discernment perfection that can fix any problem frequency in one quick movement with little hesitation. The alternative is time wasted slowly sweeping through bands with endless A/B testing. It’s not the best idea, especially if you’re doing it in front of a client. If you’re a live engineer, poor EQ chops means frequent feedback and a less-than-ideal sound.

For the hobbyist engineer, a lot of apps can train your EQ chops fairly well. There are a bunch for free and sub-$15 that’ll do a decent job. As far as I can tell, TrainYourEars (which I will abbreviate TYE from now on) offers the best of every other app, and then some. For starters, it’s downloaded as a standalone program for Windows or Mac. One common complaint about most mobile apps is changes in compatibility and functionality with each update. Even if it’s installed in a lab setting, there’s a chance it could update out of functionality mid-semester or from one year to the next.

The most basic ear training apps play a frequency and have you guess the frequency. This “guess” method is one of the two methods used in TYE. The other is “correct,” where you hear an alteration in audio, then have to apply EQ to correct it to sound like the original. While I definitely prefer the correct method, the guess method is arguably better for certain exercises.

Fortunately, ear training apps have evolved far beyond simply playing a frequency. Most will play real, in-context audio, then alter it for the quiz. TYE can play pink noise, it’s own songs, songs from your computer, or will stream whatever is playing on your computer (though I found it easier to just create an imported playlist of mp3 files). You can also tell the program to play distraction noises, such as a person talking nearby, to simulate an actual live event.

The App

The first stop in TYE is the Audio Player tab.

This is pretty cut and dry—and beautiful, from a UX perspective. You import songs (for my test, I just used mp3 files). It’ll play through your list, or you can repeat/loop audio. Song selection is particularly important for some exercises. Since most of my list was a soft ballad compilation I made, several songs didn’t go low enough to test 125 Hz and below; and, since you can add in a random “no change,” it sounded the same as a low cut/boost on those songs (basically a guess between no change and LF EQ). The same goes for high frequencies; when you’re starting out, anything above 8k is much easier to detect if the song has a lot of content up in the “air” zone.

Below the Audio Player are tabs for noise (pink and white; pink is preferable) and for streaming the audio from your computer live.

The Options tab has sound card setup, eight languages, shortcut mapping, how many recent quizzes are used to calculate your scores, and a place to route the audio to 32-bit VST plug-ins. The latter was a pleasant surprise for me. A lot of people might night use it, but it’s very useful for an instructor. I took advantage of the feature to route my signal through a real-time spectrum analyzer, so I could really see the waveform as it was being altered. This is a nice skill to tune, since a lot of modern EQs have a spectrum analyzer overlay to look at as you’re adjusting parameters.

The Exercises

Each exercise is highly customizable. The default has a limited number of frequency bands, with large boosts and cuts. When you get better at it, you can slowly increase a number of bands (and by extension, shorted the distance between them) and lessen the amount of EQ applied. You can have up to 10 bands altered in a single go, with boosts/cuts as low as 3 dB, for up to 28 bands. Some exercises also test your listening for how wide the EQ was applied at Q factors of .5 (very wide) to 25 (super narrow). The filters themselves are band, low cut, high cut, low shelf, high shelf and bandpass.

Here’s the complete list of default exercises, though even their names and descriptions can be customized (if you want something very particular for yourself or your class):

  • Basic boost and cut with band filter (Guess)
  • Basic boost and cut with band filter (Correct)
  • Learn octaves with a bandpass filter
  • Find the opposite high and low shelf filters
  • Live feedback simulation
  • Narrow vs wide Q factors
  • More Q factors (boost and cuts, Correct)
  • Find 2 bands in a 7-band EQ
  • Low Cut vs High Shelf
  • High Cut vs High Shelf
  • Resonant high and low cut filters
  • 4-band graphic EQ emulator
  • 7-band graphic EQ emulator

This next screenshot is a beast, but it has a lot of useful information in it. Here are all the customization options, with the first default exercise selected.

See It in Action

  1. Go to the player and start some music.
  2. Select an exercise in the Exercise Designer
  3. Click the “Start Training!” button

The above GIF shows the first exercise. Since it’s the original exercise with no alterations, there are 7 bands that are all pretty far apart, and a hefty boost/cut applied. The program plays the music with a single band altered by 12 dB (at a Q/width of 1.2), then the user is asked to correct it so it sounds like the original, unaltered signal. After checking the answer, it’ll give a score based on how close it was, with an option to listen to the original audio and the EQ with the wrong answer’s EQ applied. If correct, you get a score of 100%. The score is averaged with the last 50 (or whatever you set it at) scores to make the Total Score above. The slider to the right of the Quizzes box on top is to change the volume (with live output metered to it’s right).

Students will most likely enjoy the way things are scored, since some of the more advanced exercises are extremely difficult to get exact. Here’s a screenshot of a slightly more advanced exercise.

In this case, the goal was to guess where both a low cut and a high cut start and the Q factor for each. A lower Q (wide) means no resonance (boost at the cutoff frequency) and a higher Q means high resonance. Learning about resonance is particularly important when dealing with synths. When resonance goes haywire during a live show, not catching it can make it grow quickly into feedback. For that, there’s the “Live Feedback Simulation” quiz; you are tasked with identifying what frequency is at the start of a feedback loop, without it ever getting there. It can be pretty difficult, especially if the music doesn’t have a lot of content at the offending frequency. Still, it’s a skill that if you don’t have, everyone is quick to notice; feedback makes you look like a rookie faster than just about anything else (having the soloist’s mic muted is pretty high up there too).

In this example, I got both Q factors correct, but thought each cut started sooner; for that, I got 81%—not bad for my second try!

There were a couple buggy moments as I tried out the program. They could be errors in just my evaluation version, but I bet they’re in the full version as well. Sometimes when a new song loads, there’s a bit of a hangup before the next one starts (maybe 10% of the time). There was also one time in an advanced exercise where I had to restart a quiz because the answer options failed to appear. Still, it’s an exceptional program that, until I find out otherwise, I’m claiming is the best EQ trainer out there. If you hear of one I should check out, let me know. I always want to present the very best option, regardless of cost, compensation or aesthetics.

If you’d like to give it a try (and also support us, since we’ll get a little something for the referral), check it out at this link: https://www.trainyourears.com/?rf=176

The cost for individuals is about $57 (depends on the conversion to US dollars at the time). It’s a little more for institutions to have it installed in labs, but not a lot more. If you’re looking to get it for your school, e-mail me at admin@musictechstudent.org and I’ll get them to give me a quote for you.

UPDATE: The company has sent me a unique coupon code for academic licenses (20% off); the only caveat is I can only share it privately, so e-mail admin@musictechstudent.org if you’re a student or instructor and are interested. The code I have is for personal licenses, but they’ll also generate a unique code for each institution to match whatever the quote is.

Nov. 2017 UPDATE: For Black Friday weekend, including Cyber Monday, the program is 45% off! Use coupon code BLACK for the weekend or CYBER for Monday.

The video TrainYourEars made that really shows it in action: