Research@Schulich: Denis Martin

Denis Martin, PhD candidate in Sound Recording, has built a technical ear training software application to answer two questions: can technical ear training be used to teach students to hear dynamic range processing; and can these learned skills be transferred to practical settings?

Denis Martin is a researcher, course instructor, audio engineer, producer, and percussionist with diverse interests and expertise. Hailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Denis is a PhD candidate in the Sound Recording area. He also holds a M.Mus in Sound Recording from McGill, and a B.Mus in Percussion Performance from Acadia University. His research interests include critical listening, technical ear training, perceptual evaluation of audio playback formats and recording techniques, production techniques in popular music, and contemporary percussion recording.

As well as recently presenting his research findings at the Schulich School of Music's doctoral colloquium series, Denis has also presented at a number of Audio Engineering Society (AES) conventions along with professors George Massenburg and Richard King: 

  • Dynamic range controller ear training: Analysis of Audio Engineering Student Training Data (Milan, Italy, 2018)
  • Dynamic range controller ear training: Description of a methodology, software application, and required stimuli (New York, 2017)
  • Advanced technical ear training. Development of a innovative set of exercises for audio engineers (New York, 2015)

What made you choose McGill for your studies?

I came to McGill to pursue the Masters in Sound Recording. Even today, it is the only graduate program in Canada that offers a highly practical training in music recording and production. In addition, the program was very highly recommended by my professors during my undergraduate degree.

How has being a McGill student influenced you and your research?

At McGill I’ve had the opportunity to surround myself with truly exceptional faculty and students. While I developed my base skills during my undergraduate degree, McGill expanded my horizons and exposed me to the next level of expertise. Without McGill’s strong background in music technology research, and my exposure to it just by being here, I probably would not have discovered a PhD in music as a career option.

Explain your research in three sentences or less:

I’m interested in perceptual learning. While musicians take ear training classes to learn to recognize intervals, scales, and chords by ear, I’m interested in training audio engineers to recognize audio processors and their parameters by ear. Like ear training for musicians, the goal is to provide students with the skills they need to work efficiently.

What led you to this particular topic?

The topic came from the great opportunity I’ve had to teach the Advanced Technical Ear Training class in the McGill Masters in Sound Recording program with one of my supervisors, George Massenburg. Teaching audio production in higher education is a relatively new practice, so the opportunities to improve our current teaching methods are endless. I decided to follow up on one of those many opportunities.

How does your research add to what was already known?

As far as I know, I am the second person to build a software application to train students on one of the more important audio processors: dynamic range controllers. I’m the first person to collect training data from students using this type of software and show that they are improving over time. I also administered tightly controlled listening tests that show that these trained students can generalize the skills they learn in the training environment to real-world dynamic range adjustment tasks.

Were there any findings that you found particularly surprising?

Many! One of the more interesting ones was the influence of listening fatigue on technical listening performance. Depending on the time of day, amount of sleep, and activities performed throughout the day, a student can come into a listening test with varying levels of fatigue. I’ve learned this level of fatigue is very important when measuring listener performance. In fact, fatigue can induce fluctuations in a student’s success rate that are larger in size than the improvement rate seen throughout the whole training program. In other words, get a good nights’ sleep, that might be worth as much as a year of technical ear training!

What are the important practical implications of your work?

This research is important because I believe audio education techniques are relatively unrefined at the moment. Audio students and their professors will benefit from this research as the techniques used at McGill and other universities are adopted more broadly.

What are your next steps?

My short-term goals are to finish my thesis, submit, defend, and graduate in the next 0.5-1 years. I would also like to have the final results of my thesis published in a journal, mostly likely with the Audio Engineering Society, which has been an incredible resource so far. In the long term, I want to continue to teach audio engineering, as well as explore the topic of listening fatigue further.

What advice would you give to new students in your program?

Take responsibility for your success.

Where is your favourite place to study?

At home…sorry I wish that was more interesting! I like the quiet and comfort of my home studio.

What do you enjoy doing in your down time?

My wife tells me that I have too many hobbies, so I’ll try to keep this short! I enjoy squash, paragliding, playing music, mountain biking, woodworking, skiing, and hockey.

What is your earliest musical memory?

Wow, that’s a tough one. I can remember the first time I really appreciated a good sound system. Our family had bought a new Volkswagen Jetta that had the upgraded sound system with many speakers spread throughout the car and a subwoofer in the trunk. I would have been around 10 years old. We were listening to Gowan’s “A Criminal Mind” pretty loud on some compilation CD and I remember thinking “wow, the fact that this track sounds great really contributes to the emotional expression of the music”. Who knows, maybe it was that moment that seeded my interest in producing high quality musical recordings.

If you hadn’t ended up in music, what would your alternate career path have been?

I was very close to paying my tuition for a Mechanical Engineering degree before I decided to go into music. I wouldn’t change my choice, but I’m sure that would have been interesting too!

What was the last book you read?

Maybe this is terrible, but other than for school, I’m not much of a book reader.

If you were offered a return plane ticket to anywhere in the world, where would you go/why?

Hmm, somewhere with mountains. I guess to make best use of the offer it should be somewhere expensive, New Zealand?