Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Singing With Headphones: Pitch Issues

OK, another question and answer... this time about singing with headphones.

I usually don't have pitch issues when recording, but on occasion I do. I've tried using just one ear piece on the headphones, but on this particular song, still had trouble. Can you explain the science behind finding pitch when using headphones?

First of all, I hope you mean you just took 1/2 of that one ear off when using headphones. I do not find that taking a whole ear off will not help you. To clarify, take one closed headphone (not "open" headphones... ones used in the studio are usually closed to avoid feedback) and slide it half off your ear. It should cling to your head in such a way as to avoid feeding back to the mic.

Rarely, I will come upon a singer who does better with both "cans" on, but by far most singers do best with one earpiece half off. You'll also find that you'll favor one ear over the other for this maneuver. Experiment to see what works best for you. Try the left ear, then the right ear half off.

Lastly... DO NOT hold your cans with your hands. This will cause your arms to weigh down your ribcage. Instead, raise your hands above your waist and either "talk with them" or press fingertips into each other to open your chest, stay tall and flexible.

For the best discussion on the "science" of headphones and hearing pitch, see this link. You'll see I've contributed my two cents to the discussion, too.

Power, Path and Performance... the difference is real.

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  • At October 16, 2009 at 5:42 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

    Help! I've had years of training and yet now I am in a group, 2 out of 5 of the tracks we recorded, I'm as flat as a pancake. Its really troubling me. I'm doing everthing right and we've stripped it back to accoustic to help but something isn't right. I was told it may be the production? Any ideas?

  • At October 16, 2009 at 7:02 PM , Blogger Unknown said...


    Sorry you're having trouble with pitch. Can you send me an mp3? If so, give me your email address and I'll send you mine.

  • At October 18, 2009 at 3:39 AM , Blogger Unknown said...


    Yeah sure, its insideprimer@yahoo.co.uk.

  • At November 28, 2012 at 11:08 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Actually, I'm going to have to say the opposite. In my experience, every time I record a singer in the studio with only one headphone on, the singer tends to go very flat as a result because of the whole headphones effect. Try playing your favorite song on your headphones, then unplug them and immediately it will feel different, and will almost sound as if the song suddenly sounds 'flat' in contrast. This is the same idea with headphones, which is why instead, I advise singing with both cans on and to get used to the feeling of having an 'inner ear'

  • At November 29, 2012 at 2:28 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

    Hi Anonymous...

    Thank you for writing. So interesting to hear different experiences. Actually, my suggestion to have one ear half-off, not full-off, which would indeed be aurally disorienting.

    In my own experience with my and others' voices for 4 decades, most people do better with the acoustically grounding effect of hearing a part of their unmic-ed voice with 1/2 ear off - but NOT ALL respond this way. Yes, some do better with both on!

    The ear is an amazing thing, and people's aural focus can be different and unique. I like keeping options open and experiment til finding what works!

  • At April 3, 2013 at 9:34 AM , Blogger Phil said...

    I have definitely noticed the "flat" effect with headphones. It sounds fine when I'm singing (I'm also monitoring the vocals in the headphones) but when I play them back over speakers, it often (but not always !?!?!?!?) sounds flat in places. What's confusing to me is that in some songs I do okay, and on other songs it's really obvious. I don't know if it's a difference in monitoring volume levels or the subtleness of the melodies and me just not being very practiced at it so I hit better on "easy" songs and miss on others with a lot of half-steps. Another confusing result is that sometimes it'll actually sound pretty good on one speaker but sound really bad (and I mean the "pitchiness") on usually less good speakers. It's like some of the overtones smooth it out on speakers/amplifiers with a wider response range.

  • At April 3, 2013 at 10:59 AM , Blogger Unknown said...


    One thing that can affect pitch in very non-obvious frustrating ways is the sound of the bass. The overtones of the bass can really lead your ears astray. I had that mysterious problem myself where I sounded completely in tune with headphones but could hear the inaccuracy in the playback speakers. Try turning the bass down in your headphone mix, and turning up acoustic guitar and/or piano. You may find, like I did, the mystery is solved.

    As to the cheaper speakers, one thing I like to do is assess a mix on cheap speakers because they do indeed tell all. I refer to it as listening on the 'humilitron'.

    Let me know if turning the bass down helps you.


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