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

Here's a great question from my email...

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.

Secondly, I am not a scientist but I do know from 50 years of experience that there are many factors to singing in tune listening to headphones, including
  • The vowel shapes of the lyrics. For instance, if your highest note is on an 'ee' vowel, there is a tendency for going flat, and not necessarily being aware that you are. With better technique, you can learn to morph (shape) the 'ee' vowel more vertically, and get that pitch zeroed in.
  • If the bass on that particular track is even a bit too loud, the harmonics of the bass will give you an inaccurate mark to match pitch with. Turn the bass down and see if that corrects your pitch.
  • Is an instrument distracting your ears? Perhaps have the engineer take busy or swimmy instruments such as electric guitar, fiddle or organ out of your cue mix.
  • If you sing through headphones for hours at a time, your ear can simply get tired, and your pitch can suffer. You can help yourself by taking a break, resting your ears. Or, you can change the ear you have half-off, or ask for a change in the cue mix, just to sort of figuratively splash cold water in your ears and wake them up.
Third, you might wish to practice with a gadget called HearFones so that your ear gets used to hearing from that close proximity to the signal. Most people are shocked the first times they hear their voices recorded. This is because the ears are on the side of our heads and our voices come out the front! You'll get a much truer sound from HearFones, and your ear will be able to get used to hearing that sound. Then your pitch will be more accurate. The other option is to cup your hands over the backs of your earlobes, which will give an approximation of the sound you receive with HearFones.

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 more help, check out

Singing In The Studio... the ultimate guide to getting the best out of your studio vocals

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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.

  • At October 19, 2022 at 1:52 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I had and solved this issue that lasted for years.. I tried everything. I could sing the acapella without headphones in perfect key but the minute I put headphones I was around 15 to 20 cents flat. the fix is simple if you think about it. We are not hearing the music correctly as our brain expects it. So if you Filter out any bass frequency from your headphone mix and turn up the presence on your backing track (around the 2 to 3k range. use a wide large boost of around 10db. I know this sounds a lot but it works. This amplifies the main harmonic elements of the instruments like piano or guitar etc. You see the real problem here is not our ability to pitch, if we already can pitch well without headphones it is the masking effect of the bass frequencies and the fact that thee music is not reverberating naturally as in nature. So we are just enhancing the frequencies we need to hear most of in order to be able to pitch accurately. I hope this helps anyone going through the same struggles I had. i took me years to arrive at this solution and I even considered stopping singing multiple times because i thought "it was me". good luck


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