This study investigated the role of natural periodic temporal fine structure in helping listeners take advantage of temporal valleys in amplitude-modulated masking noise when listening to speech. Young normal-hearing participants listened to natural, whispered, and/or vocoded nonsense sentences in a variety of masking conditions. Whispering alters normal waveform temporal fine structure dramatically but, unlike vocoding, does not degrade spectral details created by vocal tract resonances. The improvement in intelligibility, or masking release, due to introducing 16-Hz square-wave amplitude modulations in an otherwise steady speech-spectrum noise was reduced substantially with vocoded sentences relative to natural speech, but was not reduced for whispered sentences. In contrast to natural speech, masking release for whispered sentences was observed even at positive signal-to-noise ratios. Whispered speech has a different short-term amplitude distribution relative to natural speech, and this appeared to explain the robust masking release for whispered speech at high signal-to-noise ratios. Recognition of whispered speech was not disproportionately affected by unpredictable modulations created by a speech-envelope modulated noise masker. Overall, the presence or absence of periodic temporal fine structure did not have a major influence on the degree of benefit obtained from imposing temporal fluctuations on a noise masker.
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The authors would like to thank Joshua Bernstein for his helpful discussions on the role of intensity importance functions in masking release, and to two anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. We are grateful to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders for supporting this research (Grant No. R01 DC 01625 awarded to R.F. and Grant No. R01 DC 05216 awarded to A.J.O.).