Musician's Corner

Color of Sound

So, behind curtain 1 is instrument A and behind curtain 2 is instrument B. Each plays a C-note at perfect pitch in the same register, with equal duration and intensity. Yet, you instantly recognize the first as a trumpet and the second as a guitar. Some of you will even recognize the first as a coronet and the second as a Strat.

What give’s… same exact sound, though distinctively different. It is called timbre. Every instrument is unique in the fine details of sound it produces. Our ears are wonderful at picking up the these details, even though we really don’t comprehend the microscopic differences. Timbre is the color of sound in action.

So, let’s put a sillyscope on that sound behind the curtains. We see a large peak at 261.626 Hz… a rousing cheer erupts as we realize our musicians exactly hit middle-C. A closer look reveals there are a myriad of smaller peaks throughout the spectrum, most of them barely perceptible… and therein is the difference between the sounds produced.

Every musician instinctively knows this, as they try different brands and models of their chosen instrument, finding the one that sounds great for them. Just ask violinists who pay millions of dollars for ones made with ancient wood which grew during the last alignment of the seven outer rings of Saturn.

We can extract a lesson from all this in our music production. As we record our sounds, those small differences are de-fractalated. The immense complexity of the natural sound made is digitized into a packet of information which trims, smooths, and otherwise changes slightly the sound’s color. Zoom in on a digital photo and you see the same outcome. So, the first lesson is: better recording equipment is better… ummm, duh.

The second thing we can do is re-add color. A purist has all kinds of arguments on this one, but setting those aside… one of the biggest issues I hear in DIY’ers, is flat music. A subtle touch of saturation with both odd and even ordered harmonics provides a great deal of flare in the overall music produced. Another trick is to create ambience tracks in the mix.

Doug Cochran