Updated : May 18, 2017
What could make or break you as a music creator is your understanding of both music and sound. Yes music is a form of sound, but it is crucial to understand that sound itself has its own ugly and beautiful qualities.
A player will refer to sound as “tone”. Like, “Miles Davis had great tone”. This doesn’t refer to the notes or rhythms he chose but the literal sound he made with the trumpet. The roundness, the warmth, the fullness or thinness is all a part of his “tone”. Great players have great tone because they know how to actually listen to sound itself.
When you are making a recording you are not only responsible for getting the right notes, rhythms and feel, but also for making sure the sound coming out of the monitors feels good on the ears.
Any unpleasant sound will push and scratch against your ear like a toddler smacking your head for attention. You want to feel as if a master Thai masseuse is caressing your ear drums.Let's look at some of the adjectives people might used to describe the quality of a sound.
Sound can be warm, cold, wet(lots of reverb), dry(no or little reverb), distorted, clean, noisy, soft, loud, harsh, thick, brittle, gushy, buttery, round, pointy, dull, fat, thin, shrill, sizzle-y, smashed, dynamic, detailed, jagged, smooth, velvety, grovel-y, dark(missing high frequencies), bright(lot’s of high frequencies), open, muffled, airy, earthy, watery, magical, shiny, shimmery, bad or good.
Describing sound is like describing the taste of wine. Because it is so abstract, you have to use the closest feeling adjectives that jump to mind.
Your job as a music maker is to understand when a sound is bad and to either make it good or get rid of it. Musical choices obviously can sound bad or good but if you are making recordings you have to take extra care that the sonic qualities as well as the music feels good when it comes spilling out of the speakers.
There might be a vocal that is hard to hear in the mix, if you understand sound, you think, OK I’ll make it brighter with an EQ so it cuts through the mix. So you make the vocal sound brighter but then it sounds too harsh. Uh oh. Maybe try distorting it slightly instead? These are the types of battles you get into when you are on a quest for good sound. The main question to ask yourself is always, “Is it good or is it bad?“. If it’s bad, what qualities make it sound bad? If it sounds good but not great, “Can I make the sound better?” Who is to say what is good or bad? Well it takes years of listening to sound in this way to train your ear to recognize good and bad. It takes years of experience by experimentation to know how to sculpt the sound from bad to good. When you cross a certain threshold of acceptable quality, then it is a matter of personal taste.
Let’s listen to some sound. For this next part you will need some decent monitors or headphones.
Listen to James Earl Jones.
The sound of his voice is simply pleasant. You want to hear it. Yes it is known for being deep, but if you actually listen to the sound, in pure abstraction, you’ll notice the mid and really high frequencies of his voice contribute to it’s appeal. His voice overall has an evenness and special warmth to it.
Listen closely and you’ll also notice that there is a hum from the room noise in this recording. Listen closer (if you have good enough monitors and you’re young enough) and you’ll hear a really annoying super high pitched, almost sine wave at the top of the human hearing spectrum, punishing the ears. These are bad sounds. You need to recognize when bad sounds are hiding with the good ones.
Luckily, this high pitched thing can be filtered out with an EQ. Using today’s technology we could actually get rid of the room noise too with a plugin that has a special algorithm to detect certain sounds and eliminate them.
Now listen to this.
Ignore the lady and just listen to the sound of his voice as he is being interviewed. Compared to the first video, James Earl Jones is older, he kind of sounds like he has a little cold, and he is being recorded with different equipment. As far as the sound goes in pure abstractions, the big difference is the low warm frequencies are largely absent. It’s much more mid-rangey and missing what really makes James Earl Jones voice such a powerful tool in movies.
When you are listening to the sound, purely the sound, the fact that it is a voice saying words at all eventually could be lost on you. To the layman, both James Earl Jones’ just sound like James Earl Jones, but the sound is completely different to a discerning ear. If you are able to hear the different qualities and understand what’s happening you are capable of sculpting more pleasant sound.
When you start to understand how EQs can add sizzle or warmth, or how compression can add presence and control, you might be tempted during the recording or sound design phases of production to put off making the voice or instrument “sound right” until the mixing phase. That is a mistake.
Thinking you can fix your sounds in the mix is a recipe for pain. You need to try to get the best possible sound out of the monitors as soon as possible.
Having great quality audio is something that you need to care for from the start. If you are tracking an electric guitar through an amp, the first thing you need is a killer guitar “tone”.
Jimi Hendrix was master. Jimi created his own custom mix of string gauge sizes to balance the levels on his guitar. Ever think of that? Then he would spend considerable time adjusting the dials on his amps, eqs, distortion pedals, ect. to get things juuuuuust right. Every detail and nuance he could think of was considered. All of this special care adds up to make better music. Be like Jimi.
So let’s say you’ve made managed to make your guitar sound awesome out of the amp, now you have to put a mic on it. This decision will also affect the quality of your recording. Do you use a Sure SM57? A Royer 121? An AKG C414? All these mics sound great on guitar cabs but which one will sound amazing on this guitar? If you can, just record all three so you have the choice ;) But where do you place the mics? Again, you are at a cross roads, choosing your sonic destiny!!!!
There are no exact scientific rules to apply here. You learn how to get a great sound through experimentation and experience. When you are recording a sound, choosing a sample, or designing a synth patch your goal is to get the best fidelity possible. So how do you know when you have a decent sound?
Let your gut be your guide.
To be honest, you could easily go crazy chasing down a synth patch, moving your mic around, or looking for a drum sample that sounds juuuuuuuust right. (If you never go crazy you aren’t trying hard enough) Other times the first sound you pull up is a sound that makes you go ‘YES!!!!‘. You hear it and instantly know it’s right. Yet, other times, you might have to abandon an idea all together.
For me personally, there is a relationship my conscious brain has with my subconscious mind. If I am hunting for that sweet spot there is a feeling in the pit of my stomach that feels almost queasy until I hear that something that relaxes my gut and brings a balance to my mind. This feeling is my guiding force to make choices in the music, sound, writing and art as a whole. But that’s a different story all together.
By now you should get the point that “the sound” is berry berry important. It should be clear when I say “sound”, right now we aren’t talking about “the sound” of jazz for example, which is in reference to the scales, instruments, structured, ie the musical sound, we are talking about “sound” in terms of the sonic quality.
As you start thinking of sound in this way your worldview will change. You might knock on somebody’s front door and think “that’s got a really pleasant tone, I should sample that.” If you get obsessed with the sound quality there will be times where you feel like you’ve lost your mind listening to something over and over trying to get the mix just right. Maybe you’ll try to fix one aspect of the sound and disproportionately destroy something else thus ruining the sound overall. Take breaks, give your ear some rest, play your music for other people, give yourself a chance to regroup and comeback fresh to reanalyze the sound.
Some sounds you cannot make awesome. If you must use something with crappy sound you have to find a balance to make it as good as you can. This is where experience, knowledge of good gear, and knowing how to use it comes in to play. We look at the practical guide to obtaining a good quality sound for your music in the next article, 10 Tips For Pro Sound.