A few years ago, I was asked to provide the sound system for a local recording artist who was performing at a women's meeting. During the sound check, the singer-songwriter said, "It is not bright enough." After adjusting the EQ one or two times, she said, "That's perfect!" A short time later, someone came up to me and asked, "What did she mean by 'bright?'"
The point of that story is to illustrate that not everyone knows the meaning of some audio terms, but when two people do, they can communicate very effectively.
There are many terms used to describe the quality or character of a sound. I was able to extract 74 of them from my glossary. Most engineers and musicians should be familiar with many of these terms, but for those they do not know, they should know where to look them up. (Hint: The name of this series is "Words from the Glossary)
Unfortunately, there is no standardized list of approved words for describing sounds. Some of these words are synonyms—different words with the same meaning. For others, the meanings are similar but slightly different or they have more than one definition, depending upon who you talk to. Many of these terms are used frequently, while others are rarely used. This month we will begin briefly exploring these terms in alphabetical order, covering the first third of the list. Over the next two months, we will discuss the other two-thirds.
Airy is a descriptive term for a sound with the feeling of spaciousness or openess, a quality that allows the sound to breathe a little. It typically has increases in frequencies above 12 kHz. It is similar to shimmer. Bassy is a sound with emphasized low frequencies, those below 200 Hz. It is similar to boomy, except it describies emphasized frequencies below 125 Hz.
If you threw a blanket over your stereo speakers, you would get a sound that is described at blanketed, a sound missing the high frequencies. It is similar to wooly. On the other end of the scale, a sound with excessive upper bass frequencies of about 160 to 350 Hz is said to be bloated. It is sometimes compared with tubby.
Bloom is a term used to describe a sound with great dynamics, lots of reverberation, and a good low-frequency response. An unfocused sound with poor stereo imaging is called blurred. It is also used to describe a sound with poor transient response.
Body is the term for the frequency range in which an instrument produces its richest tone, typically between 800 Hz to 1 kHz. An instrument with a full-bodied sound is said to have depth. Unfortunately, depth also has several other meanings in the audio world.
A sound that has too great a level in the 250 to 600 Hz range, is called boxy, because it sounds as if the music were coming out of a box. If you've ever heard a trumpet player playing too loud creating a bright, almost unpleasant sound, then you know why they call that brassy.
When the breathing sounds made by woodwind players, such as clarinetists, flutists, and saxophonists are audible, the sound is said to be breathy. Breathy is also used to describe a sound with good response in the upper midrange and high frequencies, somewhat similar to airy.
Does it seem like most of these terms begin with the letter "B?" Well, another such term is bright, a sound with emphasized high frequencies in the range of 8 kHz and higher or with strong harmonics relative to the fundamentals. It is the opposite of dark or brittle, but similar to crisp. Brittle is a sound with weak high frequencies or weak harmonics relative to the fundamentals. It lacks roundness and fullness.
Brown is an interesting term. It is a tone extremely sought after by many guitarists. It was the sound that Eddie Van Halen got from his guitar amp, which has a boost in the low midrange of 200 to 400 Hz. Eddie originally used the term for the sound of his brother's drums, but it has come to mean the sound of the guitar.
Chesty sounds like a vocalist singing from the chest. It is also a sound with a bump in low frequency range of 125 Hz to 250 Hz. A sound with the proper amount of high frequencies is called clear. It is the opposite of muddy and similar to transparent. Cold is a sound that lacks warmth, having too much high end, especially above 10 kHz. It is sometimes used as a derogatory term to describe digital recordings.
A term for a sound with good high-frequency response with presence is crisp. It is also similar to bright and the opposite of dark. Dark is a term for a sound lacking high frequencies and is sometimes called dull. Delicate is the term for smooth sounds in the very high frequencies, in the 15 kHz to 20 kHz range. But I wouldn't know. My hearing doesn't go that high.
Detailed describes a sound in which it is easy to discern tiny features, characterized by sharp transient response and good high-frequency response. It is sometimes called articulate. If the sound is scattered or spread out, it is called diffuse. It is a sound without directionality, seeming to come from no particular direction, similar to blurred and the opposite of focused.
Dirty is the term for a distorted sound, whether intentional, such as a distorted guitar tone, or unintentional, such as an overdriven or clipped signal. It is the opposite of clean. A sound that is overly punchy to the point of being uncomfortable is called edgy. It is also used to describe a sound with harmonics that are too strong relative to the fundamentals, resulting in a distorted, raspy sound. It is the opposite of gentle. Etched is the term for a sound that is clear but very close to being edgy, with emphasized extreme high frequencies.
Next month, we will continue with Part 2 of these descriptive terms.
• On June 25, 1967, the first live television show to be broadcast worldwide by satellite was a two-hour show called "Our World." On that show the Beatles performed "All You Need is Love" for the first time.
• On June 25th, 2004, the most expensive guitar in the world was sold at auction for $959,500. It was a Fender Stratocaster once owned by Eric Clapton, which he had nicknamed "Blackie."
• After "Love Will Keep Us Together" by Captain and Tennille peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975, the Spanish version of the same song called "Por Amor Viviremos" began to climb the chart. It was the only time in the history Billboard Hot 100 that an artist had the same song in two different languages appear on the chart at the same time.
Q. Who writes the definitions in your glossary?
A. Each time I come across a new term, I look up the definition in several sources. Then I write my own definition based on those descriptions.
Q. Some of the items in your glossary seem to be fairly technical. Do you understand everything in your glossary?
A. I understand about 99.9+% of the terms. There are a few terms that are above my head. For instance, I hesitated to add delta-sigma modulation, but it was important because it helped explain 1-bit sampling. After reading several papers on the subject, I was still not completely clear as to how the process works. I took my best shot at writing the definition, but I'm sure some expert on the subject might find some fault with it. I later updated the definition as my understanding improved.
*Ocassionally Asked Questions, rather than FAQ, Frequently Asked Questions
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