do musicians dream in electronic beeps?

A realisation came to me after posting my miniature musicians memoirs a few weeks ago and that is, that after a few years of making music almost solely by computer I have a distinct vocabulary that I realise is somewhat garbled to those who are not in the know on music production.
I have, in past blogs, used phrases such as "pinched the high end a bit" which means absolutely nothing to most of you. The image to the right is a pretty standard set-up for a professional computer musician, and even to me its a little daunting, to most it is a jumbled mess of computer geekery beyond comprehension.   
So this blog is dedicated to an explanation and glossary of sounds and effects used. A sort of, "how to blag a conversation about electronica and music production".

Most people are pretty comfortable with the concept of an equaliser and have come into contact with one at some point. They come on hi-fi systems with separate parts or like this one (left) from windows media player.
Certain genres of music rely heavily on the bolstering and reduction of various frequencies, jazz cuts out a lot of bass frequencies while dance music is very bass reliant.

The best way to think of it is that sound is a spectrum much like colour and light, with bass frequencies on one end much like ultraviolet and high frequencies residing in the infra-red end opposite. With the correct filtration you can find particular colours (or in this case frequencies) depending on these filters. There are series of basic and widely used filters in sound production and I'll attempt to explain each one with an audio examples to illustrate their effects properly. 

high pass
High pass filters remove the low (bass) frequencies of a given sound, this is a pinched sound and can quickly make a sample sound dated as early recording devices had difficulties in registering bass frequencies.
  • This is a sample of a clean cello sound - I'll use this original to show how one sound is affected by the various filters.
  • This sample is the same cello but with a high pass filter cutting off everything below 500Hz.
low pass
Low pass filters are the counterpoint to high pass, they remove unwanted sounds near to the lower end of the audible range and allow bass to take a much more prominent role in the sound. 
  • The example below, which is the cello again with all frequencies above 500Hz removed.
These two make up the bulk of EQ filtering with the addition of band pass and notch filters that are used less, there are also filters which deal with the whole of the audible spectrum much like the graphic eq in the picture above. Mostly I use the inbuilt low and high pass filters in CM Muzys but for a good overall give Classic EQ a try.

Spacial effects
Beyond the filters there are a myriad of effects which can be applied to sounds which in some cases provide subtle, realism to samples - such as reverb or delay.

Reverberation (or reverb) is the continuation of sound once the initial sound has stopped, an echo. Sound moves in waves and bounces off almost every surface, this usually goes unnoticed until there is a distinct interval between the initially created sound and its reverberation or echo.
For instance, a concert hall has an approximate  reverb time of only 2 seconds, that is 2 seconds between the initial sound and hearing its echo.

For the most part when recording, producers want control of this echo. Recording in a room similar to the one above removes reverb by bouncing the reflected sound away from the microphone. Combined with controlled panning, (movement of sound from left to right) being able to adjust these echoes allows a producer to place an instrument or sound in space as you listen to it and thus creates a full an rich audio environment. 
  • This sample is our cello with a small reverb time added to give it a real, in-room feel.
  • This one has a grand hall style reverb to highlight the difference. 
Where reverb creates space using a simulated room and the echoes from all surfaces in that room, delay deals with one reflected surface, giving specific and distinct echoes which can be manipulated.
With this there are various delay units which provide additional effects to the outputted echoes, including the filters previously mentioned.
  • In order to show the process of delay I have cut our cello sample short in order to properly hear its reflected echoes.

After effects

Now we get to the really fun stuff, the effects which wholly manipulate a sample and play with variables at the vary base of the sound wave. Many of these occur in everyday recordings and will be distinctly recognisable from their place in music everyone owns.
I will do my best to explain what is happening to the sound as it is passed through each effect (much of this is learning for myself - I can tell you how it sounds but not what it does) and I provide more audio examples with using our familiar laboratory test cello.

One of the most commonly used effects, the process originated almost accidentally. Guitarists in the mid 1950's were getting to grips with amplification but due to musicianship being a very do-it-yourself process much of the equipment got damaged in transit from show to show. Any damage to the speaker cone which produces the sound wave in an amplifier provided a 'distorted' version of the sound. 
Before too long guitarists and other musicians using amplified instruments were purposely damaging their amps in order to get this new dirty sound in their performances.
  • This is our cello with a thick distortion added.
Another fairly common effect made to emulate the rich tones of an orchestra or multiple voicings of a choir; a chorus effect creates multiple copies of the original sound and shifts them slightly out of tune, done successfully the dissonance between the parts is imperceivable and you are left with a full, warm sound with added depth from the original. 
  • Here you can hear the fuller sound of the multiple cello samples together.

phaser / flanger
These are two of the most unique and closely related effects. They both rely on phase shifting, which is allowing two of the same sound wave to travel over each other creating and destroying each other as they pass.
The closest analogy I can muster is this; imagine two roads that, when they travel side by side create a better flow of traffic but as they cross and intersect there are huge accidents and clogged traffic.
A flanging effect occurs by running two identical sounds together with only the slightest delay. (in time, not the effect discussed previously) This gives a precursory sweeping effect by the peaks and falloffs of the sound not being able to be deciphered as original or singular when compared to the unaffected sound.
It is noted that 'flanging' effects were attributed to or rather brought to public light by the beatles in the mid 1960's, this was the influence of their then producer Ken TownsendAt the time all production was recorded using two machines simultaneously. These two machines recorded onto magnetic tape which would fluctuate and stretch giving marginally slower or sped up sounds upon playback, Ken used this as an interesting effect by pressing on the rim (or flange) of the tape reel to slow down recording, thus inducing the flanging effect.
  • A cello with a flange effect

Phaser effects differ from the flange effect by removing the delay and letting the meeting of peaks and troughs in a sound wave essentially crash together or destroy one another at given intervals.
You will find that the phaser is a much more mechanical and unnatural sound in comparison to the flanger which gives and almost familiar 'jet engine' sweep.
  • A phased cello
This effect is a hard one to categorise because, although a wah-wah is essentially a band pass filter as discussed above, it does a lot more than just augment frequencies as our discussed filters do. And so I have decided to lump it here with the more noticeable and prominent effects.
Almost everyone will be familiar with the wah-wah effect and its use by guitarists but in reality it is one of the most simple and primal effects. But before guitars were the populist instrument they are today the effect was perfected by trumpet and trombone players in jazz using mutes.
Try saying the word "Wah", the guttural feeling of the 'o' moving into the teeth of the 'a', that change of tone and resonance in the sound is what a wah effect attempts to recreate. 

  • A wah-wah effect added to the cello sample

Most of the 'after effects' I have discussed here have been created using reFX Slayer2 instrument. If you have any questions regarding the discussed effects here or have any requests regarding other effects and techniques please say so in the comments section.

Now you have the audio producer tech-speak behind you, go forth and tell the obscure world of electronica that you understand. 

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