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REFERENCE Sound Qualities / Terms

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This is a repost of a message by Michael Darnton from an old thread (Cremonese versus the rest)

I thought it worth resurrecting in light of the recent thread on bows and sound:

...this list, which was generated by audiophiles. It's the best set of descriptions I've seen, even though it differs from what violinists say. The source is here:

Airy: Spacious. Open. Instruments sound like they are surrounded by a large reflective space full of air. Good reproduction of high-frequency reflections. High-frequency response extends to 15 or 20 kHz.

Bassy: Emphasized low frequencies below about 200 Hz.

Blanketed: Weak highs, as if a blanket were put over the speakers.

Bloated: Excessive mid-bass around 250 Hz. Poorly damped low frequencies, low-frequency resonances. See tubby.

Blurred: Poor transient response. Vague stereo imaging, not focused.

Boomy: Excessive bass around 125 Hz. Poorly damped low frequencies or low-frequency resonances.

Boxy: Having resonances as if the music were enclosed in a box. Sometimes an emphasis around 250 to 500 Hz.

Breathy: Audible breath sounds in woodwinds and reeds such as flute or sax. Good response in the upper-mids or highs.

Bright: High-frequency emphasis. Harmonics are strong relative to fundamentals.

Chesty: The vocalist sounds like their chest is too big. A bump in the low-frequency response around 125 to 250 Hz.

Clear: See Transparent.

Colored: Having timbres that are not true to life. Non-flat response, peaks or dips.

Crisp: Extended high-frequency response, especially with cymbals.

Dark: Opposite of bright. Weak high frequencies.

Delicate: High frequencies extending to 15 or 20 kHz without peaks.

Depth: A sense of distance (near to far) of different instruments.

Detailed: Easy to hear tiny details in the music; articulate. Adequate high-frequency response, sharp transient response.

Dull: See dark.

Edgy: Too much high frequencies. Trebly. Harmonics are too strong relative to the fundamentals. Distorted, having unwanted Harmonics that add an edge or raspiness.

Fat: See Full and Warm. Or, spatially diffuse - a sound is panned to one channel, delayed, and then the delayed sound is panned to the other channel. Or, slightly distorted with analog tape distortion or tube distortion.

Full: Strong fundamentals relative to Harmonics. Good low-frequency response, not necessarily extended, but with adequate level around 100 to 300 Hz. Male voices are full around 125 Hz; female voices and violins are full around 250 Hz; sax is full around 250 to 400 Hz. Opposite of thin.

Gentle: Opposite of edgy. The Harmonics - highs and upper mids - are not exaggerated, or may even be weak.

Grainy: The music sounds like it is segmented into little grains, rather than flowing in one continuous piece. Not liquid or fluid. Suffering from harmonic or I.M. distortion. Some early A/D converters sounded grainy, as do current ones of inferior design. Powdery is finer than grainy.

Grungy: Lots of harmonic or I.M. distortion.

Hard: Too much upper midrange, usually around 3 kHz. Or, good transient response, as if the sound is hitting you hard.

Harsh: Too much upper midrange. Peaks in the frequency response between 2 and 6 kHz. Or, excessive phase shift in a digital recorder's lowpass filter.

Honky: Like cupping your hands around your mouth. A bump in the response around 500 to 700 Hz.

Mellow: Reduced high frequencies, not edgy.

Muddy: Not clear. Weak Harmonics, smeared time response, I.M. distortion.

Muffled: Sounds like it is covered with a blanket. Weak highs or weak upper mids.

Nasal: Honky, a bump in the response around 600 Hz.

Piercing: Strident, hard on the ears, screechy. Having sharp, narrow peaks in the response around 3 to 10 kHz.

Presence: A sense that the instrument in present in the listening room. Synonyms are edge, punch, detail, closeness and clarity. Adequate or emphasized response around 5 kHz for most instruments, or around 2 to 5 kHz for kick drum and bass.

Puffy: A bump in the response around 500 Hz.

Punchy: Good reproduction of dynamics. Good transient response, with strong impact. Sometimes a bump around 5 kHz or 200 Hz.

Rich: See Full. Also, having euphonic distortion made of even-order Harmonics.

Round: High-frequency rolloff or dip. Not edgy.

Sibilant: "Essy" Exaggerated "s" and "sh" sounds in singing, caused by a rise in the response around 6 to 10 kHz.

Sizzly: See Sibilant. Also, too much highs on cymbals.

Smeared: Lacking detail. Poor transient response, too much leakage between microphones. Poorly focused images.

Smooth: Easy on the ears, not harsh. Flat frequency response, especially in the midrange. Lack of peaks and dips in the response.

Spacious: Conveying a sense of space, ambiance, or room around the instruments. Stereo reverb. Early reflections.

Steely: Emphasized upper mids around 3 to 6 kHz. Peaky, nonflat high-frequency response. See Harsh, Edgy.

Strident: See Harsh, Edgy.

Sweet: Not strident or piercing. Delicate. Flat high-frequency response, low distortion. Lack of peaks in the response. Highs are extended to 15 or 20 kHz, but they are not bumped up. Often used when referring to cymbals, percussion, strings, and sibilant sounds.

Telephone-like: See Tinny.

Thin: Fundamentals are weak relative to Harmonics.

Tight: Good low-frequency transient response and detail.

Tinny: Narrowband, weak lows, peaky mids. The music sounds like it is coming through a telephone or tin can.

Transparent: Easy to hear into the music, detailed, clear, not muddy. Wide flat frequency response, sharp time response, very low distortion and noise.

Tubby: Having low-frequency resonances as if you're singing in a bathtub. See bloated.

Veiled: Like a silk veil is over the speakers. Slight noise or distortion or slightly weak high frequencies. Not transparent.

Warm: Good bass, adequate low frequencies, adequate fundamentals relative to Harmonics. Not thin. Also excessive bass or midbass. Also, pleasantly spacious, with adequate reverberation at low frequencies. Also see Rich, Round. Warm highs means sweet highs.

Weighty: Good low-frequency response below about 50 Hz. Suggesting an object of great weight or power, like a diesel locomotive.

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Thanks Guy. I thought this selection of comments from clarinettists was amusing and instructive. From

  1. "The vamp contour [of Vandoren V-12 reeds] contributes to a large, dark sound, just right for orchestral playing."
  2. "Would someone please tell me what a 'dark sound' is and how I get it and when I know when I have gotten it? That has to be the most used buzz word in clarinet playing today. 'Dark' doesn't describe sound character any more than 'purple' or 'hamburger smell' or 'banana pudding' does."
  3. "My opinion of bright vs. dark sounds: a bright sound borders on but does not enter the realm of STRIDENT and a dark sound borders on but does not enter the realm of STUFFY. Both can be acceptable."
  4. "I first heard the term 'dark' used to describe oboe sound sometime in the late 50's. I asked for a definition, got one, and have never had any difficulty in understanding what was meant the countless times since then that I've heard the term used; nor have I ever perceived any ambiguity in the way the terms dark and light are used. I suppose I could find alternate words to label the tonal characteristics concerned, but was never until now aware of there being any controversy about this."
  5. "Virtually all terminology that I have ever heard musicians use when discussing sound is subjective; its meaning comes from consensus. Most acousticians would regard an unambiguous, scientific and objective description of what they usually call tone color as requiring the use of numbers rather than words. Given the two distinguishable tonal characteristics that I personally would differentiate in terms of lightness and darkness, I know on the basis of having done the spectral analysis that the brighter sound is the one having greater relative amplitudes of higher partials. All other things being equal, this could be directly related to nothing other than the reed. If you like, an infinitely thick reed will produce an infinitely dark sound, and an infinitely thin reed will produce an infinitely light sound (where decreasing thickness provides an increasing ability to excite higher partials in the air column)."
  6. "In my experience instrumentalists - not just clarinetists or wind players, but all instrumentalists - frequently comment on tone color. They do so by making analogies with color or texture. In my opinion what is actually heard are differences created by the prominence (or lack thereof) of the upper partials in a player's sound. A predominance of upper partials is frequently described as a bright sound; a sound which does not emphasize the upper partials is often described as a dark sound. I personally feel this custom of using color to describe sound has become almost universal, and is widely accepted among all instrumentalists. It is a convenient simile. Instead of referring directly to the timbral content, an analogy to the dark/light spectrum is made."
  7. "[X] suggests that color descriptors are useful. I suggest that to be true only if all agree that the words describe the thing that they are trying to describe uniquely. I know what I mean by dark sound. You know what you mean by dark sound. But what each of us has in our head may be quite different. For some, their concept of dark sound would be thought of by others as bright, and vice versa. What good is served by the use of a term that is so non-specific and non-descriptive? I think that is false to say that everyone knows what a dark sound is. Each person knows what a dark sound means to him or her. That is about as far as the usefulness of those terms extends."
  8. "I've never seen a program note to the effect that, 'Ms X is known for her dark sound', and if I walk into a music store saying that I'm looking for 'dark toned clarinets' you can be sure the person behind the counter will say, 'Sure, we got lots of 'em."
  9. "Let me tell you a story: as a kid, I studied on West 48th Street in New York City. Manny's music store was there and it had a marvelous selection of clarinets for sale. One day, when I was just hanging around looking at clarinets, a kid of about 16 shows up with his father and asks to try a clarinet with a dark sound. The salesperson says, 'I have exactly what you want. This clarinet's sound is so dark that it is like black velvet, like outer space, like the grave.' The kid tried it and sounded like a strangled chicken. He asked the price. It was $150. His father tried to get the price down to $75 but the salesman would not budge. The kid and his old man walk out. Ten minutes later, another kid comes in, this one about 19 and alone. He says, 'I want to try a clarinet with a bright sound. The salesman, who had not even put away the clarinet from the kid who sounded like a strangled chicken, said, 'I have just the thing for you. This instrument is so bright, it is like the sun, like a flashing diamond. And he gives this kid, the SAME CLARINET that he described not 10 minutes before as having a sound that was as dark as the grave. The kid plays it like he was born for that horn. He wails, he screams, he is all over that horn. He pays the $150 and walks out with it. Go figure."
  10. "I play on a Harris silver [ligature]. It is very good, generates a nice dark sound and is very responsive (looks good too)."
  11. "I have been using the Rovner [ligature] for 8 years now and I have always felt that it gave me a dark sound."
  12. "In the past, whenever the subject of dark and not dark sounds was being discussed, the majority of players who entered into the discussion said that they were trying their best to get a dark sound. At least three of those who said this referenced Harold Wright as the person whose dark sound they wanted very much to emulate. Now, X [a respected repairperson and mouthpiece maker] says that he tries 'to emulate the sound of Harold Wright with my mouthpiece,' and then goes on to tell us explicitly that 'I do not like a DARK sound. I prefer a rich sound with a good balance of fundamental and overtones.' So what do we have here? On one hand we have some posters saying that they want to emulate Harold Wright's 'dark' sound, and, on the other hand, a mouthpiece maker who admits to not liking 'dark' sounds creating a product for that specific marketplace."
  13. "I find that Vandoren Black Master [reeds] produce a really controlled, dark sound."
  14. "What are some methods of producing a 'dark' sound? My teacher told me that if you use a double embouchure, you can emulate it. But how does a person make that sound?"
  15. "I went to the music store today to drop off my clarinet to be repadded and I was tempted to buy this type of mouthpiece that I saw. The 'A5' facing was said to be the 'darkest' sound because of its big chamber. Right now I use a HS* (is this a dark sound-giving mouthpiece?)."
  16. "I compared a Selmer C85, an O'Brian Crystal and a Gigliotti #3 facing. The latter struck me as much the best. Dark sound."
  17. "The Selmer Recital model [mouthpieces] tends towards a dark sound."
  18. "What do you do to get that nice dark sound? I would suspect that a Pete Fountain mouthpiece - which is obviously made for jazz purposes alone - would give you a much brighter sound than the Vandoren - which is made for classical playing. But you don't need to go into the realm of crystal to find tremendous differences in bright/dark sound in mouthpieces."
  19. "I thought everyone knew about Rovner rubber ligatures. They are string ligatures without all the wrapping and binding. They produce a dark sound."
  20. "It's starting again and I'm feeling faint!! It's a conspiracy, to be sure. For months there has been little said about 'this mouthpiece' (or reed or ligature or clarinet or hair tonic, for that matter) 'giving a nice dark sound.' And in the space of only three days, there were about 15 such statements. They're doing it on purpose, just to drive me crazy!! Didn't I see someone's post about not liking a certain Van Doren mouthpiece because it gave a dark sound, while someone countered that that was particularly strange, because he or she always thought that it gave a bright sound. It has to have been a year ago that we all slogged through mud about the use of the non-descriptive words 'dark' and 'bright' in describing clarinet-sound characteristics. There was no conclusion except for several people helpfully describing 'dark' as meaning an abundance overtones (or maybe it was no overtones at all, I forget), while 'bright' meant the exact opposite (or maybe it was the other way around, I forget). And while this was a useful attempt to make order out of chaos, there was not much agreement with that definition because of the rejoinder, 'But I don't know what to do to get more (or less) overtones in my playing.' As for making more or less high partials, I didn't even know I was making any of them. Now I read that this thing that no two people can agree on in the first place is derived from a ligature ('The Rovner string ligatures gives that nice, dark sound'), the mouthpiece ('The Van Doren B45 gives that nice, dark sound'), and the clarinet ('The new LeBlanc has that nice, dark sound'). This use of words like 'dark' and 'bright' to describe the character of sound of a clarinet is, IN MY OPINION, among the most unstable ideas that have consistently survived every rational attempt to kill them. I know everyone uses the words. And we all sort of agree and smile. But I find these terms full of doo-doo, imprecise, non-descriptive, and of unknown origin. I think that the elbow patches on my suit jacket are responsible for the darkness of my sound. And who is to say no? What reasonable, viable, scientifically sound (no pun intended) experiments have ever established one single truthful thing about the use of the term 'dark' and the term 'bright' when referring to the character of sound of any wind instrument? If there is any truth to the statement that you can't kill a bad idea, it is the continual perpetuation of this dark/bright fantasy with people all over the world buying this or that accoutrement because it will give them 'that nice dark sound.' There was one great clarinetist in NY who swore that it was Vitalis hair lotion that gave him his 'nice dark sound.'"
  21. "X said 'I can't believe that [any] person would have any trouble identifying the Rovner as producing the 'darker' sound.' I could not agree less! 100 people, each hearing what you suggested would produce unpredictable responses that would astound you in their variety assuming that each such person was uninfluenced by any of the other 99. This 'dark' business is a social phenomenon, not a technical truth. And it is not because 'dark' is a poor word or even a poor analogous description. It is rather that there is no standard for a 'dark' sound, and this permits anyone to interpret anything they want as 'a nice dark sound.' To then say that its definition is clear because it means an abundance (or absence of) upper partials is not particularly helpful because I do not know what to do with my mouth (or face, or throat or cheeks or diaphragm or elbows or kneecaps or goodness knows what) to get more (or less) of those things into my playing, and I don't know what to buy to achieve those things. The only thing I know how to influence is the nature of the sound so that it pleases me. That is my only aesthetic. With the greatest ease I can make some very awful sounds come out of a clarinet and I know how to improve those up to a point. And when I am at that point, I like my sound (though I wish I could produce one that I liked better). But I have no idea if anyone in the world would characterize that sound as dark or bright, and I couldn't care less. The only important thing is that I like it. (Perhaps more important is when the conductor doesn't like it.) If someone wants to say that that is a 'nice dark sound' (or 'an ugly puce sound'), that's OK with me as long as the checks keep coming it. I see all these wonderful young clarinet players running around the world trying to get a sound characteristic by someone else's aesthetic. They want the world to say that they have 'a nice dark sound' when all they need to have is some serious self-criticism.
  22. "The use of words in describing musical things is a very practical issue and I think that we musicians don't do it very well. Because our business involves so much subjective activity, we have the tendency to think that everything we do can be subjective, shoot-from-the-hip, play-like-it-feels, a no constraints, no rules mentality. I am told that the Japanese have more than 50 words for 'rice' because such an important word needs to have all of its nuance well understood and a single word does not do that. It's the same with the character of sound. Too many of us are ready to put such a critical element of playing to bed with the vague, unclear, imprecise, and not very helpful word 'dark.'"
  23. "I also have an old Selmer 10 A and Bb. They have a very dark sound, more like a Buffet than a Selmer. [i want to sell them because] I have a thing for a bright sound."

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I can hear great differences in woodwind sound. Don't know if it's because I played clarinet, or just that they are different. Flutes and oboes sound different too. I remember hearing Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in the radio and trying to guess who it was. Very nice sound. I thought maybe an period instrument, then maybe German, then a couple quick runs were played that sounded more like smooth jazz. It was Benny Goodman!

Violins seem to have more differences in their lower range. But in the higher range some sound better, but not in a huge way. Could even be the execution, strings or mike placement. On American Idol last night I was listening to Jacob. How would you describe his voice? Rich? Warm? Dark? It can be quite low, but there are always overtones in it. Even when he goes high it seems like the lower overtones are still there! They don't disappear. What a different sound. Is that more like a cello? Quite cool. Violins don't seem to do that, do they?


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