Sound Feels

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Every sound has its own feel. This feel is primarily a function of the sound’s timbre, but it’s also shaped by the volume of the sound, and the energy of the person making it. 

Musical instruments are distinguished by their timbre profiles or what is sometimes called their “sound color” or “tone color.” Timbre is shaped by the material an instrument is made of, as well as how the instrument is played. It’s timbre that allows you to know in a second that it’s a flute you’re hearing, not a violin, a low piano tone and not a gentle roll on the timpani. 

In general, the timbres of different musical instruments have distinctive feels to them. The airy timbre of a (western) flute is quite gentle and transparent, while the high frequency clash of a pair of orchestral crash cymbals is quite aggressive and piercing. Similarly, in electronic music a sine tone wave is a mellow, emotionally empty, and one dimensional tone, while a saw tooth wave is more textured and edgy. By the way, here’s a sine wave:

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And here’s a saw tooth wave:

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The sonic profiles of various musical timbres—of which there are almost limitless variations—are further shaped by how loudly or forcefully the instruments played. To some degree, even the airy flute can become aggressive at louder dynamics, and in the right hands, a pair of cymbals played super soft can sound enchanting.

One of the mysteries of music in both live performance settings and in its recorded form is how it conveys the feel and energy of the musicians who make it. What is the source of a musician’s sound feel? Surely it involves technique as transmitted through physical touch, but are there also other, more elusive factors? And if there are such factors, does the musician have any control over them? Also, how are elements of technique and touch transmitted in electronic music making, where the musician’s gestures are at some remove (or disconnected) from the resultant sounds? 

As I produce music I think about sound feels all the time: I’m scrutinizing the sounds in my timbre palette (used consciously or unconsciously) and wondering how extending or reigning in those sounds might change how everything feels. Every session begins with the question, How does this feel? Music can feel a million different ways, and part of the producer’s skill set involves describing these feelings, at least provisionally, so that next production steps can be taken. When I hit play on a track in progress, I feel all kinds of things—

It feels dead.
It feels busy.
It feels dark.
It feels ecstatic.
It feels confused.
It feels like it has no chill.
(I have no chill—damn it. I really have no chill. None.)
It feels unrecognizable.
It feels hopeful.
It feels simple-headed. (It sucks.)
It feels alive.

Some of these feelings point towards simple fixes. For instance, when something feels too busy I can remove material. But in music as in life, feelings are also interconnected. So if I remove something that feels too busy, the music may feel less confused but unfortunately now too simple-headed as well. In other words, addressing one feeling can impact the feel of something else. Also, simple fixes is not necessarily always what you want. There are times when the music’s sense of hope might depend on some blend of busy, dark, and ecstatic. One doesn’t know these things until one tinkers to the point of making the music sound worse and only then realize how its various sound feels are linked. Undo button, undo! 

Things get interesting when you understand that there are many technical routes to altering the sound feel of the music. Sometimes I just sit in front of the screen and try out a processing move—linking this with that and then routing it through that—and find a solution to a sound feel problem. On several occasions I’ve experienced a split mind: I acknowledge the solution to a technical problem (e.g. this section was missing some bouncy high frequency stuff) while simultaneously getting carried away with the discovery of a new sound feel. This is so cool! I’ll save something as a preset to return to later, but I know that this moment was a one-off, accidental counterpoint encounter between deliberate action and random discovery. 

One of the puzzles that keeps me coming back to projects is a sense that I haven’t yet figured out how to work (as if there is a right way to work), I haven’t yet understood what the music wants to do (as if it has a mind of its own), and haven’t yet figured out the most elegantly simple way to proceed (as if working should be simple). Does this piece need ten more alterations or a hundred? It’s hard to say and I kinda wish it were just…done. (I need more chill.) 

But there’s hope: if you’re attuned to them, the music’s sound feels always offer clues to moving forward. The reason for this is that our feelings while listening to a mix are like a compass for getting our bearings within the music’s expressive world. In sum, the most important attribute of a sound is its feel.

Sound feels matter because making us feel is what music is designed to do. 

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