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. 

Secret Music

Most of the music I enjoy on a weekly basis I share on my Brett’s Sound Picks Spotify playlist. Since this music is new, only time will tell how it ages and whether it will be interesting to listen to a few years or more down the line. But once in a while a recording comes along that has proved its Lindy status—a music that defies its age, a music that still sounds good to me years after I first heard it, a music so in its own world and doing its own enchanting thing by its own idiosyncratic means that it sounds like a secret only you can hear.

Julien Neto’s 2005 recording Le Fumeur de Ciel (Touch Records) is an example of this. Neto is a moniker and his/her real identity is unknown—though I’ve heard that he/she might be a Paris-based musician. Le Fumeur can loosely be described as ambient downtempo electronic music, made up of long ethereal pads, bits of glitchy percussion, shards of vocal and instrument samples, and deep sub bass. In a way, the music is all atmosphere.

Of the many qualities I like about this recording, what is most striking is its overall intentionality which Neto achieves through quite minimal means. There’s never more than a few sounds happening at once, each sound is meticulously placed, voiced, and varied, and the tracks unfold precisely, yet as if in a dream. The chord progressions, the slow shifts of timbre, and the striking way each moment grows out of what preceded it makes the music feel like a ravenous vine ascending the building that is our attention.

Here is Track 6, “Voy”:

On Timers And Timeline Finessing

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I wanted to set up a timer on my desk. I would be one of those LED displays—preferably with large blue numbers—that I could place off to the side so that with a glance I’d know how long I had been working. I didn’t have a such a timer, so I settled for my phone instead, going to the Timer app and hitting Go. (Then I sat there holding my phone sideways hoping the digits would become larger, but…no.) 

Usually when I work I lose track of time, and I take this as a good thing because it suggests that I get lost in what I’m doing on a consistent basis. I take a break only when I come to a fork in the production road—say I’ve just hit Save after doing a few substantial things—and realize that I’ve been messing around for a while and now is a good time to get up. But there are also days when working on a track is not an attractive proposition. When this happens, I put off the work until later in the day when time feels more pressing and thus there’s a sense of urgency about getting going. (Also, music can sound different in the late afternoon or evening than it does bright and early in the day.) Another strategy for working despite myself is setting a timer and getting going.

I hit Go on the Timer app and turn to the screen. Well, ok, I’ll just hit Play and start listening. This is a foolproof way to begin: listen to what you have. As the music plays I notice whatever I notice. Sometimes I’m surprised by how a part or a texture has coalesced since I last heard it: ohh, nice bass sound, nice fade in. But I’m not here to enjoy myself, I’m here to make the production better, more articulate, more expressive, more enchanting, more like something someone like me would make or even better, could not have made. In general, the goal is to make the music more interesting so that next time I hear it I want to hear it yet again. You may be surprised to know that this last goal—making something you might want to hear again and again—is attainable, sort of: I’ve heard sections that I put on loop just to enjoy them more. But I haven’t done that with an entire piece. Maybe it takes time for a track’s energy to ramp up and draw you in? Maybe the track doesn’t work as a whole? Or maybe my listening is overly good bit-oriented?

Within a few moments of listening to the track I notice things that could be improved. Some of these things are fixable small details, usually related to dynamic levels and why can’t I hear that part more? or why is that part still so loud? Once I notice something off I make that the moment’s focus. For example, recently I noticed how three melodic timeline parts in a track were beginning to coalesce, but they needed help. The last time I worked on the track I had finessed one of the parts, shifting around some of its pitches so that the repetition of its rhythm had a new melodic goal. As I re-listened to the part alongside the other two timelines, it was clear that the other timelines now sounded dull by comparison: I heard them, but I didn’t care about them. They needed some pitch shifts like those in the first timeline, and these shifts would depend on what that first timeline was doing. So I moved things around, using the sample editor’s pitch function and moving bits by semitones. The short-term goal was to make the parts sound like they were talking with one another. Sometimes a pitch altered to a higher or lower note would sound unexpectedly louder or softer, which led me to another round of volume adjustments. This finessing was for a mere 45-second section. Afterwards I made note—in a paper notebook—to consider similar adjustments in the other pieces, if need be. 

I glanced at the Timer app on my phone to see that 29 minutes had gone by. Then I realized the real reason I was using the timer. It wasn’t so much for motivation. It was to remind me that my constant play-tinkering—oh that’s not right, it should be more like this—stretched out over hours, days, weeks, and months is the work itself. Using a Timer shows how even when it doesn’t feel like one is doing much, time is being spent, timelines are being finessed, and the tracks are developing in increments, one second at a time.