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Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Velvet Pancakes - The Art of Sound Association

Let's do one more time. Okay, strings, lean into it. I want it real tangy this time. Now, Mike, you're flatting. Bushmen, make it sound like you're in the f##king bush, okay? Alright, Fred, back off the goat on the second pre-chorus. I wanna hear his heart, not his soul. And, Sam, you go back to that thing you did yesterday on the bridge. That thing that sounded like velvet pancakes.

This is a quote taken from the musical comedy “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” where a drug-riddled musician is trying to get his band to sound like what he’s hearing in his head.

Now this might sound like a whole lot of utter jibberish… and that’s because it is. However, there is a lot to be said about using word association when it comes to describing music. You hear it all the time when people say things like “that kick is punchy”, or “that vocal is airy”.

But what does it mean, and why is it important? Each term that is used can be defined in different ways but the point of them being around is that we can communicate our opinions of the sounds that we’re hearing in simple words.

Snare Like A Crunchy Apple

I was watching a tutorial of an engineer working on getting his snare sound right and he said that he was trying to get it sound like he was “biting into a really crunchy apple.” When I heard him say this, I thought “that’s a weird way to describe a snare” but I knew exactly what he meant.

What’s important about this association that he’s made with a sound is that he has a reference point in his head. It could be anything that points you in the direction of the sound you want, but that kind of thought pattern can be really helpful when you’re getting sounds.

Think about it, you hear a snare and think “I love that sound, it sounds like an apple crunching” and you want to replicate a similar sound in your production. When you go to get a snare sound you’re not thinking “I want it to sound like that snare”, What does that snare sound like? Which snare etc. You’ve got a reference that you can easily hear in your head and can easily describe.

This is not only great for your own references, but great for trying to tell other people what kind of sound you want. 
I want a Kick like a basketball, a snare like a car door slamming, guitars like a steel grinder, and vocals like a telephone.

That would be a terrible sounding recording, but associating those elements means that you can already imagine what the sound is going to be like. When you can imagine the sound, you know where you want to go, that’s half the battle. The rest is just figuring out how to get there.

The Thick and Thin Of It

The other type of association is in describing words. There are hundreds out there and different people have different words they use to describe the same kinds of sounds. These can be confusing at some times, but usually they’re fairly easy to decipher. 

These association words can describe many things in a song’s production. From instrumentation, to arrangement, to mixing, to mastering. Any chump can tell you what they want to hear.

With instrumentation, I can say that I want a pounding kick (like in a lot of dance tracks). I want a rolling bass line (like in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”). I want stabbing guitar, soaring synthesizers, boppy piano, howling vocals, fluttery harp, round toms, flowing lead. These all describe how the instrument is played.

Within the mixing and mastering you can have so many things. Thick, thin, muddy, clear, bright, dark, boomy, hollow, airy, dry, wet, shimmery, sharp, dull, ambient, scratchy, woofy, honky, bitey, deep, shallow, punchy, blurry, bloated, boxy, dirty, clean, focused, edgy, forward, grungy, harsh, mellow, piercing, open, full, empty, snappy, spacious, sweet, tight, loose, warm, wooly. 

These kinds of words are great ways for everyone involved in the production process to communicate things that they do and don’t like about the sounds that they’re hearing. The best part is that you don’t have to have worked in sound and music to understand and communicate what you want to hear.

What is important, if you’re in charge of making the music, is that you know what to do with the associations that you’re either hearing or being told. There are so many words that mean similar, or exactly the same, things and they can mean different things to different people. 

Deciphering the Words

You’ll hear people say these words in the musical world and when you’re producing the music, you have to be the one to decide what to do with the information that you’re given. Where are you supposed to start when someone tells you, “The bass is a little wooly, the vocals is a little honky and the whole thing could do with a little more shimmer”.

Without having listened to whatever it is we’re talking about, I’d take a bit of 250Hz out of the bass guitar, take out some 650Hz from the vocals and boost a shelf at 10kHz on the master bus. This may or may not help what was wrong with the mix, but from experience, that would be where I’d start looking for these sounds that are being described.

Check out this page for a bunch of describing words and a description of what they mean. I’m sure you all have a fair idea of what these sounds mean, but just in case here they are in glossary form:

Almost all of these sounds can be achieved by using EQ, compression, reverb and just levelling the instruments in the track right. The trick is to learn how to make, or fix, these sounds by using the tools at your disposal. 

Learn what the sounds mean to you

Here’s a little exercise to get a sense of what some these describing words mean in a practical way. Import a song into your DAW and get an EQ with a “listen” function (lets you just listen to the frequencies you’re working with) or just boost a sweepable frequency (make sure you turn down the input or have a trim before to avoid clipping and digital distortion). Now pick a word, like “sweet”, and sweep through the frequencies until you think the song sounds the “sweetest”. Note that frequency down and pick another word and try again.

You can do this with all the words in the list above apart from some that are more reverb or balance related. HAVE FUN!

Did you learn anything important from this blog? Are there any words that you think of quite a bit? Are there any non-music related sounds that you reference instrumental sounds to? What’s the strangest sound association you’ve ever heard? Let me know in the comments below!!!

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