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We’re going to elevate our discussion a little bit and delve into some definitions about terms that are really critical because you have to hear these things in your room. Whether you’re mixing, mastering, listening, playing in a live room, vocal room or anything like that you have to be able to distinguish the different parts of sound.

So today we’re going to talk about timbre. Timbre is one of the most important, fundamental characteristics of music. It’s a characteristic of tone that has a harmonic structure. If you ever go into some rooms you know those rooms to be really good for mid-range, really good for voice. You can really grab ahold of the voice emotionally and relate to it immediately. Well, that’s because the harmonic structure, the characteristic of the tone, the timbre has all been recognized by the person who designed the room.

So how do we look at timbre in terms of what it actually is? Well, it’s expressed in number of course, in frequency. It has intensity. It has a distribution and it has a phase of relationship to everything that we’re doing.

I have a saying that I like to say when I design rooms that all tones, all timbre quality of tones have to live and die on their own volition. Meaning, we can’t let the room influence them, we can’t let the gear influence them and we have to have those things in mind when we design and build for a room. That’s why I’m always telling you about size and volume of a room because as we shrink size, we shrink our definitions, we cross break points where we can’t achieve this kind of phase relationship, distribution and intensity with our mid-range frequency. So we have to be very careful.

Timbre is an instantaneous, cross-section of tone quality. You know it immediately, it’s different than pitch. A lot of singers have good pitch, some don’t. And you can recognize that immediately. But timbre is all about a tonal spectrum. It’s a distribution, a phase relationship of tone quality. So we’re trying to get a handle on that quality in our rooms when we design and treat for them. And we know from past videos that that includes room size and volume, pressure levels and a lot of other variables.

So timbre is the characteristic which enables us to judge. If pitch and loudness are the same, the difference is. So it’s a fine-tuning quality that we have to develop our hearing for. And with today’s digital formats we get a lot of resolution. So we really have a lot of timbre. But a poorly designed room, a room that’s not set up for that usage will just destroy it. That’s why I always tell people when they come to our studio in North Hollywood, bring your favorite recording. Bring the recording that you know everything about. Every pause, every breath, every tone, beat, whatever, And you’re going to hear more because in our studio there’s no room sound. Alright.

So we know that violin A and D string, 440 cycles, if the pitch and loudness are equal we perceive those as different tones. How do we perceive them with different tones? Because of the timbre quality.

Back to our terms of timbre. What are the two main areas of timbre that we should look for? So it’s all about overtones and harmonics. Fundamentals, harmonics. So these fundamentals and harmonics allow us as listeners to cue and get the tonal differences of things. Musical instruments, voices, animal sounds, warning signs, all of this is in the overtones and harmonics. That’s why I constantly preach in our rooms that you have to get the middle frequencies right.

And that what you’re doing and what most people do is that they just smother those mid-range frequencies. They smother the overtones and the harmonics. And with our digital formats they’re all in there but if we over-absorb, if we use the wrong diffusion sequence, if our room is too small and our speakers are too big we lose this delicate nuance of timbre, okay?

So it’s an intensity of sound, it’s an impact. The ear is not linear, okay? So we may have a linear relationship in our room but our ear may not be able to grab ahold of that, especially the older we get. It will produce new overtones or alter existing ones. So all of this has to be taken into consideration.

That’s why I always say to people there’s no right or wrong when it comes to your music. There’s no good, better, best. Best is what’s best for you. How do we define what’s best for you? The emotional impact that you receive from your system. That’s the key determinant. Not the cost of the speaker, not the look of the amplifier, not the finish of the turntable but the emotional connection that you’re supposed to receive from your equipment in your room. And isn’t the goal of all equipment to disappear? Isn’t it really about the music? Alright.

So timbre in summary is the number of partials, the distribution, the intensity, the inharmonics, the harmonics and our room treatment must recognize that. Okay? Resolution is critical, harmonics structure is critical, rates and levels of absorption are critical, the frequency response of diffusion that you use is critical, the distance from the diffuser is critical. All of these variables must be taken into consideration.

This is an unedited transcript from our video series from Acoustic Fields. There will be some errors in grammar and sentence structure that occur during this translation process.

For complete understanding and comprehension, please view the video which is included in this text. For any additional information regarding this topic or others relating to room acoustics, please contact us directly at:

P: 520 – 392 – 9486

Dennis Foley

I am an acoustic engineer with over 30 years’ experience in the business. My technology has been used in Electric Lady Land Studios, Sony Music of New York, Cello Music and Films founded by Mark Levinson, and Saltmines Studios in Mesa, Arizona, along with hundreds of others.

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