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A Beginner’s Guide to Audio Engineering Lingo

15 OCT 2012
Career Path : Audio Engineering

Words have meaning. Words are also first formed with sounds, before writing and other visual representations of words. The exact relationship between sounds and the words we use to define and describe them is sometimes very straight-forward, other times a bit more obscure. Nobody would hesitate to understand my meaning if I describe an ambulance siren as loud, or a bass line in a techno track as deep. These are easy because adjectives like “loud” or “deep” refer to easily assignable parameters like volume and pitch. Other sounds can be described through adjectives that refer to the way we process them—in other words, our attitudes towards them. For example, I could describe a lone trumpet as sounding sad or the continuous yelp of a little dog as annoying. These adjectives are mostly subjective, and requires the human capacity of symbolic interpretation to give them relevant meaning.

But what about adjectives that attempt to give more objective definitions of sounds beyond the basics of loudness or tone that most of us readily understand? Experts in sound design have a language of their own to give meaning to sounds that are somewhat above our everyday understanding of these adjectives. Since audio engineers need to get much more specific when communicating the qualities of sounds, they have their own special lingo.

Here is a beginners list of some sound adjectives that one would become familiar with in audio production college. How many of them do you already know?

– Bright: High frequency sounds that are also very clear. They are perceived as being lighter and happier in mood.

– Cold: This sound lacks a certain completeness in terms of a wide range between high and low frequencies—in other words, without much middle range. It is very sibilant (hissy).  It is perceived as edgier, and not very comforting.

– Dark: Like cold, but lacking the hissing quality. It produces an effect as if the sound is distant, and can be quite melancholy or even foreboding.

– Dry: Technically, this sound has no decay, meaning it cuts out abruptly without any trace of reverb or echo. I sounds like it is played in a very small, padded room.

– Fat: Somewhat the opposite of a dry sound, this quality lets the sound expand (fatten) after it is initially heard.

– Punchy: A sound with a high level of attack, meaning its full force is heard instantly with no delay. It is also a bit dark.

– Tight: It is opposed to a fat sound in that it does not expand much before or after it hits (no attack or delay).

– Warm: Strong in the mid-range, thus not too high or low. It has a reverb to it as if being played in a larger, and more natural room.

– Wet: A good deal of a sibilant quality and lots of reverb. This sound has a strong decay, which means it dies away slowly.

With thorough ear and audio training, these words describing sound can easily become a second language.

Visit Trebas Institute for more information on audio production school.