What are you listening to…right now? Music? Ocean Waves? Traffic? Children Laughing? Silence? Our senses process the sounds and sights we take in every day and to a large extent determine how we process that input in our art. Art imitates life (I like think that art is life, but that’s another blog). Do you listen to and create music that reflects your daily aural intake? I’d bet so. There are 2 kinds of aural intake: what occurs naturally and what you choose to listen to…music, tv, video games, nature, silence, etc.
Envelope: Let’s toss around a few ideas that might get your creative juices flowing in new directions. Your daily soundscape is full of rhythms, tones, dynamic ranges, harmonies, texture and envelope. Yes, envelope – the attack and decay of any given sound. For example: when striking a symbol, the initial ‘attack’ of sound is loud and abrupt but the decay (ringing of the cymbal) lasts much longer than that of a snare drum. This attack and decay is what’s known as the ‘envelope’ of a sound. The envelopes of various instruments are different. A guitar string when plucked and left to resonate has a very different envelope than a note played on a clarinet. A clarinet has to have air forced through it to sound resonant; a string when plucked resonates on it’s own.
Dynamic Range: Humans have different ‘dynamic ranges’ than animals. A stripped down def of dynamic range is related to volume. Human ears can detect sounds in a very wide dynamic range – from a whisper to the blast of a rocket – that’s a huge range. Imagine if all music were composed in the same dynamic range….it wouldn’t reflect our natural soundscape very well would it? Not to mention it’dbe booooooring! Our ears detect even the most subtle change in dynamic range and we’re accustomed to changes in dynamic range…sounds that fall into the same dynamic range have a more difficult time distinguishing themselves from one another, unless they vary drastically in timbre.
Timbre: Sound textures (timbre) vary wildly. Even with your eyes closed you could tell the difference between a trumpet and an oboe? Why? Because they sound different…that’s the obvious answer but the real answer (and one that will get your creative juices thinking in new directions) is because they each have their own unique timbre…the own unique ‘sound.’ A trumpet and an oboe produce different timbres because they’re made quite differently. A brass instrument blasted through a metal mouthpiece will never sound similar to a wooden vessel whose sound is produced via a slim wooden reed.
Putting it all together: Let’s take these elements of our listening sound scape and concentrate on them this week: dynamic range, timbre and envelope – how do they compare and contrast? What instruments are similar in dynamic range or create a vast dynamic range? What instruments create various timbres? Which instruments/sounds should be used together to create an interesting, stimulating piece of music? How does an instruments’ envelope figure into the equation. As an engineer/producer, these are questions I happily ponder often…and it’s exhilarating when artists gets get the entire equation right. But you gotta be aware of all the elements involved in music to create unique works.
Artist Example: I have tons of musical heroes but only a few top the list as composers, artists and top-notch producers. Beck is one of those artists. In this example (Earthquake Weather) from his Guero album pay special attention to these 3 elements: dynamic range (the differences in volume of various sounds), timbre (the unique sound of each instrument), and envelope (the attack and decay of an instrument or sound). Note that the song starts very softly and quickly utilizes elements in all three elements to create an original cascade of sound before he introduces a nylon string guitar as the main focus prior to his vocals. The initial cascade of sound is produced (for the most part) elecgtronically and he creates an unnatural envelope for this group of sounds that peak at the highest dynamic range and decreases upon the introduction a nylon string guitar. A nylon string guitar has a very different timbre, envelope and range than the electronica…it contrasts to the electronica – it provides an element of natural, warm tones against the electronica. Note when he introduces the guitar it’s ‘up front’ and obvious in the mix, but not over powering. It’s difficult to get a nylon string guitar to overpower a piece. He also uses a particular technique in many of his compositions. Let’s call it call and answer. He uses a guitar riff throughout the piece (we’ll call it ‘the call’) that is answered frequently by a 5 note response produced by electronic sounds. The call of the guitar leads to the answer of the electronica…very different timbres, envelopes, dynamic ranges…these two distinct groups play off of each other very well and drive the piece forward. His vocals are warm and like the guitar contrast with the electronica to create more dynamic range, varying envelopes, timbres and tonal quality. Beck sometimes sings in falsetto but this songs heavy emphasis on the electronic screams for warmth and he provides it. A lot of artists tend to use the same dynamic range, the same timbre and never pay attention to envelope. They erroneously believe that similarity is pleasing….it’s boring! We tend to ignore similarity. Think: in your daily, natural soundscape, there are many differences…a dog’s bark, a birds tweet, a man’s voice, a woman’s laughter. These differences may be subtle to you as a casual listener and may not even be able to identify them without instruction but now that you’re aware that our daily soundscape is full of varying sound qualities and they’re reflected in the best of our art…try to incorporate variances in your pieces to help create a unique sound of your own.
Listen, Learn, Enjoy! These qualities are not (by any means) the only considerations for artistic composition. But they may be ones that you’re not accustomed to considering. Today’s a good time to start J
Take a few more secs to listen to “Hell Yes” from the same Cd. Note his brilliant manipulation of envelope in this sparse soundscape…notice his answer and call technique again….the answer is “Hell Yes” the call is everything else. He introduces the call and answer immediately with a harmonica call answered by single note of a bell with a perfectly manipulated envelope. Note the feminine and masculine voicing in this song – reflected by vocals and instruments used in the call and answer. Ignore the commercial at beginning – not Beck. Enjoy!