A Pure Musical Tone E.G 440 Hz Is An A Basics of Acoustics – Timbre (Part 1)

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Basics of Acoustics – Timbre (Part 1)

timbre (or sound quality)

The purpose of this article is to deepen your knowledge of basic acoustic principles. This will allow you to understand and ultimately master the basic techniques of sound engineering and recording. Each section first has a theme defined in technical terms and then commented in practical terms regarding audio equipment.

Definition of timbre

Timbre (tambre and pronunciation) is the identity of a sound. This identity depends on the physical properties of the sound medium (the substance or matter that supports the sound). Let’s look at A at 440 Hertz generated at 60 decibels. It’s easy to tell if a note is coming from a violin, saxophone, or piano. However, although the instruments are different, the same sound has the same amplitude. The difference lies in the sound production of strings, air columns, etc. Moreover, sounds are not produced by the same “tool”. Violin strings are bows, saxophone reeds and air columns are covered with felt. Hammer hitting piano strings. It is the different physical properties of the medium and the ‘tool’ that determine the characteristic sound waves in each case. Later, we will also discuss how sound chambers add another dimension to this definition.


The most basic waveform is a sine wave (sine wave). It can be thought of as a sound atom. Pure sinusoidal sounds (tuning forks, scraping glasses) are rare and were once thought to have strange powers over human behavior. Most of the sounds that surround us are of a more complex nature.

This means that within the sound we perceive as unique, there are many superpositions of sinusoids that have somehow fused together into one sound. It is the nature of this superposition itself that determines the resulting waveform and determines its timbre. This is called a spectrum.

spectral representation

There are many ways to represent sounds graphically. For educational purposes, I chose to use the spectrogram for its clarity and simplicity.

Horizontal: time in seconds. Vertical: Frequency in Hertz. A 100 Hz sinusoid is represented by a horizontal line with a height corresponding to 100. The 100 hertz harmonics are represented by superimposed lines corresponding to the 100, 200 and 300 sine waves: nx 100 hertz. The length of the line represents the length of the note.


Let’s imagine that all sinusoidal frequencies (from 20 hertz to 20 khertz) perceived by the human ear and having the same amplitude are “mixed” into one audio signal. So-called “white noise” or “hiss” occurs. If the white noise is very short, it will be perceived as a short percussive sound. Consonant sounds belong to this category, just as a sound medium under attack by a “kick-starting” “tool” produces as noise. equivalent to the time it takes. The sound of a bow “rubbing” a string resembles a hissing sound, while the sound of a hammer striking a piano string resembles a percussion sound. These concepts are dealt with more deeply when it comes to envelopes and transients. When a set of noise frequencies fall within certain limits, we call them noise bands.

If a zone is particularly inflated with energy, we can talk about colored noise around that zone. Pink noise is white noise with a power density that decreases by 3 dB per octave.

harmonic sound

We have already emphasized the superimposed or complex aspects of sound, but here we will focus on a specific category of frequencies in the sound spectrum: harmonics. Harmonic sound is sound containing sine waves that follow a mathematical law called the Fourier series. This law is interpreted as follows. A complex periodic signal consists of a fixed number of component frequencies that are integers of the fundamental frequency.

Harmonic example: A 100 hertz tone with 100 component waves. 200; 300; 400; 500; 600 Hz. The perceived pitch is the lowest frequency, 100 hertz. The next component waves (2 x 100, 3 x 100, 4 x 100, etc.) are calculated in integers and called harmonics. The lowest frequency they are based on is called the fundamental. The number of harmonics, or “rank,” is an integer multiplied by the fundamental. For example, the 3rd harmonic is a harmonic of 300 Hz.

The pitch of harmonic sounds is easily perceivable by the ear, and these sounds usually have an “in-tune” quality. Therefore, melodic instruments are designed to produce harmonic spectra.

Noise, as mentioned earlier, is a non-periodic signal. They are characteristic of percussion instruments, for example.

distribution of energy in the spectrum

Regions of relatively high intensity in the sound spectrum are called formants. For a continuous frequency band, it is called the formant zone between x and y hertz. The distribution of this energy, like the number of components in the spectrum, their distribution and their regularity or irregularity, plays an important role in the perception of timbre.

EQ on console

This is the console’s EQ section, where you can tweak and correct the timbre. Depending on the model, the EQ section is more or less sophisticated and offers a wide range of adjustment possibilities. We’re not talking about simple high/low EQ knobs and switches found on hi-fi amps and entry-level mixers whose only purpose is to adapt the sound to a particular listening area. We are interested in the EQ controls found in the latest compact digital models and some of the major recording software. It should be borne in mind that EQ is used primarily for one reason… to correct it, not in hopes of improving the recorded signal: the mediocre quality of the recorded signal. You can’t change the sound (due to poor microphone placement or poor quality). Just use the EQ on the mic itself and it will sound great. An equalizer divides the audible frequency range (20 hertz to 20 k hertz…) into many subranges. So generally we talk about highs, high-mids, low-mids and lows. Before tweaking the knob, first determine in which frequency range the problem lies, then identify the nature of the problem. Is it due to too much undetected coloration during recording, parasites from the environment, or a masking effect due to the presence of other instruments…

what does it look like?

Equalizers are… harmonic filters and partial filters. Their peculiarity lies in the fact that they can not only remove component frequencies, but also amplify selected frequency zones. ! A good EQ section usually has four bands. Each has at least two controls: frequency adjustment and gain. These are called semiparametrics. Often there is a third setting of his called bandwidth or ‘Q’ for the purpose of widening or narrowing the frequency range (bandwidth) of the filter. When this he third control is present, the equalizer is called a parametric he equalizer. Frequency adjustments can be fine-tuned between the upper and lower limits of the filter’s subrange (in software, these limits no longer exist!).

How to change the timbre

It should always be borne in mind that all EQs on instruments are often just as destructive to the recorded sound as they are imperfect copies of the original. So be careful! Before you do anything, think about what you want to achieve with EQing. Coming from a studio that wants a ‘warmer’ sound, wants to cut bass, wants their instrument to stand out in the mix, wants to remove unpleasant resonance…

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