Vocabulary – Part 28


This definition is not “beat” we normally think of with the rhythmic speed at which a song is played.  Another definition of beat is related to acoustics.  In music acoustics, beat is the interference pattern between two sounds (wavelengths or sine waves) of slightly different frequencies perceived as a periodic variation in volume whose rate is the difference of the two frequencies.  For example, when tuning a a stringed instrument (guitar, bass, etc.) with harmonics, it is the warbling sound the two different harmonics make with each other that eventually is no longer heard once the two strings are tuned so that the harmonics match.  Once they are in tune the beat is no longer heard.


Saturation, specifically magnetic tape saturation, is an effect that happens naturally due the physical limit of the amount of magnetism a magnetic tape can hold. Attempting to add a stronger signal than the tape can handle results in a form of clipping distortion. Due to the relative power levels and natural interactions of sounds at different frequencies, lower pitches tend to saturate more than higher ones. Combining this with magnetic tape’s tendency to “self-erase”, particularly at higher frequencies, and it creates a “warm” sound that is different than most other forms of distortion. Today, saturation, like most effects can be and is modeled in many DAWs and plugins.



A breakdown is a section of a song where some or all of the instruments play a solo part, often as refrain or variation of musical themes established earlier in the song.  It serves as a third section to add flavor to the normal Verse-Chorus structure, and can be considered a type of Bridge section.

This is a popular composition element in Bluegrass and Heavy Metal, but may have originally been invented by Disco DJs.  They would drop all other instruments from the mix, except the drums, while they arranged their equipment for the next track.  This removal of all tonal sections gives them room to introduce a new melody without having to worry about the old key signature or themes.



Sweetwater.com’s Glossary

Sound on Sound


Posted in Vocabulary Tagged with:

Microphone Types

Microphones are ubiquitous. Chances are you’re reading this on a device that has at least one, either built-in or attached. How do they work? What types of microphones are used in music performance and recording? What are their key differences? Read on.

The purpose of a microphone is to convert sound energy to another form of energy that is more compatible with the recoding medium. In most cases, the air movement and/or pressure changes caused by sound waves are converted, into electrical impulses. This process is called transduction.

Types of Microphones

We will cover two mechanisms of achieving this transduction: condenser/capacitive and dynamic. Piezo microphones, while used in many music recording and performance applications are seldom used to record audio directly. We may cover them in a separate article. Other types of microphones, such as fiber optic see less use in the music world.


Condenser microphones place a thin diaphragm close to a back plate. Both are conductive and given an electrical charge either from a battery or via “phantom power” provided by an external source, like a mixer. Two separated electrically charged plates makes a capacitor. When sound pressure hits the diaphragm, the diaphragm moves closer to the back plate. This changes the capacitance, resulting in a voltage change. That voltage change is the electrical signal that we are looking for, but it is often converted into a current change using a transistor.


Simplified electrical diagram of a condenser microphone.

Special types of condensers, called electret condenser microphones, or just electret microphones use a material for the diaphragm that has a permanent electrical charge. This allows them to be smaller and more robust than other condensers. They are often used in cell phones, laptops, etc. though seldom in music recording.


Dynamic microphones use magnets and a conductive element that moves in response to sound pressure. When a conductor moves in a magnetic field, electromagnetic induction causes a current to be generated in the conductor. Variations in the current are the electrical signal dynamic microphones provide.

Typical dynamic microphones use a diaphragm of non-conductive material with a coiled conductive wire attached. The diaphragm moves in response to air pressure changes caused by sound waves. This compresses the coil, creating the movement that creates the current.


Simplified electrical diagram of a dynamic microphone.

Ribbon (Wait, Three Types?)

Ribbon microphones are dynamic microphones, in that they use electromagnetic induction. However, they are worth calling out separately. Instead of a separate diaphragm and conductive coil, they use a “ribbon” of metal that acts as both. This ribbon is suspended between the poles of a magnet. Ribbon microphones generate variances in current due to the speed the ribbon moves, which is directly proportional to the velocity of the air particles themselves. In almost all other microphones, including other dynamic mics, the generated current varies based upon the distance the sound pressure moves a diaphragm. The differences in construction and operating principles lead ribbon microphones to be used in different circumstances than other dynamic microphones.


Simplified electrical diagram of a ribbon microphone.

Choosing Between Condensers and Dynamic Microphones

Condenser microphones have a tendency to be “brighter” and “more live” than dynamic microphones. Essentially, they pick up high end frequencies better and tend to be more sensitive with a lower noise floor. For these reasons, they are often preferred in studio environments, especially when capturing or accentuating the high end is desirable.

Dynamic microphones are often favored in live environments where durability is required. They are the ones to use if you plan to “drop the mic”, though please do not do this with any of ours. The diaphragms and other components are generally far stronger, though not unbreakable. A side effect of the beefier diaphragm is that it is harder to move. Because of this dynamic microphones tend to be less sensitive. A more significant factor is that higher frequencies have less energy and tend to be lost more quickly. This is why condensers have a “brighter” sound. The lower sensitivity, especially on the high end, can be beneficial in live environments. It makes feedback less likely and reduces potential for picking up sounds from other instruments/vocalists. Dynamic microphones also generally require no phantom or battery power, though “active” dynamic mics do exist and provide a sensitivity or gain boost.

Ribbon microphones share many characteristics with other dynamic mics. The key difference is in the use of the thin ribbon as opposed to a heavy diaphragm. Ribon microphones have a comparatively flat frequency response. Where other dynamic microphones are characterized as losing the high end, ribbon mics are described as slightly accentuating the low end. Historically, the thin ribbon was a significant weakness for these microphones. Early versions could break while simply being moved across a room while uncovered. These days, materials are available to make them significantly more durable, though not quite as durable as non-ribbon dynamic microphones. That said, a high quality ribbon microphone will generally cost a lot compared to the other two types.

The other primary consideration when choosing a microphone is the directionality or polar pattern. We will discuss that in a future article. Stay tuned.

Sources and Further Reading:

Posted in Vocabulary Tagged with: , ,

A Bit About Drum Triggers

As a kid, drum triggers confused me. This is because I only saw them connected to acoustic drums, and couldn’t understand how you would hear the trigger but not the drum, since both would be making sound. It didn’t make sense to my 10 year old mind. However, I misunderstood how they work and what they’re for, which I’ll explain soon. First, let’s start with what they are.

Drum triggers are, put simply, a device you put on or inside drums which detect when the drum is hit and send a signal. That’s it. That signal is usually sent to some sort of controller which interprets the signal and then plays an electronic sound or sample. This is how electronic drum sets work entirely, but triggers can be added to acoustic sets as well, to help broaden the available sounds.

For instance, putting a drum trigger on a snare drum could let you have the trigger make a clap or woodblock sound, while the snare itself still makes its sound. In this way, a drummer can really expand their sound range and be more expressive when they play. What I didn’t understand as a kid, though, was that there’s no need (or little need) to mask the sound of the drum when a trigger is attached. The drummer can either make use of the combined sounds or simply turn the volume of the trigger up and/or hit the drum softly enough so that the drum sound is drowned out by the triggered sound.

That’s mostly a concern when playing live. When recording, drum triggers have a whole different set of abilities. Sending and recording MIDI signals gives the audio engineer more control over the sound, timing, etc. of the drum tracks. Small flubs in timing can be tweaked and fixed, unlike when recording acoustic drums. Also, if one or more drums just don’t sound very good, a different, better sounding drum sound can replace it. Even still, an audio engineer can leave the acoustic set’s sounds as the drum track, and use the triggers to trigger other things or set timings. For instance, when the kick is hit in the middle of a song somewhere, maybe the audio engineer ties an explosion sound to it. Having both acoustic tracks and MIDI tracks is very useful when recording. Personally, if I have to choose one or the other, these days I’d probably choose MIDI. It’s just more flexible.

There are drum purists out there who don’t like triggers because they aren’t “real”. I understand that viewpoint, but I do not agree with it. I see triggers as a tool, a technological advance, that gives drummers and audio engineers much more control over sounds, effects, timing, etc. Just because you use triggers doesn’t make you a lazy or bad drummer. On the other hand, using triggers won’t make a bad drummer better.

Posted in Uncategorized

Vocabulary – Part 27

Countermelody or descant 

Sometimes a piece of music that is basically melody-with-accompaniment (homophonic) will include a single part that is truly independent of the melody. For example, a choral piece might be chordal for a few verses and then, to keep the music interesting and fresh, add an independent part for a flute or for the highest sopranos on the third verse. This is a countermelody, sometimes called a descant part. Gospel and pop singers often add countermelodies, sometimes imrovised, and classical music also contains many, many examples of countermelodies.


Harmony may be added to a melody with with drones. A drone is a note that changes rarely or not at all (as opposed to pedal tones). Drones can be most easily found in bagpipes music, Indian Classical music and other musics that use instruments that traditionally play drone notes. (See Harmony with Drones.)


An equalizer is a device originally intended to “equalize” or flatten the different tonal characteristics of sound. Today equalizers are more often used to actively accentuate or attenuate certain frequency ranges for creative effect. Many equalizers allow for adjusting the frequency ranges that each knob or fader controls as well as the “Q” factor.

Graphic Equalizer

An equalizer that uses sliders to set frequency levels instead of knobs. It is “graphic” in that the frequency curve can be seen by looking at the position of the faders. Most often, these will have fixed “Q” and fixed frequency for each fader.

Parametric Equalizer

An equalizer with knobs, often having more adjustable parameters than a graphic equalizer.

Paragraphic Equalizer

An equalizer with a combination of the features of a graphic equalizer—faders/sliders to set frequency levels—and a parametric equalizer—knobs to adjust frequency centers of the faders and the “Q” factor of the faders.


The resonance factor of an electronic circuit. The “Q” stands for “quality factor”. In equalizers, it is equal to the half-power point of the frequency range being controlled divided by the bandwidth. In practice, Q controls on equalizers have much the same effect as adjusting the bandwidth. Essentially, they adjust how large of a frequency band a boost/cut control will affect. A high Q factor results in a narrow band with low Q factor resulting in a wide band. However, if the equalizer uses a true Q control, moving the frequency range will change the bandwidth as well. For example, a 4.5 Q at 1KHz gives a bandwidth around 222Hz. Moving the frequency range to 2KHz while keeping the same Q will widen the effect across a 444Hz range.

Polyphonic Note Recognition

The ability to detect multiple fundamental frequencies inside an audio signal.  This is often used for tuners, which detect and tune multiple notes; or some effects, such as octave generation.  The algorithms to recognize multiple frequencies are fairly difficult to do in real time, and the speed of such implementations is largely based on which factors, such as if the number of notes, or their expected frequencies, are known ahead of time.  Alternatively, some effects that normally require note recognition may apply a flat, frequency altering filter to the whole signal, bypassing the need for specific frequency recognition.  Some of the main software algorithms used for polyphonic recognition are MUSIC and ESPRIT.





Sweetwater.com’s Glossary

Posted in Vocabulary Tagged with:

Vocabulary – Part 26

Room Mode

A room mode is a frequency that resonates due to reflection from the surfaces in a room. Essentially, if the length between surfaces (or the sum of lengths between surfaces) is a multiple of a particular frequency, then that frequency may be amplified. Room modes can be described by the which walls cause them. An “oblique room mode” is one in which all four walls plus the ceiling and floor are involved. A “tangential room mode” involves reflection from two pairs of parallel surfaces such as all four walls or two opposite walls and the ceiling and floor. They tend to be stronger than oblique room modes. The strongest room modes are “axial room modes”, which involve only two parallel surfaces.

Hard, parallel surfaces will resonate at very narrow frequency bands causing very audible spikes. This is one reason acoustic treatment often involves softer materials and often comes in panels with oddly shaped surfaces. The softer materials absorb some of the vibration, “killing” the sound. The odd surfaces prevent what vibration is reflected from subsequently resonating with other parallel surfaces.

 Rock Opera

.A collection of Rock Songs which tell a complete story – similar to a traditional opera but with Rock music.  This is different from a musical in which there is also spoken dialog


Impedance is the resistance of a circuit to an alternating current of a certain frequency.  Impedance is composed of static resistance (as we would measure in a purely DC system), as well as the capacitance and inductance of all the components in a system.  The resonant frequency of the Impedance is the frequency at which an AC signal encounters the least resistance.  Each component in a system will increase the overall Impedance, but may change the resonant frequency of that Impedance.  Many audio components are designed to produce the most desirable sound when loaded with a certain Impedance of a certain frequency.

Conventional pickups, for instance, are designed to operate optimally at high impedance (often around 1 megaohm).  So, matching the impedance of you amp/effects to your pickups often results in the most desirable sound.  This is called Loading.  Any effects that use a Buffer will isolate the impedance on the input and output sides, so impedance matching can help determine the optimal order for your audio equipment chain.

Harmonic Rhythm:

The harmonic rhythm of a piece refers to how often the chords change. Music in which the chords change rarely has a slow harmonic rhythm; music in which the chords change often has a fast harmonic rhythm. Harmonic rhythm can be completely separate from other rhythms and tempos. For example, a section of music with many short, quick notes but only one chord has fast rhythms but a slow harmonic rhythm.

Pitch Pipe:

A pitch pipe is an instrument through which one can blow to hear a note, usually used for tuning. While a common form of a modern pitch pipe is a round disk with 13 holes around the edge, one for each chromatic note plus an octave, they used to be a single cynlinder, or pipe, which a lever which, when adjusted, would change the note played. This is why it is called a pitch pipe. Though technically a musical instrument, pitch pipes are not normally used for performing or playing music. They are less accurate than tuning forks, but in many ways far more convenient.



Sweetwater.com’s Glossary

Posted in Vocabulary Tagged with:

Vocabulary – Part 25


From Latin, “to sound”, is a composition for an instrumental soloist, often with a piano accompaniment, typically in three or four movements of contrasting forms and keys.   Sonata means a piece played as opposed to a cantata (Latin and Italian cantare, “to sing”), a piece sung.


A resin used as a gloss in guitar and other instrument finishes. Many like it for its characteristic yellowing as it ages. There are some drawbacks to it as it can react with certain plastics and foams used in some instrument stands. It is also highly flammable. In addition to its use as an instrument finish, it has been used to make guitar picks, and was used to create early movie film stock. It is created by mixing a nitrating agent into cellulose from wood or other plant pulp.


Play with motion. Denotes both a visual style, as well as an auditory one.  The player should move with the music, and sound like they are doing so. Variations can indicate more or less motion, such as Poco Meno Mosso (a little less motion) or Piu Mosso (more motion).


To pinch or pluck.  A playing technique that requires the musician to pluck the strings to produce a shorter lasting inharmoic sound.  On bowed instruments, the bow is either set aside or held out of the way to pluck the strings.  On a keyed instrument (piano or harpsichord) the musician reaches in to  manually pluck the strings.  On guitars and bass, the palm mute is how an musician plays in pizzicato.  On sheet muisic, the notation “pizz” means to play in pizzicato and the notation “arco” means to return to normal playing.





Posted in Vocabulary Tagged with:

Vocabulary – Part 23


To use a bow.


In music, was originally any expressive melody, usually, but not always, performed by a singer. The term became used almost exclusively to describe a self-contained piece for one voice, with or without orchestral accompaniment, normally part of a larger work. The typical context for arias is opera, but vocal arias also feature in oratorios and cantatas, sharing features of the operatic arias of their periods.  (en.wikipedia.org)


Means “sung”.  It is the past participle feminine singular of the Italian verb cantare, “to sing”) is a vocal composition with an instrumental accompaniment, typically in several movements, often involving a choir.  The meaning of the term changed over time, from the simple single voice madrigal of the early 17th century, to the multi-voice “cantata da camera” and the “cantata da chiesa” of the later part of that century, from the more substantial dramatic forms of the 18th century to the usually sacred-texted 19th-century cantata, which was effectively a type of short oratorio.[1] Cantatas for use in the liturgy of church services are called church cantata or sacred cantata, other cantatas can be indicated as secular cantata. Several cantatas were, and still are, written for special occasions, such as Christmas cantatas. Johann Sebastian Bach composed cycles of church cantatas for the occasions of the liturgical year.  (en.wikipedia.org)


Means “played”.  In the classic sense was the antithesis of Contata as music at the time was usually a single singer or a single instrument.  Has developed over time to mean musical pieces performed primarily by one instrument, usually a piano or violin but other examples do exist.  Some definitions of Sonata include two instrument combinations as a Sonata and some even include string quartets as a Sonata.

Noise Colors

The term “white noise” is one example of a range of “colors” given to noise patterns based on the relative loudness and/or power levels of different frequencies across the audible range. White noise has equal power level across the entire range. Because of the way humans hear pitch (each octave has double the frequency of the previous), this actually means that higher octaves have more total power than lower ones. For this reason, white noise tends to sound higher pitched or seems to be missing lower frequencies. Pink Noise has it’s power level scaled logarithmically such that any given octave has the same amount of total power as any other. For this reason, pink noise sounds nearly equally loud at the low end and the high end. Gray Noise takes this a step further and attempts to balance the noise in such a way that power level is specifically matched to the way humans hear pitch, including accounting for the spikes in our sensitivity to sounds at particular frequencies. There are several other defined colors, see Wikipedia for some of those.

Posted in Vocabulary Tagged with:

Vocabulary – Part 24


A two or four line section, rarely exceeding four bars musically, immediately preceding the chorus. It is intended to propel the listener, both melodically and lyrically, into the chorus.  The pre-chorus is optional. However, if the first verse includes a pre-chorus, all subsequent verses typically also include a pre-chorus section. The pre-chorus is sometimes referred to as the lift, the channel climb or B-section.  (http://www.taxi.com/music-business-faq/songwriting/songstructure)


Serves as a departure or a release from the rest of the song. It usually consists of two or four lines of lyric, and four or eight musical bars. The bridge’s job is to add a new dimension to the song, take it to the next level, and lead the listener back to the chorus, title and hook, from a new angle. If that’s not enough of a challenge, the bridge needs to accomplish all of this while still managing to sound consistent with the rest of the song.   (http://www.taxi.com/music-business-faq/songwriting/songstructure)


A music piece developed without a key.  Atonal music will not fit any key signature as it is written to not have a key.  Unfortunately, most modern examples of Atonal music is 12-tone music, which is a vocabulary word we have already covered.


Singing multiple notes over a single syllable, usually for ornamental effect. While the technique has been around for a very long time, it became immensely popular for pop music artists in the 2000s and early 2010s. It has fallen out of favor recently, though it continues to be used by many artists.

Posted in Vocabulary Tagged with:

Vocabulary – Part 22

Im Anfang Shr Gemaechlich

“To go faster, like you are going slower.”  A term used by composers to confuse string sections.  Used by the German composer, Gustav Mahler.

A Triplet

Three notes in the space of two, not three in the space of one. For example a triplet over one quarter note is not the same - in that case, it would be written as a triplet over two eighth notes.


Generically, this means a ratio of 3:2. At one point this was used as a description of a perfect fifth since waveforms with that ratio will sound a fifth apart. In recent times, this term has more commonly been used to indicate a rhythm pattern. Formally, it describes a “triplet” or playing three notes in the space normally taken by two. Less formally, it has come to mean playing any rhythm that makes the “feel” different than the notated time signature. For example, playing triplet quarter notes can make 4/4 feel like 6/8 as you would play 4 * 3 / 2 = 6 notes per measure. (Various sources, including https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemiola.)

Relative Key

The major and minor scales that have the same key signatures but start at different points in the scale. The relative key of any scale is the sixth note in that scale (although may be sharped or flatted).  For example, the relative to C major is A minor so:




Posted in Vocabulary Tagged with:

Vocabulary – Part 21


When the last note of one phrase serves as the first note of the next phrase.


A distinguished musician, especially a conductor of classical music.


Jazz started as improvisation and stylistic variations on other styles, especially ragtime, early blues, and polyrhythms from various sources. Since its start over a century ago, the genre has grown to have so many subgenres that it becomes difficult to pin down into a single description. Attempting to pin it down, one might consider the etymology of the word itself. However, even this is clouded by misinformation and misdirection. There are sources that claim origins in African-American or Creole communities, but the most credible sources seem to show the first verifiable usages of the word to be around baseball in California. It was used to describe a pitch that “wobbled”. While this doesn’t seem to indicate the origin of the word, it does show that it had a meaning of something akin to “spunky” or “energetic” as early as 1912. The origin is also clouded by rapid adoption of the word as a slang term for sexual intercourse around the same time the music style started to become popular. For more on the etymology, see the Wikipedia entry in the Sources section, below.

Schenkerian Analysis

The goal of a Schenkerian analysis is to interpret the underlying structure of a tonal work and to help with reading the score according to that structure. The theory’s basic tenets can be viewed as a way of defining tonality in music. A Schenkerian analysis of a passage of music shows hierarchical relationships among its pitches and draws conclusions about the structure of the passage from this hierarchy. Schenkerian analysis is inter-subjective, rather than objective. There is no mechanical procedure involved, and the analysis reflects the musical intuitions of the analyst. The analysis represents one way of hearing (and reading) a piece of music. More information can be found in the Wikipedia entry, found in the Sources section, below.



Posted in Vocabulary Tagged with: