Theories of Flavor and Sound

I've been working on a solo electronic record. It began about about six months ago, but things have been picking up steam in the past two or three and I'm starting to get excited by this project. It might be a bit presumptuous to call it a record, I suppose, since it will never see vinyl, but it's full-length: currently about 50 minutes long, 20 tracks. Every song is in 5/4 time, which lends itself to flow and rhythms that are impossible in 4/4. I'm nearly done writing the songs themselves, but there's a much larger challenge ahead.

When the songs are finished I have to try and make the sound quality less amateur: this would be the mixing and mastering phase on a professionally-produced record. I am no sound engineer and this is the first time I've ever attempted to "mix and master" anything. I hardly know what the words mean. But I do know that when I listen to my music side-by-side with "real music", the stuff I'm working on sounds hopelessly bedroom. The fidelity is thin and puny and sounds different on every stereo. While trying to fix this, I began to notice some weird similarities between making this record and trying to create cocktails.

My first attempts at original cocktails were horrible. My drinks began simple and spiraled out of control as I added one ill-considered liqueur after another, trying improve the flavor. In the end there would be sixteen ingredients in a discolored disaster: flavors muddy and indistinct, vaguely nauseating. When the basic recipe wasn't good, all the pomegranate/simple syrup/Grand Marnier/champagne in the world wouldn't rescue it. They only made the drink worse, introducing new flavors that fought the existing ones.

The problem was balance. I didn't understand liquor well enough to create a synergy between a few carefully-considered ingredients and let their characteristic flavors mingle. I tried to compensate for this by throwing in everything I could think of. I didn't realize that the more I added, the less the cocktail tasted of anything. Well-applied simplicity highlights the complexity of ingredients and their interactions rather than hiding them, and is actually more full-flavored than some trainwreck involving half the rail.

"Simplicity" is a deceptive term since each ingredient in a cocktail has myriad chemical components. "Lime" isn't one flavor: it's many sugars and acids that we interpret as one. Tequila and Cointreau are equally complex flavors. Properly balanced, they make a Margarita that positively sizzles. Nothing else is required but those three ingredients, carefully combined. The acidity of the lime and the sweetness of the Cointreau shimmer against each other like they were run through a phaser pedal, and mask the alcohol burn of the tequila while still allowing its cactusy flavor to come through.

Sound, even a deceptively simple sound such as a guitar note, is just as complex. The most basic sound is a sine wave, a series of half-circles alternating up-down-up-down on an oscilloscope. It creates a round, even tone in a single frequency. Middle C is 261.626 Hz. The A above it is 440 Hz--the frequency of most tuning forks. In fact, a tuning fork is one of the few ways to produce a sine wave without a computer. Sine waves are rarely or never heard in nature. These waves are not very complex and their tones do not give the ear much to think about.

A guitar string, plucked, creates vibrations that show up on an oscilloscope as a jumble of sine waves acting on each other. They coexist and create a single complex wave with many tones: when we pluck a middle C on a guitar string we are not just hearing a vibration of air at 261.626 Hz. We are also hearing, to a lesser extent, the C note an octave above it (1046.502 Hz), and the C note above that (2093.005 Hz). We are hearing a C at every higher octave, plus many other frequencies in between, but 261.626 Hz dominates the sound and we perceive a middle C without realizing the rich makeup of a note from a well-tuned string.

Compared to a guitar note, a sine wave is hollow, flat and weirdly piercing. Sine waves do not have the emotional impact of guitar notes. A lone virtuoso with a guitar can wring tears from an audience; an entire symphony rendered in computer-generated waveforms leaves the same audience feeling cold. Such basic synthetic tones are like artificial lime flavor, a synthesized chemical trying to replicate the hundreds of natural chemicals that make up the real thing. Many people refer to poorly-made liqueurs and artificial flavors as "one-note", but given the complexity of a single note it might be more accurate to describe them as "one-tone".

The magic of a good Margarita lies in the fact that there's more than just three tones--sour, sweet, and alcohol--in the glass. Tequila, even simple blanco tequila, has a remarkably multihued flavor: the sweet, wild, pungent, planty taste of fermented agave juice. Then there's the lime juice. This is sour, true, but the sugar content is also quite high and it may contain bitter oils from the peel as well. The Cointreau is sweet but, again, complex: it is made of bitter and sweet orange peels infused in sugar beet alcohol and has a depth that is not to be found in lesser industrial triple sec liqueurs. 

Just as "middle C" describes a combination of many frequencies that we interpret as a single note, simple names also hide the veritable laboratory of chemicals that go into the flavors "tequila", "Cointreau" and "lime".  Even the combination of the three--dozens or even hundreds of flavors interacting together--gets grouped under a single word: "Margarita." What seems like a three-note chord is actually a full-orchestra hit.

There's nothing wrong with adding to the Margarita. Some people add orange juice, pomegranate or other flavors with tasty results. These improvements gild the original structure, like Phil Spector's orchestral sections on Let It Be. With care, a Margarita can be added to or altered. But the original recipe with its three ingredients is the vital backbone which must be balanced to begin with.

Balance is just as essential when mixing a piece of music. This is not to say that every instrument should be the same volume. Lead instruments will be more prominent, but they shouldn't drown out the supporting instruments. Each instrument has its place, as do the ingredients in a 2:1:1 Margarita. But finding their proper places is far more difficult than just twiddling volume knobs and the reason is directly related to the complexity of waveforms I described above.

A bass mostly occupies the low end but produces tones in the mid and high frequencies as well. These may be particularly loud at, say, 2650 Hz and 12000 Hz. Perhaps this is from fingertips scraping the strings, or noise from the amp, or just how the bass is built. If I have a lead synth that also wants to occupy the 2650 Hz frequency, the two instruments may fight each other. Instead of coexisting they may cancel each other out or clash, and I will have a flat or jarring piece rather than one that soothes the ears with a pleasing balance of low, middle and high frequencies.

This problem is sometimes solved with careful use of EQ. EQ, equalization, refers to de-emphasizing undesirable frequencies and emphasizing desirable ones. If I decide that a cymbal needs a crisper sound, I can EQ it up at 12000 Hz. But I've learned the hard way that less is more. EQ is best when used to turn something down, like cutting the extreme lows of a bassline so that it lies against the subsonic thump of a kick drum. This is sonic Tetris, nestling together protruding pieces to create even horizontal lines.

When dealing with songs that sounded thin or unbalanced, my initial approach--much like my approach to unbalanced cocktails--was to add things: EQ, delay, effects. I would doctor the hell out of everything. If I couldn't hear the cymbals, I turned them up; if the bass was too soft, I slapped on some distortion. If the synth didn't jump out, I EQed up the high-mid so that it could fight through the cymbals I had just cranked up. More, more. Everything became sonic soup, a cacophany from which nothing stood out. My initial attempts were disasters: lopsided, muddy, weirdly irritating and stress-inducing. I usually ended up wishing I had just left the original track alone.

The problem was often that my ingredients--my instruments--weren't very good to begin with. Maybe the sound quality wasn't there: too much distortion, too many effects, or maybe just a plain bad sample. Or maybe I had layered on too many instruments which confused and distracted from the main themes. Other times the basic mix--the balance of instrument volumes--was off and I didn't realize it.

Rather than adding more filler to a song, the solution frequently lay in the opposite direction. I tried laying everything bare and starting at zero. I removed all EQ and all effects and began by making sure the underlying balance was strong. Only from there would I tweak EQ and add effects, filling out certain sounds and subduing others. The magic lies, like a Margarita, in the interaction between sounds. A thin string section sounds thick when a good bassline is rumbling below it. They complement each other and achieve a fullness that is far greater than just the sum of the parts. Rather than EQing everything in sight, I tried to allow the tones to mingle. If a bass, a synth and a cymbal could share frequencies, then I let them mix like tequila, Cointreau and lime.


(Many thanks to andywho for expertise and guidance.)

No comments:

Post a Comment