Composers Thoughts on Craft Series- On Timbre

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Welcome to the sixth in the Composers Thoughts on Craft Series – On Timbre. We began the series with On Melody then we looked at On Harmony, On Rhythm, & On Form. Most recently we discussed On Instrumentation . Please follow the links below to read those articles and for those in my exclusive email subscriber list, follow the links to the You-tube private videos embedded within the email. If you want back dated copies of the emails if you just signed up send me a message and I can send you the pdf copy. At the end of the series I will open the videos up to the general public, but that is a long way off just yet.

Timbre is a strange fascination, which makes us delve more into the elements of sound itself; it’s essence it’s tonal qualities, that which makes up the unique signature of an instrument. One could liken it to the bark on different trees, or the many species of butterflies that grace the winds (to draw from the ecological sphere). Timbre is a great fascination that sparks our imagination. It draws us off down the road like children in a forest following their curiosity. But what exactly is timbre? Why is it such a fascination? What can electronic music offer to ‘the entity formed as timbre’ that the world of analogue hand-crafted instruments cannot?

Timbre is “tone colour; that which distinguishes the quality of tone or voice of one instrument or singer from another, e.g. flute from clarinet, soprano from mezzo-soprano” (Kennedy 1996, p. 738). It relates to the physics of form and prima materia. There are many variables in the physical domain of real instruments that influence tone colour or timbre. For example, the type of wood that a guitar is made from, the shape of the instrument, the sound hole, the implement used to play it and produce it’s sound etc. There is always comparison made between a Stradivarius violin and a budget violin for example. Quality craftsmanship, knowledge and expertise all give bearings on the ultimate expression of tone. A piano is a piano to the uninitiated yet put a blind tuner in a room of models to tune and he or she could tell you what quality and make they are by their timbre. I have watched this occur with my own eyes.

My fascination with timbre goes beyond physical instruments. It began I guess in the 1970’s in my childhood with early electronic music and movie soundtracks. Timbre has the uncanny ability to generate imagery for me, the nature of the sound evokes a response that triggers a whole chain of associations and before I know it I am in a parallel universe on an uncharted planet and it was the sound current (as I like to call it) that took me there.

So, going deeper into the heard sound; (the waveform of a recorded sound or a synthesised sample), what are the elements within it that also give it a uniqueness? I believe it is the sound envelope, the harmonic spectrum and there are a whole host of what I will call psychospiritual or supramental elements that can be portrayed and transmitted via the recorded sound, about it’s place of origin, and the dynamics of the spacio- temporal domain (height, width, depth, and objects within the space, etc).

“Music is made up of complex tones, each one of which consists of a superposition of pure tones blended together in a certain relationship so as to appear to our brain as unanalysed wholes. A third fundamental tonal attribute thus emerges: tone quality, or timbre, related to the kind of mixture of pure sounds, or harmonic components, in a complex tone” (Roederer 1995, p. 106). More specifically we find “the timbre of the resulting sound is thus governed by both, the original string vibration spectrum and the response curve of the resonator” (Roederer 1995, p. 128). The resonator in this example being the body of the violin and the space it was played in. If we apply this to the voice, we have the body of a person and also the resonant capacities within the given space where they sang producing the resultant heard timbre.

Then we can record and take the initial sound beyond into the realm of the sample, whereby its nature can be completely transformed by a type of electronic sonic alchemy. Tec wizadry is fascinating. I have only scratched the surface in understanding this realm, (it is mostly secret mens business). It is awe inspiring the transformations that can come from shaping a waveform. Putting it through filters, all sorts of effects, building up racks, resampling aspects of it and then reprocessing it, it really is only limited by human imagination and cpu. Artists of the 60’s and 70’s did a wonderful job in playing with the new emerging analogue and electronic technology to create sonic manipulations and even going back further to early twentieth century Radiophonic workshops. Filters work to limit the specific aspects of the frequency band that we hear. I am very fond of reverbs but they only change the time element of a sound. Manipulating the sound envelope can be interesting altering the attack, decay, sustain, release amongst other parameters.

I have not done too much experimentation in this realm, just what has been done within tracks when composing recording or producing and going mmm I like that. Sometimes it is more deliberate one knows what effects one wants to employ to change aspects of the timbre. I learnt last year that Hans Zimmer (movie composer) builds all his synths from the ground up and samples everything, going out into the field around the world in remote villages etc to record people, developing his unique palette for each movie he scores. He is a Cubase man. I guess I like to have sounds ready to go and purchase the sound designs or plug ins others have laboured over who have a lot more knowledge and insight into what they are doing. As such these come as standard synths within ones music audio workstation platform or are third party plug ins. One can then of course tweak many aspects of the synth timbre or instrument from within.

It also comes back to the luxury of time to explore. I again barely know the real capacity of my software, both Reason and Ableton. I write mostly in Reason. Sometimes I will do master slave applications of both DAWS. When I sit and improvise or develop seed ideas I can get taken on a sonic ride very quickly and I have to go with the music, the movement, the imagery or the idea as it presents or it is gone. Transforming sound is like going into a maze with many loops, inputs, outputs and circuits one can get terribly confused. I just like what comes out the other end. It’s like a recipe, and one is cooking up a banquet in a composition, one must have the right timbral components, the right frequencies, the right energies and feels and voices to match the essence one is aiming to convey.

I managed this afternoon to start working on the second last track of The Call of Oma album Only Stories Remained. For this I began in the same tonality that I ended the previous track but have chosen a new timbre not featured before the cathedral organ, for the ominous quality it conveys, the sense of grandeur and humanity being dwarfed in the face of catastrophic change. The pipes are large the space is resonant, the message is heard and we receive the memories that we had forgotten. This brings us more to the psychoacoustic elements of timbre. I am no expert just an eternal student and how we perceive sound differently is fascinating. Joshua Leeds a leading researcher and musician has an acronym for  “the anatomy of psychoacoustic music production”(Leeds 2001, p. 222)   “IREST: I being for Intention (thought, heard) Resonance (tone) Entrainment (rhythm) sonic neuro-technologies (precision)” (Leeds 2001, pp. 222–238). Exploring this side of music intention and production adds a depth to work that one cannot otherwise obtain in my opinion, for the conceptual frameworks  of  both sound and music become a lot larger.

Instrument & samples ‘sound nature’ also have the ability to affect resonance in us uniquely. Certain instruments resonate differently with different organs and energy centres physically and psychospiritually with different energy bodies and pathways. For example, strings have a heart resonance and draw the soul upwards mostly, though they can be used to express dissonance and tension also. (There are many attributes of music which one can employed for deliberate specific musical affect and intent). Drums are more of a base chakra and sacral chakra instrument relating to the pulse of life and the expression of the intent, but also have resonance with the heart as the time keeping centre of mortality.

Timbre can also be a prime element in entrainment and is used as such on the Call of Oma album. Physiologically the  “timbre [as] perceived by any given listener will first be a  function of the anatomical configuration of that individuals basilar membrane” (Schneck & Berger 2006, p. 204). Among aspects influencing individual perception of timbre and are a whole host of physiological and psychological parameters. Schneck and Berger discuss how timbre relates to  auditory discrimination and in music therapeutics can be employed as an aid to such, helping to correct or normalise homeostatic set points influenced in nervous system regulation etc (Schneck & Berger 2006, p. 206). Timbre is also presented as a factor of environment which has an accumulative effect. So in simulating spaces and presenting concepts this is something to bare in mind. To be effective in suggesting a space or creating ‘aural architecture’ one needs to contemplate the attributes within that space to attempt to model them. This was the focus of my honours year research and composition with ‘Oriental Temple Gardens Complex’.

The Call of Oma attempts to present more mood/ idea and includes some samples that pertain to specific environment. The Ocean is part of the setting of the drama and is an overarching theme and symbol, as it is the place of the origin of all life on earth. ‘Come Back’ brings us back to this fact to remind us we are but drops in that ocean of both time and space, and as such it is important to remember our temporality and that we are but visitors, here for a while.  Multiple musical attributes are used with specific intent, though held loosely enough for the creative process. Melodic motion and direction of motifs, arpeggio and ostinato is one factor I use often to draw mind or body either upwards or back to earth. I also use descending pattern and tempo simultaneously in ‘Universal Ocean’ to suggest taking one back in time. Tonality and tempo are also used throughout with 34 and 68 mimicking the feeling of being in a ship amidst the waves (subjective).

Does spiritual attunement predispose one to a greater ability to resonate with specific nuances of sound or concepts? I say yes it does potentially, though what one chooses to focus on is a factor. Musicians by nature are capable of understanding things and making many parallels between them, as we are arbiters of an ‘essential harmony’. A harmony first learnt by observing and mimicking the world around us and later developed by creativity and ingenuity. It is said that musicians use the whole brain, making music is a very holistic process. It is our longstanding ingenuity that has brought us all the worlds instruments and the amazing creations of the technological domain that enable me to sit in my studio do what I do to the best of my ability and then share it with you from that very same space. For those contemplating recording and releasing work, just begin do it, all the tools are there, you learn as you go, your sound your way. All the rules have changed and for that I am thankful.

It is impossible to talk about one aspect of music without mentioning others in part and I have found this a specific challenge in writing the Composers Thoughts Series. We are only half way through the series and have one and a half song/ compositions left to write and then begin recording vocals and refine the production as I go through my pre-review process. There are many other things to work on relating to the albums distribution, film clips, and strategies to get it in front of people. So the next in the series to look forward to is ‘On space’, ‘On History’, ‘On Inspiration’, ‘On Improvisation’, ‘On Intention’, ‘On Conceptualisation’, ‘On Studio-craft’, ‘’On Social Norms’, and ‘On Philosophy’.

Please reach out to me with your thoughts and let me know what you think of the series. Connect to me on Instagram to see behind the scenes previews and I go into process or on facebook. And don’t forget to subscribe to my email so you can receive the Exclusive access to the behind the scenes videos that go out every two blogs.


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Kennedy, M 1996, Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music, 4th edn, Oxford University Press, New York.

Leeds, J 2001, The Power of Sound- How to Manage your Personal Soundscape for a Vital Productive and Healthy Life, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont.

Roederer, J, G 1995, The Physics and Psychophysics of Music, 3rd edn, Springer- Verlag, New York.

Schneck, D, J & Berger, D, S 2006, The Music Effect- Music Physiology and Clinical Applications, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, England.

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