Effective Communication: Speak the Language of Sound

Master the art of audio terminology and streamline your creative process

What You'll Learn:

Critical Listening

Develop your ear and identify subtle nuances in sound

Audio Terminology

Master the language of frequencies, dynamics, and spatial effects

Effective Feedback

Learn techniques to communicate your vision clearly

Introduction

As an artist, effectively communicating your vision to producers and mixing engineers is crucial. This framework will help you develop critical listening skills and master audio terminology, enabling you to express your ideas clearly and achieve the sound you desire. By bridging the communication gap, you'll streamline your creative process and ensure your artistic vision is fully realized in the final product.

Critical Listening

Critical listening is the foundation of effective communication in audio. By training your ear, you'll be able to identify and articulate subtle nuances in sound, making your feedback more precise and valuable.

Developing Your Ear:

  1. When listening to a song, try to focus on individual elements in the mix (e.g., drums, bass, vocals) and how they influence the overall track
  2. Reference tracks: Listen to songs with sounds you like, and identify what makes them sound engaging
  3. A/B comparisons: Toggle between two different songs or versions of a mix to identify differences more easily

Quick Tip: Start a list of reference tracks with a links songs and notes about what you like about them

Exercise

  1. Listen to your favorite track. Identify three specific elements you like and describe them using audio terms.
  2. Compare the same song on different playback systems (headphones, car stereo, home speakers). Note the differences in how it sounds on each system.

Frequency-Related Terms

Understanding frequency related terms can help you pinpoint issues and desired changes:

Bright

Enhanced high frequencies (4kHz-20kHz)

Example: Shimmering cymbals, crisp vocals

Dark

Reduced high frequencies

Example: Muffled or veiled sound

Thin

Lack of low frequencies (below 250Hz)

Example: Tinny-sounding speakers, lack of foundation

Boomy

Excessive low frequencies (60Hz-120Hz)

Example: Overpowering bass, lack of tightness

Muddy

Excessive low-mids (100Hz-300Hz)

Example: Unclear bass, lack of definition

Harsh

Excessive upper-mids (2kHz-6kHz)

Example: Fatiguing to listen to, piercing

Boxy

Excessive mid-range (250Hz-2kHz)

Example: Vocals recorded in small, untreated rooms

Warm

Slight boost in low-mids (250Hz-2kHz)

Example: Vintage-style recordings, tube amp sound

Sibilant

Excessive high frequencies in 's' and 't' sounds

Example: Overly pronounced 'ess' sounds in vocals

Full

Well-balanced across frequency spectrum

Example: Professional mixes with depth and clarity

Quick Tip: When describing frequency issues, try to identify where in the spectrum the problem lies (low, mid, high).

Frequency Chart

The chart below will help you visualise and listen to the frequency spectrum. You can choose solo to hear the selected range on its own, or highlight to hear it in context.

1. Click play on an audio example

2. Select a frequency range in the chart above

3. Toggle between frequency ranges and solo/highlight options

Selected: FULL SPECTRUM
SUB BASS20 - 60 HzBASS60 - 250 HzLOW MIDS250 - 500 HzMIDRANGE500 - 2kHzUPPER MIDS2 - 4 kHzPRESENCE4 - 6 kHzHIGHS6 - 20 kHz20Hz60Hz250Hz500Hz2kHz4kHz6kHz20kHzBrightThinBoomyMuddyHarshBoxyWarmSibilant
Audio Example 1
Audio Example 2

Make sure to listen on headphones or good quality speakers

Dynamic-Related Terms

Understanding dynamics helps communicate the energy and impact of your sound. These terms usually refer to use of compression and the way in which a part is played.

Audio examples of these terms are demonstrated on samples of drum and keyboard recordings:

Open

Wide dynamic range

Example: Acoustic recordings, dynamic performances

Compressed

Reduced dynamic range

Example: Modern pop vocals, radio-ready mixes

Squashed

Over-compressed, lacking dynamics

Example: Loudness war casualties, fatiguing mixes

Pumping

Audible compression artifacts

Example: Background elements ducking when the kick hits

Punchy

Strong attack, quick decay

Example: Tight kick drum, snappy snare

Sustained

Long, consistent sound

Example: Pad synths, held piano notes

Soft

Gentle, understated dynamics

Example: Whispered vocals, brushed drums

Explosive

Sudden, impactful dynamics

Example: Drums in rock music, EDM drops

Spatial and Texture Terms

Spatial Terms

These terms refer to the percieved position of an element in the audo field. This is usually achieved by the use of panning and reverb.

Audio examples of these terms are demonstrated on different recordings of acoustic guitars:

Wide

Spread across stereo field

Example: Stereo-panned guitars

Narrow

Concentrated in center

Example: Mono recording of a vocal

Deep

Sense of front-to-back dimension

Example: Layered synth pads

Shallow

Lack of front-to-back dimension

Example: Heavily compressed mix

Intimate

Close and personal feeling

Example: Close-miked acoustic guitar

Distant

Far away or removed feeling

Example: Reverb-heavy background vocals

Texture Terms

Different audio textures are usually achieved by using saturation and distortion. Distortion can be a great way to add impact and excitement if used correctly.

Clean

Absence of distortion or noise

Example: Jazz piano recording

Crunchy

Mild distortion or breakup

Example: Overdriven bass guitar

Raw

Unprocessed or minimally processed

Example: Live drum recording

Polished

Highly refined and processed

Example: Modern pop production

Smooth

Even, consistent sound

Example: Well-polished pop vocal

Gritty

Intentionally distorted or lo-fi

Example: Lo-fi hip hop beat

Quick Tip: Combine spatial and texture terms for more precise descriptions. For example: "I want the guitars to sound wide and gritty, but the vocals should be intimate and smooth."

Audio examples of saturation

Different levels of saturation applied to a piano arpeggio

Clean
Crunchy
Gritty

Effective Feedback Techniques

  1. Be specific: "The vocals sound too dark" instead of "I don't like the vocals"
  2. Use references: "I'd like the snare to cut through like in [specific song]"
  3. Prioritize changes: List your feedback from most to least important
  4. Avoid vague terms: "Make it sound better" doesn't provide actionable feedback
  5. Describe the emotion: "The chorus should feel more triumphant"
  6. Provide context: "In the verse, the guitar overpowers the vocals"
  7. Suggest solutions, but be open to alternatives: "Perhaps we could try a different reverb?"
  8. Focus on the big picture first, then details: Start with overall balance before diving into specific effects

Collaborative Problem-Solving

  1. Ask open-ended questions: "What options do we have to make the chorus more impactful?"
  2. Explore alternatives: "If we can't get that exact sound, what else could work?"
  3. Find common ground: Agree on the overall vision before diving into details
  4. Be open to suggestions: Your producer/engineer may have ideas you haven't considered
  5. Use the "yes, and" approach: Build on ideas rather than shutting them down
  6. Take breaks: Fresh ears can provide new perspectives
  7. Document decisions: Keep notes on what works and what doesn't for future reference

Remember: Clear communication leads to better results and a more enjoyable creative process. Your ability to articulate your vision will grow with practice and experience.

Additional Resources

Links to online ear training tools:

Need more help getting your songs sounding amazing?

If you’re not 100% happy with the quality of your mixes, you want to make your tracks stand out and make sure they reflect who you are as an artist - I’d love to work with you!

I have worked alongside top-tier mixing engineers in studios like Abbey Road and Air Studios. I now specialise in working with Indie-Pop artists to define their unique sound and give them mixes that they love.

If that sounds good to you - get in touch!

Marek Deml