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Author: Lucas Pontes de Oliveira
1- INTRODUCTION """"""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""" #
2- WHAT IS SOUND? """"""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""" #
3- HOW DO YOU VISUALISE IT? """"""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""" $
4.1- SPECTRUM ANALYSERS """"""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""" $
4.2- VOLUME METERS """""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""" %
4.3- VECTORSCOPES """""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""" %
4.4- OSCILLOSCOPES """"""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""" &
5- CONCLUSION AND THOUGHTS """"""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""" '

An Essay on the Visualisation of Sound


Hello friends, this is Lucas. Im from Brazil, and in this essay were going
to go over visualising sound. Im an experienced electronic music artist, and I
believe I can share some interesting insights with you.
To shine some light upon our upcoming discussion, and to make sure that
were all on the same page, lets first go over definitions and meaning of the
important concepts relevant to the discussion.

Sound is a wave. Don't you dare forget that.
A wave is basically the repeated variation (oscillation) of something
through time. You can think of it as a mathematical function a specific
relationship that ties two variables together, like "y" and "x" with the "x"
being set as time.
That being said, numerous kinds of waves exist, all falling in one of two
categories: electromagnetic or mechanical. Examples of electromagnetic
waves are:
Radio waves
Visible light
These waves are special because they don't need a physical medium to
travel through (which is why you can see the sun). They travel through the
electromagnetic field, which is an omnipresent property of space itself.
Sound, on the other hand, is a mechanical wave. That means it needs a
physical medium to travel through (which is why you can't hear the sun). That
medium is tipically, but not necessarily, air.
It is important to differentiate sound from the perception of sound.
Sound materializes once an event that displaces the particles in a
medium takes place. Those particles proceed to displace other neighboring
particles in a chain reaction, thus creating a wave of compression and
An Essay on the Visualisation of Sound

The perception of it, however, happens only when it hits your eardrums,
generating electric impulses that will proceed to be interpreted by your brain.
That means that yes, if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to
hear it, it still makes a sound. It is just not perceived by anybody.
That "perception" is our canvas. And we have a vast array of musical and
electronic tools to paint with.

It just so happens that some of these electronic tools fall into the category
of "metering", which are tools used to measure sound.
But first, what makes a sound different from another? A few things:
Amplitude (the strenght of the pressure oscillations)
Frequency content (the rate of the oscillations)
Timing (on each ear)
These intrinsic properties are what we use to shape our perception of
sounds. We perceive high amplitude sounds as very loud, high frequency
sounds as very high-pitched, and timing as the position of the sound relative
to us.
These are also the things we need to measure during a mix. Here are
some of the main tools I use:
Spectrum analysers
Volume meters
Let's talk a bit about each of those.

Spectrum analysers are used to gain an idea about the frequency
content of a sound. It lays down amplitude on the Y axis and frequency on
the X axis. It is by far, personally, my most used metering tool. Here's what it
looks like when measuring a handful of different sounds:

An Essay on the Visualisation of Sound

Kick: notice the prevalence of very low frequencies, as this is a
naturally low-pitched sound.

Snare: a more balanced sound throughout the spectrum,
composed of two peaks, a medium-low and a high pitched one.

Hihats: very high-pitched "tss" sound.

Guitar lick: a very melodic sound. You can see the fundamental to
the left and the harmonics spread out to the right of the spectrum.

An Essay on the Visualisation of Sound


Now, these are all spread out through the DAW:

And they play a role in measuring the amplitude of any particular sound,
which builds our perception of loudness. They're also very important through
the entire processing stage of a mix.
It has a very straightforward format, with higher amplitude sounds
making the bars go higher. It's also important to notice the presence of two
volume meters, one for the left and one for the right channel of the track.

My favorite metering tool, the vectorscope is essential at measuring the
timing and frequency content of sounds in relation to both left and right
channels of a stereo track, also known as the stereo image, which helps us
building the notion of the width and position of a sound in space.
Here's a very centered sound, with most of the frequencies in each
channel being the same at the same time:

Mono sounds have 100% equal information coming from each channels,
and the more "mono" (short for monophonic) a sound is, the more it will look
like a straight line on the vectorscope.
An Essay on the Visualisation of Sound

Here's what a very "stereo" and wide sound looks like:

Pretty cool right? You can also hear the difference pretty well when you
have headphones on. All of this couldn't be done at the initial stages of
digital music, when we only had mono files.

Oscilloscopes graph amplitude through time. It's good to give you the
same sense of how the amplitude elvoves in a particular sound. It's how most
samples are visualised in a DAW.

Notice the difference in amplitude over time between a kick, a snare, a
guitar lick and a very short hihat. Also notice how we have yet again two
images, one for each stereo channel of a sound.
We can see that the "widest" sounds have a very different amplitude-
over-time image for each channel. The guitar-lick sample, for instance,
seems to be much wider than the snare, as the right channel has a higher
amplitude in the middle of the sound than the left channel.
There are also oscilloscopes useful for graphing amplitude for very short
lenghts of time, like miliseconds. They're essential to understanding the
mechanics behind synthesizers, as you can visualise in real time the effects
that each sound sculpting mechanism has on the sound.

An Essay on the Visualisation of Sound


Here's what it looks like when graphing a short interval of the kick

You can see that it has sort of sinusoidal shape, which corresponds to
the low-frequency layer of the kick sound. It is somewhat similar to what
you'd get when metering an electric bass sound.

I personally think it's fascinating how far we've come in this particular
endeavor. Before diving into this, I had absolutely no idea of how profound
the art of music and sound production really was.
It's a bit scary to see how scientific it has become, and although it makes
our mixes sound much better, it has the side effect of making this art a little
bit more soulless. It is really a challenge to maintain the soulfulness and
emotion when expressing yourself with this medium, specially within genres
like Electronic Dance Music.
But in the end, no amount of metering and processing can add soul and
meaning to a mix that didn't have it in the first place. And that's what makes
an amazing song.