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MTM 10MM Harmonics, timbre & recording

Master No212

Harmonics, timbre
and recording
Harmonics are the key building blocks of sound, and
are essential to rationalising the art of recording.
Mark Cousins puts sound under the microscope.

rom an accordion to a zither, all musical

instruments can be defined by their unique
spectrum of harmonic overtones. Put simply,
harmonics form the raw DNA of sound the
fundamental building blocks from which all sound and
music is constructed. Without harmonics, for example,
there would be no way of discerning the difference
between a trumpet and a violin playing the same note.
Discussion about the relative warmth of analogue
recording would also be irrelevant, and there would be no
way of identifying musical and non-musical sounds.
Harmonics form the all-important colour of sound,
therefore, and for that reason, they are one of the most
essential entities for any sound engineer, musician or
composer to understand.
Although weve covered harmonics in various guises
before, this Ten Minute Master looks specifically at how
harmonics relate to the process of recording. As weve
already hinted at, harmonics influence many of the
decisions we make as sound engineers from how we
interact with an equalizer, through the colours we
attribute to different signal processors so its essential

Tech Terms
The harmonics series is subdivided into even harmonics
which predominatly fall on
octaves and fifths and odd
harmonics, which fall outside
of octaves and fifths.
Inharmonicity is the degree
to which overtones or
harmonics differ from the
mathematically perfect
harmonic series. The greater
the inharmonicity, the greater
the pitch drift.
Noise is made from a random
collection of harmonics at
random amplitudes, making a
form of sound without order.

Notice how two contrasting types of distortion one a guitar amp, the other tape saturation produce
different harmonic profiles. In particular, the tape distortion has a bias towards odd harmonics.

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Like a number of other bass-enhancement tools, Waves

MaxxBass achieves its bass-lift through modifications to the
second and third harmonics.

to make a link between this scientific understanding of

sound in the context of the processes and techniques we
carry out in the studio.

The DNA of sound

With the exception of a pure sine wave, all sounds can be
broken down into a series of harmonics pitched
overtones that float above the fundamental frequency
(the pitch of the note). With sounds that are termed
musical (guitar, flute, piano or violin and so on) these
harmonics will be mathematically related to the
fundamental frequency. Each numbered harmonic,
therefore, is a direct multiple of the fundamental
frequency. For example, a bass guitar playing G two
octaves below middle C would have its fundamental
around 100Hz, a second harmonic at 200Hz, a third
harmonic at 300Hz and a fourth harmonic at 400Hz.
Looked at on a keyboard, this rise through the
harmonic series creates overtones that are increasingly
bunched together. The second harmonic, for example, is
always an octave higher than the fundamental, forming
the widest difference in pitch. The third harmonic,
however, is seven semitones up from the second (a D, in
other words), while the fourth is only five semitones (G,
two octaves above the fundamental, in this case). From a
musical perspective, its interesting to note how these
initial harmonics (particularly the second, third and fifth)
form the notes of a major chord, which explains the
particular mathematical sonority of a major voicing.
As you move to the top of the harmonic series, the
overtones become dense clusters of notes. Thankfully,
though, each step above the fundamental is also met
with a fall in amplitude in short, the volume decreases
the further you move up the harmonic series. Whats
interesting, though, is that the rate of attenuation as you
move up the harmonic series, and the relationships
between odd and even harmonics, is what forms the
principal timbre (tone colour) of an instrument. A
clarinet, for example, has strong odd-ordered harmonics
and very few high-ordered harmonics, yielding a slightly
hollow sound but one that has a pleasing purity to it. A

Harmonics, timbre & recording 10MM MTM

trumpet, on the other hand, has a rich collection of odd

and even harmonics, making it appear brighter and
raspier than the clarinet.
Sounds are considered non-musical when they
contain harmonics that arent musically related to the
fundamental frequency, although this doesnt mean they
arent useful in music per se! In actuality, non-musicality
is a sliding scale. Bell sounds, for example, have a degree
of inharmonicity caused by some of the overtones not
being multiples of the fundamental frequency. Drums, on
the other hand, have both a pitched element but also a
collection of random harmonics known as noise. Noise, of
course, has no pitch, but is still musically useful as a
means of defining rhythm.

Here are the first eight harmonics in the harmonics series in notation form. Notice how the distance
between each harmonic decreases the further you move up the harmonic series.

All things equal

Having established the rudimentary principles of
harmonics, lets look at how harmonics directly impact on
the process of recording. Arguably the most important
tool for harmonic modification is the humble equalizer
a signal processor that enables us to modify the
respective balance of frequencies (and, therefore, the
harmonic balance) within a given audio signal.
When it comes to using EQ, its interesting to note how
we make a distinction between boosts applied to the
fundamental frequencies of a given instrument often
contained in the low to middle portion of the audio
spectrum and its colour, higher up the spectrum. Even

Every decision we make has

an impact on the harmonic
construction of our output
an instrument as high as a flute, for example, produces
its highest fundamental around 2kHz (a very high D), so
any boost above 2kHz or so is largely to do with the
overtones of an instrument. Likewise, when we boost
bass around 100Hz, were directly lifting its fundamental
frequency rather than modifying its overtones.
One of the most interesting quirks with harmonics,
though, is our ears ability to fill in the gaps of the lower
end of the sound spectrum and hear fundamental
frequencies even though a speaker might not be able to
replicate them. This is perfectly illustrated by laptop
speakers, which have extremely limited bass response,
often with a sharp roll-off around 200250Hz. Even with
this limited bandwidth, our ears can still perceiver the
existence of the bass by the presence of the second and
third harmonic. Extending this concept to its natural
conclusion, a large number of bass-enhancement tools,
like Waves MaxxBass, directly make use of the 2nd/3rd
bass harmonic as a means of increasing our perception
of bass without adding low-frequency energy.

Perfect harmony
More than being just the science behind sound,
harmonics are a way of rationalising the processes and
techniques behind recording why we might to choose
to boost at a given frequency, for example, or the reason
for choosing one preamp over another. Almost every
decision we make as sound engineers has an impact on
the harmonic construction of our output, so its essential
that we consider the actuality of what were doing in a
harmonic sense, as well as carrying out modifications
simply because they sound good. Although our ears
should always be the final judge, its always the harmonic
content that theyre referring to whether on a conscious
or subconscious level...

Soft saturation
Probably the most interesting application of harmonics
in recoding practice is the role and musical contribution
of distortion, also known as non-linearity. Whenever a
waveform is distorted whether its soft valve saturation,
for example, or an A/D converter slicing off the top of a
waveform the harmonic structure of a sound is

changed. Of course, adding an increasing amount of

distortion adds an increasing amount of harmonic
information, but no two devices distort in the same way.
Whats particularly interesting about distortion,
therefore, is how the varying non-linearities of different
studio devices affect the additional harmonics that are
created. Not surprisingly, the best form of distortion is
so-called Harmonic Distortion (seen on spec sheets as
THD), whereby the added harmonics are musically
related to the input. In addition to his, though, theres also
differences between valve devices that have a bias
towards even-ordered harmonics, and solid-state
distortion and tape saturation that veers towards
odd-ordered harmonics. Inharmonic distortion, also
known as Intermodulate Distortion, is much less
desirable as this adds harmonic material that isnt
musically related, which also explains which digital
distortion (which often has a propensity for inharmonic
distortion) often sounds so bad to the ears.
Although technically undesirable, its interesting to
note how harmonic distortion can positively contribute to
the enjoyment and musicality of a recording. Adding
additional harmonic information can add body to the
sound, and often explains why engineers prefer recording
through colourful preamps with valves or transformers.
On bass guitar, the added 2nd and 3rd harmonics of a
small amount of soft saturation can make a big
difference to how well the instrument carries over small
speakers, although too much colour can make the
instrument clash with other instruments in the mix.

A Fast Fourier Analysis

display on an equalizer will
enable you to indentify the
harmonic profile of your
signal, including the
fundamental frequency and
associated harmonics.

The derivation of waveforms: www.musictechmag.
Different types of distortion: www.musictechmag.
The use of harmonics in synthesis: www.
magazine July

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