Fat, thin, bright, dull, nasal, hollow, boxy - What do all these words mean? TONAL BALANCE is vitally important in audio and you need to learn how to speak its language. This video demonstrates with audio examples what the terms mean and what they sound like.
does your audio have a good total balance or does it need fixing and if it does need fixing how would you talk about it learn audio online with audio masterclass audiomasterclass.com tonal balance is a popular term for frequency balance meaning the relative levels of the various frequencies in a piece of audio which may be a single instrument a complete music mix speech or sound effects at audio masterclass we prefer frequency balance because it specifically refers to frequency and level frequency is measured in hertz and level can be measured in decibels so it's an objective parameter as well as subjective tonal balance is subjective and there are no formal units meaning that it can't be measured objectively having said that tonal balance is a commonly used term and i'll use it here to mean frequency balance it's useful to be able to describe tonal balance in words so that producers engineers and musicians can communicate efficiently and they are informal and perhaps a little bit vague rather than formal and precise even so they are useful aids for communication so i could say the sound is rather boxy rather than the lower mid-range around 400 hertz needs to come down by six decibels the latter may be more precise but it isn't the way people normally talk even seasoned audio professionals here's a quick list of words commonly used to describe tonal balance in no particular order fat thin bright aggressive smooth dark dull or muffled air or airy harsh nasal or honky muddy presence or bite scoot or smile curve hollow or boxy coming up are audio demonstrations to show you what these words are normally understood to mean but before i get onto the demonstrations a newcomer to audio would need at least a very basic introduction to equalization to aid their further understanding so for viewers who need it this short clip will help you get a feeling for eq quickly if you are familiar with eq already then you can skip it i'll put a timestamp just here
there are a few important caveats to the demonstrations coming up one piece of music is used for all of the examples different music would react differently to eq according to the instruments used and their respective frequency balances tonal balance applies to speech and sound effects also the music used already has a fairly even tonal balance meaning that the various bands of frequencies are well balanced and need no improvement eq is used to demonstrate the problems of tonal balance so the examples are used to create tonal balance issues rather than resolve them if a piece of audio had a tonal balance problem similar to any of the examples an inverse eq curve would be required to resolve it the settings are approximate in terms of frequency and the amount of cut or boost this is due to the overall subjectivity involved some of the examples are exaggerated for clarity okay here we go
the term fat can be used for matters other than frequency balance for example a bass guitar with flat round strings can sound fatter than a similar bass guitar with round round strings but when referring to frequency balance it's often used to mean a strong low frequency region thick is sometimes used but not as often but it would normally mean the same as fat the frequency range would generally be around 100 hertz and lower
clearly the opposite of fat is thin thin generally means a weak low frequency region the frequency range involved would be around 200 hertz and
bright refers to a moderate high frequency boost generally above around two to three
aggressive is similar to bright but there's a greater degree of boost again above around two to three kilohertz it isn't always bad to have an aggressive sound but it does depend on the kind of sound source you're working with an aggressive guitar solo in a rock track could work perfectly well
smooth generally means a slow roll off in high frequency energy above around 1 to 2 kilohertz not so much that the overall sound is perceived as lacking in high frequencies but not as bright as properly tonally balanced audio would be a smooth tonal balance can often be useful when audio is used as a background as a music bet beneath narration for instance
dark is when there is a definite lack of high frequency energy but not too much in the context of how the audio is used dark is generally used as a positive term again a dark sound could work well with a tonally balanced narration or in a music mix it would be perfectly acceptable for a featured instrument or vocal to have a dark tone if it works well
dull and muffled are used when there is definitely too little high frequency content a smooth or dark tonal balance can work well if used appropriately a dull or muffled tonal balance is unless for a specific effect normally considered a fault that should be corrected
unlike most of the other words described and demonstrated here air is often used as a noun in preference to the adjective airy give it some more air said the producer to the engineer for example air is usually a boost at very high frequencies some of which will not be audible to many people the ear's high frequency response deteriorates with age it's important therefore that some of the air extends to frequencies that almost everyone can hear which would be around eight or nine kilohertz so air should be applied above that
a harsh tonal balance is one that's unpleasant to the ear and would make a listener want to turn down the volume a harsh tonal balance is almost always a bad thing in this example the frequency range around two to seven kilohertz is boosted which is a band where the ear is very sensitive in order to hear speech clearly
we call this a nasal tonal balance in comparison with the human voice when the person speaking has a cold and that nasal passages are blocked we could also compare the term honky with the sound of a klaxon
in this example the frequency range around 600 hertz to 2 kilohertz is boosted
the term muddy can be used when there's too much energy in the lower mid frequency band in this example there's a boost centered on 150 hertz extending from 20 hertz up to around 2 kilohertz
again we have nouns rather than adjectives and although present is a perfectly good adjective it isn't in common use to describe tonal balance the vocal has plenty of presence would be typical usage or the snare needs more bite to achieve this a smallish boost in the region around three kilohertz or so can be applied
the scooped or smile curve tonal balance is where the low and high frequency regions are strong and there's a reduction in energy over a wide band in the mid-range this kind of tonal balance is often applied to a mix because it's common that as the individual tracks are optimized and blended together then the mid-range frequencies will build up in level and require correction it could be said that a good mix engineer should correct for this as they go along but in practice it's always likely that the final mix will require a tonal balance adjustment and the use of the smile curve is fairly common
where the scooped or small curve tonal balance is generally a fairly subtle effect the hollow tonal balance can be easily audible and require correction the hollow tonal balance is most noticeable where there's a lack of energy in a fairly narrow band one kilohertz
this is the tonal balance you hear if you place a cardboard box over your head and listen to the sounds around you it occurs because of the resonance of the enclosed volume inside the box it can also be noticeable in a vocal booth with inadequate acoustic treatment in this example the boxy resonance is centered on 400 hertz and extends from around 200 up to 800 hertz
in summary although these informal terms are not precise and are subject to individual interpretation they are in common use professionally and should be understood both for following the requirements of a client or producer or for giving instructions to an engineer or collaborator i'm david miller course director of audio masterclass thank you for listening
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