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Common Music Making Terms

The world of music making is full of esoteric words, phrases, acronyms and abbreviations, some of the more frequently used ones are explained here.

ADSR envelope – Acronym. For ‘Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release’, the four parts of a waveform. Essential to understand if you want to not only sample or play sounds as they are, but also manipulate and tailor sounds from drum hits through to synthesizers: 
  • Attack time, the time of the initial increase from zero to peak, starting from the key being pressed.
  • Decay time, the time taken for the following decrease from attack to the sustain level.
  • Sustain level, the level of the main sequence of the sound’s duration, this is until the key is released.
  • Release time, the time taken to go from sustain level back to zero once the key is released.
Analogue – Non digital / pre digital processes and equipment. An obvious example of analogue technology is tape.

ASIO – Abv. For Audio Stream Input – Output, a very popular, very useful audio driver often used to reduce latency.

Automation – The process of adding specific instructions, such as a volume increase or a fade out, to be ‘remembered’ and carried out automatically during playback of a track in your DAW.

Bit depth – The level of detail in an audio file. Usually 16 bit or 24.  CDs incorporate 16 bit technology.

Buffer setting – Buffers are bits of computer system RAM which your operating system uses to temporarily store pieces of audio in.  A balance must be reached in you buffer settings so that the buffer is not too small – resulting in clicks or pops – or too large, which results in increased latency.

Channel Path through which audio signal flows

Chorus – A chorus effect is the making of one voice or instrument sound like many. In the analogue days, this was done by engineers who would replay the same voice or instrument recorded on a tape over and over again, at slightly different speeds, making a new recording as they went.  Digital plug-ins emulate this effect, making it one of the most used techniques in production.

Clipping – One of the curses of digital music production.  When a signal is recorded or compressed at too high a volume, distortion occurs.  Not the type of distortion that adds to a track, but the type of distortion that has the listener rushing to turn the poorly produced track off.

Compression – There are two types of compression, one, is the ‘reduce file size’ sort of compression, where data is made less detailed in the name of smaller files.  The second is the process of bringing the loudest and quietest parts of a track closer together. This is done for numerous reasons, some of which are explained further in my article ‘What is Parrallel Compression?’ here.  This form of compression can also add a ‘pumping’ feel to the signal.  

DAW – Acronym. Digital Audio Workshop, this is the ‘Digital Music Studio’ you work in, popular DAW’s include Reason, Logic, Nuendo, Ableton and REAPER. Some very expensive keyboards and production centres have DAW’s built in to them; however most musicians – and every musician who is just starting out, are likely to only use a DAW in their PC and / or Mac.

Decibel – A universally recognised measurement of volume.

Driver – Software that enables your computer and a piece of hardware (eg, an external soundcard) work together.

Dry – Commonly used term for a signal which has not had an FX added

EQ – Acronym, Equalisation: the process of attenuating (the turning up or down) of certain frequencies.

Fader – The device through which qualities such as volume can be turned up or down

FireWire – A form of connecting hardware to a PC. It is not as widespread as it once was, due to the advent of USB /USB 2/3, but it is still in use.

Folder – A folder is used to store a selection of tracks in your DAW.  A very useful tool.  For instance, you could put your kick, snare, hi hat and cymbal tracks all in a ‘drum’ folder, and manipulate them (turn them up and down, mute them, etc) simultaneously.

Frequency – Sound is created by the displacement of air. These displacements are called waves, inside these waves are very fast vibrations.  The faster the very fast vibrations, the higher the frequency, the slower the very fast vibrations, the lower the frequency.

FX – Abv. Effects: such as reverb. 

Gain Increase

High pass filter – A filter which only lets through frequencies of a set amount and above. A very useful application.

Hz – Abv. Hertz Measurement of frequency, named after the scientist who discovered them. Thousands of Hz are written as Khz for brevity.   

Impedance – Resistance to alternating current in a circuit. Impedance is the cause of many a microphone, soundcard, etc, to not work or completely break, with the new beat maker or musician not even knowing why.  If you intend to buy or introduce a new piece of electrical equipment to your set up, first buy the excellent book ‘Home Recording for Beginners’ by Geoffrey Francis and read his section on impedance, then buy the equipment if it is still suitable.       

Latency – The delay between triggering a sound (through, say, hitting a key on your MIDI keyboard) and the sound being heard.  A latency of below 5 milliseconds is usually desirable. 

Low pass filter – A filter which only lets through frequencies of a set amount and below.  The low pass filter has been used to great effect on many a house or hip hop record (that rumbling, bass effect which sounds as though you / the sound is travelling underground) but it is also used, to a less exaggerated effect elsewhere.

Markers – An extremely useful tool, markers ‘flag up’ the beginning of parts of your song that you deem important.  One example of a marker would be adding markers to a phrase or a part of a track that you intend to sample, so that upon return to the track you can locate the desired section visually, rather than playing the whole song again to relocate what you wanted to sample in the first place.

Master – The main mix ‘area’.  Turning down the volume on the master, for instance, will turn down all tracks.

Metronome – An absolute must for any new beat maker to use.  Regardless of which DAW you use, the metronome is the icon which invariably looks like a triangle with a diagonal line coming out of its centre - the influence for this website’s logo. The metronome provides an on beat ticking noise during recording and playback in your DAW.  Using the metronome is essential to making sure your tracks are on beat.

Under ‘quantize’ I explain why producers may not want every sound in a track to sit perfectly on beat, however, forget that for now. Recording to a metronome provides an anchor to your track, recording without it will only cause heartache later.   

MIDI – Acronym. Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Rather than playing actual sounds into a computer, MIDI plays, for want of a better word, messages, such as what note was played, for how long, the velocity, etc.  One advantage to playing MIDI over an actual instrument is the flexibility this gives the beat maker post performance.  An example, if you record yourself playing an actual piano on your song, then you wish you had played that piece on a saxophone, you are stuck. However, by playing a piano VST into your DAW via MIDI keyboard, you would simply switch from your favoured piano VST to the saxophone VST of your choice. 

MP3 – A much debated, often hated, music format. Whether you adore or abhor it, if you do not make your music sound good in MP3, you risk alienating a lot of potential listeners who stick with it.   

Noise gate – Like a lot of FX’s, a noise gate is a very useful application in lots of different ways, you set a minimum noise level and the gate shuts off any sound which falls below that threshold level.

Pan Allows you to place mono tracks / signals in the stereo field  

Piano roll editor – Used in conjunction with a MIDI controller or keyboard.

Plugins – Software programmes which sit inside your DAW.  Plug ins can be anything from, say, an EQ application, through to VSTi’s.

Quantization – The process of digitally pulling beats, notes, or other sounds ‘on beat’ using, for instance, a piano roll editor. Good beat makers know when and when not to use quantization. In many styles of music, if everything is too on beat – ‘quantized’ - there is no ‘swing’ and the track quickly sounds too computerised and soulless.  However, if a musician or beat maker is recording tracks and does not have a good enough sense of timing, quantize can rescue what could quickly become an out of time mess of a track.  

Render – The process of turning one or more tracks in your project into a sound file format which is playable both in and out of your DAW.  There are numerous ways that the render function is useful.  One use is to render a track to listen to it in another player. For example, rendering a track from a project file to an MP3 means that you can compare it to professional finished tracks in your MP3 player. 

DAWs will play and manipulate pre-recorded pieces of music with far less CPU usage than they allow play back or manipulation of CPU hungry VST and effects, so render is often used as a way of sparing CPU.  If a beat maker is happy with, say, the way he has played that piano part, but the piano vst is causing his DAW to freeze or threaten to fall over, he will render the piano section and replay it as, for example, a WAV or a WAV lossless file in place of the VST. The downside of rendering a track though, is that you then cannot go back in and edit the track in the way that you could with MIDI.  I often have two versions of a project on the go at once, one with all VST’s and MIDI, the other with the VST’s and MIDI tracks being replaced with rendered WAV lossless tracks as I go along. This has its own disadvantages, but it usually works for me. 

Reverb – Abv. Reverberation, the reflection of sound, one of the most vital FX when it comes to adding realism to digitally created sounds and music.

Samples - Pre recorded pieces of music or sounds.  

Sample libraries - Whether DVD's or download, sample libraries are collections of samples.  There is a vast number of free sample libraries for you to download legally and play through a soft sampler.  High - end sample libraries run into thousands of pounds and are often used by soundtrack composers in the film, TV and video game industries.   

Soft Samplers - 'Software samplers'.  These are VSTi's which sit in your DAW.  Into them you load samples to replay and manipulate.  

Soft Synths - 'Software synths'.  These are VSTi's, rather than hardware synths.

Tap tempo – A tap tempo button or application is a higly useful way of changing your projects bpm by ear.  Most, if not all, DAWs will have a default BPM setting of 120.  To change this setting, you would simply click on the tap tempo button or icon, using your PC’s mouse. 

Tracks – There are two types of tracks, on an album, a track would be a song, eg, ‘Track number five is my favourite on that new album by so – and – so’.  However, the term, when used in relation to music production in a DAW, usually refers to the horizontal bars which sit above the transport bar, which hold inside them things such as VST’s and effects. 

Transport – The bar on were instructions such as play, stop, record and pause sit on a DAW

Transients – The non harmonic attack phase of a musical sound. Over the past few years much electronic music, from pop, to dance and hip hop, has become increasingly fixated with manipulating this once relatively ignored sound characteristic.

Velocity – The unit of measure for how hard a MIDI keyboard key or controller pad is hit.  Usually, this will correspond with how loud the note plays and, in many VSTi’s, the sound/quality of the note, like on a real life instrument.  Many new beat makers erroneously do not change the velocity of sounds in their piano roll editor, making for an unrealistic performance.  

VST – Probably the most popular plug in format.  VST’s were created by Steinberg, the geniuses also behind the hugely popular Cubase DAW.  VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology and the term normally refers to FX used to modify a sound in some way. 

VSTi’s Virtual instruments which run using Virtual Studio Technology.  People often also refer to virtual instruments as being ‘VSTs’, I do this a lot myself, even though I try not to. 

Wave/WAV – An audio file format which holds more data than the compressed MP3 format, making it a more accurate representation of the original sound.

Waveform The visual representation of a sound wave.

Wet – An audio signal which has been processed in some way, eg, effects have been added.


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