The fundamentals never really change…..
Well let’s take a quick look at something so fundamental that’s it’s really quite simple to get our heads around.
There are no pure tones in nature!
Well they are very rare!
The Big Bang that created all the matter in the known universe wasn’t even a pure tone.
Nature doesn’t really use pure tones!
So at the most fundamental level of our human hearing,
our ears don’t like pure tones!
They are not designed to handle pure tones on a day to day basis and the signals sent to our brains when we hear pure tones are probably very confusing for us to process.
Our ears and our brains are designed to collect and interpret the extremely complex wave forms generated in nature.
So it looks like we have a fundamental challenge with presenting sounds to the human ear via audio technology.
The ears and brain are incredible at collecting and interpreting complex harmonic information but the audio gear we use to capture, process and reproduce it, is not so great.
Instead of using pure tones, sounds in Nature are harmonic created by distortion!
So our ears and brains must love harmonics and distortion!
The basis on which our hearing is built- distortion not pure tones!
So we could ask the question-
is our understanding of distortion around the wrong way?
From a pure technical standpoint, distortion is undesirable if the audio signals do not pass through the audio system without being stuffed up.
From a musical perspective bad distortion causes dissonance.
From a creative perspective distortion is what the human ear craves- complex waveforms!
Our job as audio creatives is to understand this at it’s base level and to leverage this knowledge to deliver an interesting experience to the human ear.
So how do you create harmonics?
Who cares! And that’s the fun bit!
How the harmonics you need are generated and how they are used is a personal creative choice as much as technical.
Let me explain…..
A certain piece of gear by it’s very design produces a sound rich in harmonics or not.
Every instrument, how it’s played, the parts playing, the mic and preamp recording it or the mixer combining it and the speakers you are listening on in the room you are listening, everything will imprint it’s harmonic/ distorted signature.
How every audio signal interacts and modulates with one another will cause distortion and creates different harmonic output.
The question is wether you like it or not.
Mixes might be too clean because they’ve been balanced, equalised or processed reducing the harmonic life and unknowingly producing too many dissonant harmonics.
A mix may simply need some harmonic rebalancing to get some life and excitement back into it.
It’s quite difficult to get dead guitar strings or drum skins to rock without some kind of harmonic embellishment, the temptation is simply to add top end- watchout!
It’s quite difficult to get intelligibility of voice if your track is full of bright crunchy guitars and cymbals when the vocal has been recorded with a mic that doesn’t capture harmonic accurately, even if it’s an expensive or good one! The temptation is to reduce the guitars brightness with EQ and brighten the vocal but again, watch out!
With the rise of DI based recording, sample based production and demise of room/mic recording, the roll of interesting harmonics creation has become an important part of audio production more than ever before.
With the renewed interest in vynl, expensive old or boutique gear and the interest in software emulation of vintage gear, it shows that there is an ever increasing need for understanding the roll of harmonics in our audio skill set especially in this digital age.