A Brief History of Timbre

The medieval cornett (not to be confused with the modern trumpet variant) was a pretty popular instrument if you go back 500 years or so. Every Renaissance ensemble had one. It was eighteen inches of wood wrapped in leather, had a mouthpiece similar to that of a brass instrument, and finger holes along its length like a recorder. Even modern enthusiasts will admit that the sound, at best, takes some getting used to.

It’s pretty easy to look back on an instrument like the cornett, which emitted a noise you would be mortified to hear at a dinner party, and assume that the long-term survival of an instrument depends on whether it sounds “good” or “bad”. But then consider that the cornett enjoyed its popularity for 150 years or so (and by way of a yardstick, the saxophone was only patented in 1846) and shared the stage with the violin, and you might begin to suspect that there are other forces at work.

The only theory I can come up with that makes any sense to me is that in the evolutionary struggle of instrument vs. instrument, the most likely victor is the one with the most adaptable harmonic spectrum. If you were putting an ensemble together at some time before the advent of equalization, you ideally wanted instruments that came “pre-equalized” — by their design and construction — even if you didn’t know what equalization was.

I’m not a professional engineer, but when I find myself behind a mixing console I generally fall back on the advice that I read in a music magazine about 20 years ago. I move across the board track by track, isolating the frequency range that defines the track’s sonic character, and cutting the remaining frequencies. This technique doesn’t guarantee a perfect mix by any means, but it does go a long way toward increasing clarity and eliminating extraneous and non-musical harmonic content. Simply put, it minimizes the impact that one track’s sonic footprint will have on other tracks in the same general frequency range.

Now if I didn’t have the benefit of the multi-band and parametric EQs that you’ll find on most consoles and digital audio packages, I’d want to put a band together using instruments whose designers and builders had already done that engineering work for me. And if all of my contemporary concertmasters and arrangers are behaving in the same fashion, you have instruments falling in and out of favour, being modified to fit a common purpose or ceasing to be manufactured altogether, and you have the makings of what you could call Musical Darwinism.

This theory not only explains the popularity of an instrument so squeaky and notoriously unplayable as a violin, but also offers insight into something as modern as a jazz quartet. Once you take the drums out of the picture, you begin to see a frequency spectrum that is as plainly stratified as a diagram from a geology textbook: a string bass which is all low end and no high, a guitar which is a lump in the upper mids (or a piano whose keys further than an octave south of middle C remain largely untouched), topped off with something comparatively thin and buzzy like a trumpet or saxophone.

The waxing and waning of interest in various models of synths and drum machines — out of the hundreds developed and manufactured over the past 35 years — is the result of a combination of factors, nostalgia and faddism among them. But the appeal of a single sawtooth wave, filter wide open, sailing over the harmonies like an electronic bee, goes well beyond novelty. The continuing popularity of the sine/triangle bass line or the long-decay TR-808 kick drum in a broad range of electronic styles suggest that these limited spectrum sounds serve a fundamental purpose in a mix.

First-generation samplers and sample-players are a tough sell in the used market these days, but can we expect their value to increase in ten years, like the mass-produced analogue units from ten years earlier? It doesn’t seem likely. The source material may have been more complex in many respects, but without the broad harmonic range of a raw analogue waveform, the classic subtractive synthesis engine — or a primitive digital simulation thereof — wasn’t helping us sculpt a mix the way it had before.

But today, we have full bandwidth available to us from every piece of hardware and software on every channel. We finally have what a composer friend of mine was fond of demanding in session: “Maximum bass at all frequencies”. We are sampling and re-sampling, and it seems possible that tomorrow morning I’m going to read a press release from a software developer who has finally designed the VSTi that re-creates every method of synthesis ever devised by man simultaneously.

Now that instruments are being developed at such a fantastic pace, and their invention is based on opportunity as much as necessity, it seems unlikely that we will be able to use this theory of musical evolution as a crystal ball to tell us what instruments to invest in next. But it does raise some interesting questions regarding how we listen to music, and whether new production techniques are going to change, rather than be guided by, how we listen.

It seems to be in our nature to crave a complete harmonic spectrum. We sit in the control room and beg for a little more sparkle, a little more body, a little more bottom end. When we hear a bow dragged across a string, we lean in closer to hear the scrape of the horsehair and resin that provide that essential definition and articulation. I still remember the first time I got excited about a sampled classical guitar patch, and it was when a sound designer got the bright idea of including a sample of the squeak of fingers sliding from one fret to another. And now that vinyl has eveolved into an instrument from merely a playback medium, the pops and scratches, the subtle grinding noise of a stylus scraping its way through a deterriorating groove, all become essential artifacts rather than the annoying deficiencies they once were.

It amazes me that all these sonic options are available to the same physical organs that the cornett player of 500 years ago used to guide him from one end of a tune to the other. And I’m sure I’m not alone in looking around my studio and thinking that I’ve been waiting all of my life for this technology to become a reality. But on those days when I’ve been furiously sampling, processing, and programming, only to end up with a baffling mess, I think about my cornett-playing friend. No one wants to be a slave to tradition. But sometimes I have to ask myself, “How will this track have to evolve, if it’s going to survive?”