How to Be Happy With The Sound of Your Instrument?

One of the most common problems musicians have these days is the sound of their own instrument. I’m going to go through some of my points and views about instrument sounds and possibly share some light on the subject.

One thing that being unhappy with the sound of your instrument is going to cause is having an urge to buy better instruments and accessories such as amplifiers, effects and other stuff that cost you money. All things do influence your sound and are important, but what is the most important?

Guitar recording

“One thing that being unhappy with the sound of your instrument is going to cause is having an urge to buy better instruments and accessories such as amplifiers.”

As with any other audio devices that are chained together, playing an instrument is also a signal chain.

In an instrument signal chain, the most important part is YOU!

It doesn’t really matter if you spend a fortune on an instrument if you don’t know how to play it and even if you know how to play you’re still the one making the sound come out of the instrument.

Once you have practiced enough you’ll probably notice, that you don’t have as much trouble getting your sound right with an instrument. You’ll probably also notice that your instrument or amplifier is not the most important part of your sound.

The second most important part is the instrument itself!

No matter what instrument you play, the next most important thing is to have a quality instrument. This has nothing to do with the country your instrument was made in, nor what brand it is.

The most important thing about an instrument is that it is in tune and it is set up right and to your own preference. If you don’t know how to set up on instrument, go take it to a professional instrument luthier for a setup. You’ll thank yourself for doing it when you touch the instrument the first time it is set up by a professional.

Also, remember to take care of your instrument, change strings, clean it up and that sort of thing!

The third most important thing is to learn and know your instrument!

If I play like this, what does it do to the sound? If I change the way I play, how does it affect the sound?

I’m going to make some generalizations now which can be of help (these don’t apply to all instruments, but most of them):

How to equalize your sound without an equalizer?

  1. Playing loudly increases the output and the amount of high treble frequencies of your instrument and also increase peak loudness (attack).
    (This can also increase the pitch of your instrument momentarily)
  2. Playing softly will make your instruments output quieter, decrease treble and increase bass and low middle frequencies. This will make the sound softer.
    (Playing softer will make your instrument play at a lower pitch)
  3. Different woods, constructions, pickups, strings, picks and other accessories have different kind of frequency responses and have an effect to your sound.

How to compress your sound without a compressor?

  1. Playing your instrument with frequently changing dynamics will make your playing sound nervous and stressed and make some of the notes harder to hear or possibly even make some notes impossible to hear.
  2. Playing steadily will make your playing sound relaxed and professional and it will also sound more compressed and every note can be heard.
  3. Distortion can cause peak compression, which acts like a limiter and lowers the dynamic range of your sound much like a compressor.

How to gate your sound without a noise gate?

  1. Know how long does it take for your instrument to start playing after you start playing and how long does it take for it to stop sustaining.
  2. Learn to mute your instrument correctly and don’t mute your instrument unintentionally.
  3. Play the breaks. The instrument doesn’t stop playing for you.

Instruments have different playing styles

The different playing styles of a bowed instrument (these are the most commonly used, there are also extended playing techniques):

  1. Détaché – Separated notes
  2. Martelé – Hammered stroke
  3. Collé – A stroke that begins from a weighted bow resting motionless on the string
  4. Spiccato – A short bouncing note played with a stroke
  5. Legato – A form of playing where there is no silence between played notes
  6. Sautillé – A bowstroke played rapidly in the middle of the bow
  7. Jeté – Also known as “ricochet” bowing
  8. Louré – This bow stroke, used in slow tempo, separates slurred notes slightly to articulate them, without stopping the bow
  9. Arpeggio – A bouncing stroke, played on broken chords, so that each note of the arpeggio is played on a different string
  10. Tremolo – Chiefly used for orchestral playing, this consists of moving the bow back and forth in very short strokes extremely rapidly, not in measured rhythm
  11. Col legno – Occasionally the strings are struck with the stick of the bow. This gives a muted percussive sound
  12. Shuffle – A repetitive pattern of slurs and accents, much used in some fiddling styles.
  13. Chopping – A more modern percussive technique, in which the hair near the frog of the bow is struck against the strings with a quick scratching sound of indeterminate pitch.
  14. Pizzicato – Technique where the strings are plucked with fingers.

Also, every instrument with strings can perform vibrato, harmonics, open-string drones and much more.

Do not think that picking up and instrument and starting to get sounds out of it will make you a musician! Even instruments that are used for rock ‘n roll do have different styles, playing techniques and articulations. In order to get different sound out of your instrument, you need to know how to play them.

Music theory

One of the most misunderstood things among rock musicians is the music theory. I know I have often ignored some theory things, but it really helps you play better, if you can already expect some things from a tune.

Just by knowing the key in which the song is will help you a lot. Finding out the key of a song on your own is a good skill to have. Also knowing what kind of scales used in a song takes you a long way. After knowing the key and the scale you already know what notes are most likely to be used in the song and so on. After knowing all that stuff, it takes no time to know how a song is played.

Music theory is like a language. When you can fluently read, write and speak it, you don’t need to stop and think “what was that word again?”

The purpose of an amplifier

Common stringed rock instruments such as electric guitar and bass are played through an amplifier. A common misconception is that the amplifier is the source of the sound. Amplifiers get often replaced if they do not produce a wanted type of sound. The reason different amplifiers sound different is because of the distortion characteristics and tone stack. Sometimes a power amplifier can have a distinct sound, mostly when sagging occurs. You can get a very good sound out of most amplifiers when you know what you want and know how to use them. Some amplifier have been designed a particular genre in mind, which sometimes makes them inappropriate for different styles. Personally I like many guitar amplifier designs that do not have insane amounts of gain. Such amplifiers can be very versatile.

The most significant part of an electric instrument, frequency response-wise, is the speaker cabinet. Speaker cabinets often sound very different from each other and you certainly can’t get a big sound out of a single 12 inch or smaller speaker inserted to a small box. Most commonly used size in the rock and metal is 4×12″.

  1. The purpose of an amplifier is to amplify your instrument
  2. It consists of a preamplifier and a power amplifier.
  3. Preamplifier’s purpose is to convert instrument level signal to a line level signal.
  4. Power amplifier’s purpose is to convert line level signal to a speaker level signal.
  5. Amplifying signal causes distortion that can be used as an effect.

The purpose of effects

The purpose of effects is to give different kind of flavours to your sound. You don’t get a sound by using effects, you can only effect a sound you already have.

  1. Overdrive is a type of effect which can be used to increase output and distort signal.
  2. Distortion is a non-linearity that happens when the threshold of a device is being exceeded. Sometimes this is done on purpose, sometimes it is not.
  3. Reverb is a continuous series of reflections being generated from a sound and it can mimic the sound of a space such as room, hall or other place with reflecting surfaces.
  4. Delay is mostly used to mix delayed signal to your original signal to give a sense of space, more sustain and to create artificial harmonies from the same instrument.
  5. Phaser is a device that affects the phase of your instrument signal and changing it over time and mixing it with the original signal to create a constantly changing frequency response. Flanger is a very similar type of effect.
  6. Chorus is also a delay based effect. Chorus is made with a modulated and delayed signal being mixed with the original to create an artificial doubling effect.

Sound of a drum kit

Drums are probably the most important part of any music that involves drums. The sound of drum kit determines the aggressiveness or softness of the music it plays a part in. The same principles work for a drum kit. If you hit hard, you get louder and snappier sound and so on. If you play steadily, all the hits will be heard. If your playing is very dynamic, some hits might not be heard at all.

Drums need to be tuned right. Awfully tuned drums sound horrible.

Most common problem while mixing drums is that the cymbals are being hit too hard. This mostly happens when drums are played loud and ear protection must be used. If the ear protection dampens high frequencies too much, the drummer needs to compensate with power in order to hear the cymbals better. Also, these days many drummers use cheap cymbals because they hit hard and don’t want to break expensive cymbals all the time, so that is why we nowadays have very bad sounding cymbals being hit too hard on many recordings. The downside is that the cymbals bleed to every microphone and need to be equalized. This compromises the sound of the whole drum kit.

My suggestions to all drummers:

  1. Get good ear protection, as good as you can afford
  2. Buy good, soft sounding cymbals for recording purposes
  3. Hit the cymbals more softly than the other drums
  4. Learn to tune your drums or buy a drum tuner
  5. Experiment with different sticks, skins and pedals

Conclusions/Speculations:

  1. Play as much as you can
  2. Learn your instrument inside out
  3. Learn technique and theory
  4. Know what you want
  5. Experiment and examine
  6. Pay attention to your playing
  7. Listen to yourself playing
  8. Have discipline and self-control

I hope this was a helpful post! If you like it, please share it!

All the best on your path to musicianship,
Juha-Matti Koppelomäki

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One thought on “How to Be Happy With The Sound of Your Instrument?

  1. Pingback: Types of Amplifiers | Electronic Projects

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