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The Art & Science of Sound -

Timbre: A Brief Tutorial

Timbre (TAM-bra) is one of those audio words that gets thrown around without a lot of understanding on exactly what it is and why it's so important. Simply put, timbre is what makes something sound like what it is. Here's a quick tutorial on why it matters. Timber is what trees become when they are cut down, timbre is what they sound like when someone makes a piano or guitar from them.

The Subjective Attributes of Sound

Pitch – Mostly dependent on frequency but also has some dependence on Sound Pressure Level (SPL) and envelope.

Intensity – the volume of a sound and with a lesser dependence duration.

Duration – how long a sound lasts.

Timbre – is basically a combination of all three and serves to distinguish sound sources from one another.

What It Is

Unlike pitch, intensity and duration, it is not possible to develop a subjective scale for pitch. For over a century, experimental means of measuring pitch have been tried but there is no simple way to measure timbre.

Components of timbre: Dull to Bright, Cold to Warm, Pure to Rich, Dull to Sharp, Compact to Scattered, Full to Empty, Colorful to Colorless

As you can see from just these simple timbre components, there is nothing else in our senses that compares to the complexity of a sound. Color comes close. This is why a violin sounds distinctly different from a viola and a mandolin sounds completely different than a banjo.

When listening to music our brains contrast and compare these components while processing what we are listening to: pitch, volume and timbre.

Now listen to examples of different instruments playing the same note (pitch) with a graphic representation of the created sound-waves. By seeing it presented graphically it becomes clear what timbre is, and how important it is.

You’ll definitely want a subwoofer if you use your system for movies, but even for music a subwoofer can be very helpful, especially for a system with smaller speakers. A good quality subwoofer that produces more than just loud, one-note bass can really enrich the sound of your music. For movies, because of the low frequency energy needed for movie sound effects, a quality subwoofer is a necessity.

Here's the Point

The point is, we hear a lot of noise about timbre matching when it comes to speakers, and the simple fact of the matter is, timbre matching is extremely important.

As important as timbre is in distinguishing a violin playing an 'A' from a banjo playing the same 'A', your speakers need to be able to accurately and articulately make that same distinction when reproducing those notes. Equally important: if your speakers are not timbre matched, the violin in say, your left channel, will sound markedly (and annoyingly) different from the same exact violin playing in your right channel.

Certainly, you want to timbre match your front three speakers (Left, Center, Right) as closely as you can, and if you listen to a lot of music mixed to 5.1 (or higher), timbre matching the rear speakers is equally important.

That Means

Your speakers should be the same brand and model (or series) speaker whenever possible. You will absolutely notice the difference when you timbre match every speaker in the system. This is where our engineering sets us apart from the rest of the field: From series to series, KEF speakers are timbre matched, ensuring amazing articulation from channel to channel. So, as you put together your dream home theater or music listening system, when deciding on your speakers, remember, timbre and accuracy are every bit as important as power handling and SPL, maybe even more so.

Check out the examples of timbre in the following video. Here are some things to listen for:

In the opening we hear drums, bass, acoustic guitar and what sounds like a muted trumpet.

0:22 – the background vocals are from the same singer, so the timbre of the voices is exactly the same

0:37 – an electric guitar adds intensity to the entrance to the bridge, this is caused by the difference in timbre between the acoustic guitar and the electric guitar we hear here for the first time

0:44 – there are synthesized flutes (left channel) that soften the musical passage through use of their timbre

1:14 – the timbre of the acoustic piano in the right channel gives a sense of the Gypsy jazz feel of the song, particularly from the natural harmonics of the instrument

1:38 – the acoustic guitar fills (left channel) have the same timbre as the rhythm guitar which adds to the fullness of the mix

2:08 – She uses a well-developed scat hum that mimics a muted trumpet. Upon first listen the sound is indistinguishable, but once your eyes have helped your ears process the sound you can easily tell the timbre difference between what she can do with her voice and what a muted, brass trumpet would sound like. This is timbre in its essence.

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