Timbre, pronounced tamber, is the tonal quality of a note/sound. A piano and a saxophone produce sounds with very different timbres and characteristics due to the different builds that pianos and saxophones have.

These two instruments can both play the same note at the same volume and pitch… but the notes will sound entirely different!

We are able to best compare different timbres when we look at families of instruments.

Saxophones (brass) and pianos (keys) and violins (strings) all have different timbres to one another, and they also have different timbres when compared to the human voice.

Even inside every family, different instruments like guitars and violins have different timbres. This is because guitars and violins both have a unique build structure. So, when you pluck a guitar string it will sound different to the violin string.

All sounds have timbre. Timbre is the sonic make-up of a sound, and this sonic makeup is created by the source of the sound.

How Do Overtones Affect Timbre?

When you play a note on an instrument, there will always be a dominant frequency. This is called the fundamental.

As well as the fundamental, the note also produces overtones! Overtones are additional frequencies above the fundamental.

When you play F5 (700Hz), the overtones would be F6 (1400Hz), C7 (2100Hz), and so on.

Lower pitched instruments like the double bass produce more overtones than higher-pitched ones like a violin, and these contribute towards the timbre of the sound.

Some instruments actually have more emphasis on overtones rather than the fundamentals than others too! The clarinet, the most notable example, amplifies its additional harmonics and this creates its rich musical sound!

So, when you design your next sound or bass, or even kick drum on an analog or digital medium;, you’ll understand the timbre of what you have created. Load a spectrograph up so that you can visualize what overtones your sound is creating. Don’t forget that you can create further overtones via distortion!

How Do Sonic Envelopes (ADSR) Affect Timbre?

Now let’s move on to ADSR envelopes.

Envelopes, as you’ll know from our synthesis series, alter the shape of a sound and therefore the listeners’ perception of it.

If you’re unfamiliar:

Attack is the beginning of the envelope. It represents the time taken for the amplitude to reach its highest level, so you could say it’s a build-up of the sound.

Decay is the reduction of the amplitude of the sound. Once in decay, the signal level drops – until it makes it to the sustain level.

Sustain is the phase where the sound holds a constant amplitude before it begins to fade out at the release phase.

Release is the final phase where the amplitude reduces over time until the signal finishes.

As we said above, different sound sources have different builds and therefore produce different sound characteristics.

As well as this, different instruments, vocalists, and synthesizers produce different envelopes too! This also contributes to the final timbre of the produced sound.

This helps us account for the difference in capabilities between two singers who are singing the same song!

Two brands selling the same instrument can create distinct sounds for their own instrument based on ADSR envelopes, and one instrument can even produce different ADSR envelopes too! If you plucked a violin and then played it with a bow, you would get two very different sounds!

With all of this said, we should also say that if you’re not so caught up with sound design or just have a thirst for new samples, Mixxed has thousands for you to download and use in your music, as well as load up into a spectrograph!

Describe That Timbre

To finish off this article, we thought you’d find a list of some words commonly used to describe timbre useful.

  1. Rich/Thick – describes a sound with a lot of overtones.
  2. Vibrato – description of frequency oscillation.
  3. Tremolo – desribes changes to a soundwaves amplitude.
  4. Breathy – describes sounds with airflow that is not tuned to a note.
  5. Noisy – description of overwhelming overtones compared to the fundamental frequency.
  6. Warm – describes harmonically rich sounds.
  7. Piercing – describes loud & shrill sounds with overwhelming fundamentals like a sine wave at 10kHz.