Audio Primer – Music For All Summer Symposium Clinic

The following are the “Cliffs Notes” from my clinic focused on Audio at the 2015 Music For All Summer Symposium:

Audio Primer:

In order to have sound to exist -what 3 things are needed?

1. Generation (Vibration)
2. Propagation (Medium)
3. Reception (Hearing/Philosophical) – If a tree falls in the forest and nothing/nobody is there to hear it did it make a sound?

Characteristics of sound:

The “Big Two”:
1. Pitch (Frequency)
2. Volume (Amplitude)

The Musician’s Two:
3. Articulation
4. Timbre

The Forgotten One:
5. Length

*Typical representation of sound as a Sine Wave (Image: Wikimedia):


*Amplitude shows us loudness and horizontal length shows frequency.


Audio engineers use the term “frequency”, musicians use its synonym, “pitch”. Today’s pianos, guitars and various string instruments tune using the “Equal Temperament” adjustment system. Wind instruments, such as the trumpet, are naturally tuned to a pure system of intonation known as the temperament, “Just Intonation”. These two temperaments cause many of the intonation issues for wind players and are a root cause for “natural tuning” tendencies and adjustments that are made for wind players when playing with equally tempered instruments. Equal tempered instruments are often referred to as being tuned “equally well” for playing in each octave, but could also be considered tuned “equally bad” -a topic for another time.

Common Pitch Frequencies (Equal Temperament) of notes in Hertz (Hz):

Music Note:

C (middle) 261.63
C# 277.18
D 293.66
D# 311.13
E 329.63
F 349.23
F# 369.99
G 392
G# 415.3
A 440
A# 466.16
B 493.88


Volume changes or “sound intensity changes” are noted in “Bels” or 10ths of Bels (decibels).

A typical dB chart for Sound Pressure Levels (SPL) would be:

120 dB     Too Loud for anybody
110 dB     The Threshold of Pain/Thunder at 300′
100 dB     Riveting Machine at 5′
90 dB     Big Truck at 20′
80 dB     Lawn Mower at 10′
70 dB     Average loud room
60 dB     Normal Conversation at 5′
50 dB     Average Office (non-noisy)
40 dB    Quiet Room or Office
30 dB    Very Quiet Room
20 dB     Quiet Recording Studio
0 dB     Threshold of Sound

Music related terms and dB:

fff  100-105 dB at Conductor’s Spot
ff  90-95 dB at Conductor’s Spot
f  80-90 dB at Conductor’s Spot
mf 75-80 dB at Conductor’s Spot
mp -60-70 dB at Conductor’s Spot
p 55-60 dB at conductor’s Spot
pp 50-55 dB at conductor’s Spot
ppp 45-50 dB at conductor’s Spot

Loudness Notes:

1. a dB level without a distance is usually meaningless (inverse square law)
2. Inverse Square Law: Double the distance -drop the SPL by 6 dB (10x the distance approximately 20 dB loss)/Halve the distance -increase the SPL by 6 dB
3. Turning “up” the volume to what people typically hear as “twice as loud” is usually an increase of 3 to 6 dB. (related to the Inverse Square Law)

Additional Resource: Decibel Hearing Conversation Chart and Image


Definition: How a sound begins and ends.

Types of articulations (musically):

*image snipped from Dolmetsch Online (full article at Dometsch here)


Timbre is simply how a “sound” appears aurally to each individual”.  A trumpet sounds “brassy”, a clarinet sounds “reedy”, and a guitar sounds “twangy”, etc. Understanding how timbres are formed is a little more complex.

The Brief Primer on Harmonic Series:

Each complex sound (beyond a simple sine sound) is made up varying harmonics, as musicians we know this series as the Overtone Series -something easily explained by thinking about the partials on any brass instrument. Each of these partials have their own sound intensity based that differ from the normally dominant fundamental pitch being played –> The combination of all of the partials (or harmonically related notes of the series) create a compiled (or complex) wave form that we hear as differing timbres.

Image: Partials and note divisions

harmonic series

*image from Wikimedia Commons

The Hearing Process:

How do we hear?
Link to Video: Hearing Primer (YouTube)

The importance of protecting our hearing as musicians:

Three types of hearing loss:
1. Conductive
2. Sensorineural
3. Mixed (both)

Online Frequency Test: Link to the Audio Website

Audiograms and the Speech Banana:

Recording Primer:

Three Parts to any Audio System: (though we may have combined them into one single unit now!)
1. Input
2. Signal Processing
3. Output

Simple System Example:
Input: Microphone
Signal Processing: Amplification
Output: Speaker

Two-track recordings -the easiest way to get a good recording using good gear! I always recommend the Zoom products for Music Educators and Ensemble Directors:
Zoom Link 1
Zoom Link 2

Garbage In – Garbage Out!

Audio Editing Software:
Take your pick…dozens of selections -everybody has their favorite -they are all not equal, but most will do a decent job for two-track editing and ensemble needs.

Resource: Lifehacker on Audio Software

Equalization Tips:

Making the connection between Octaves with EQ –> Double or Halve the Frequency to go to the next octave.

The importance of understanding frequency… Short of the original recording quality, nothing can enhance or take away from the sound of your audio like adjustments to Frequency.

Resource: Frequency Chart by Instrument Family
Resource: Presonus EQ Tips
Resource: Interactive EQ Chart

More about recording audio:

Excellent, but older, resource for Audio for Music Educators
Shure: Audio for Music Educators (PDF)

Presonus: Music Education References

Sharing Audio:
Google Drive

Joseph M. Pisano, Ph.D. is the creator of many education websites, a lecturer, clinician, trumpeter, and conductor. He is currently the Associate Chair of Music and Director of Bands in the Calderwood School of Arts at Grove City College in PA. He been named a TI:ME Teacher of the Year, received the JEN Jazz Educator Award and the PA Citation of Excellence. He is a past Vice President of the Technology Institute for Music Educators and the current Vice-President of the PA Intercollegiate Bandmasters Association. He also writes for DCI Magazine, Teaching Music Magazine, and is the Educational Editor for In-Tune Monthly Magazine; he has contributed hundreds of articles to various publications. Find out more at his website
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