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Glossary of Musical Terms, from A to Z
By Nathan Morris
A mix of real definitions with a few “tongue-in-cheek” definitions mixed in. The glossary covers guitars, basses, amps, keyboards, PA and recording gear, and effects, including both analog gear and digital equipment. Within each definition, terms which have their own definitions elsewhere in the glossary are printed in capital letters.
* A/D CONVERTER (an abbreviation for “analog/digital converter”): a device which converts analog waveforms from a mic input, guitar signal, etc. into binary 1’s and 0’s so that they can be processed by computerized gear (e.g., a Digital Audio WORKSTATION, a digital MULTI-TRACK recorder, etc.). A/D conversions with a higher number of bits have better resolution, which means better sound quality and a better TONE.
* ACOUSTIC GUITAR: A guitar with a hollow body that naturally amplifies the sound of the instrument. Acoustic guitars may have a plastic back or a wooden back. Some acoustic guitars have piezoelectric pickups and ACTIVE electronics (a pre-amp and equalizer) builit in. To connect an acoustic guitar into a P.A. SYSTEM or recording gear, a DI BOX is usually necessary to match the IMPEDANCE (see WOODY TONE for more details). In addition to regular six-string models, acoustic guitars come in a 12-string version which creates a natural, shimmering CHORUS effect.
* ACCOMMODATIONS ARE PROVIDED: A contractual term used by bar owners. During a bar band’s four-month tour in a rusty Econoline van, this means a grimy couch in a storage room above the tavern.
* ACTIVE: For electric guitars and basses and speakers, the term “active” means that there are powered electrical components inside. For electric guitars and basses, the term “active” means that there is an onboard battery-powered pre-amp and possibly an equalizer. On speaker cabinets, it means that the speaker contains an internal POWER AMPLIFIER and, for some models, electronic processing circuitry. Some gear manufacturers just throw this term around fairly casually, so make sure you find out how “active” the product truly is before you open your wallet. Two SUBWOOFER cabinets may both claim to be “active”, but one may only have a cheap POWER AMPLIFIER bolted inside, whereas a better-quality brand might include signal processing circuitry, a COMPRESSOR or LIMITER to protect the speaker, user-modifiable CROSSOVER settings, EQUALIZER controls and so on.
* AFTERTOUCH: On electronic keyboards, aftertouch is the sensitivity of the keyboard to continued finger pressure after the initial striking of a note. If a player continues to press a note on an aftertouch-equipped keyboard, the keyboard sends a message to the synth MODULE to trigger the aftertouch feature on the patch, which might be a VIBRATO effect, a change in TONE colour, etc.
* AMBIENCE: The reflective sound in a room or hall that adds a nice spacious sound effect to recordings of singing or instruments. If the room does not have natural ambience or “live-ness”, it can be added with a REVERB effect.
* AMP: All amps have one thing in common: they make sounds louder. Amps come in all shapes and sizes. Usually your first amp is a little 10-watt practice amp which is great for rocking it out in your bedroom. The next step is a bigger “combo” amp (this is short for “combination”) with more WATTage and a bigger speaker. If you start playing bigger venues, you may move up to a “stack”: speaker cabinets stacked on top of each other with an amp “head” (see HEAD) on top. Other types of amps include POWER AMPs (e.g., for using with a P.A. SYSTEM); HEADPHONE amps (used in studios so every band member can hear the “bed tracks” they’re overdubbing over); studio reference amps (extremely low noise, low distortion amps used for powering studio MONITOR speakers), BASS AMPS and KEYBOARD AMPS.
* ANALOG SYNTH: A synthesizer that uses voltage-controlled modules to create new sounds. The first analog synth was invented by Dr. Robert Moog in the 1960s. Analog synths take a basic sound wave, like a sawtooth wave or sine wave, and then alter it with bandpass filters, low-pass filters, voltage-controlled oscillators and ring modulators. On the 1960s-era analog synths, all of the different modules and components were connected manually with PATCH cords.
* ARCING (pronounced “arking”): When visible sparks occur from electrical equipment, plugs, or cable connections. This means that something is not hooked up right or that there is a serious problem. Call an electrician or the head sound engineer, and avoid touching metal items!
* ARRANGEMENT: A version of a pre-existing song or tune written specifically for a certain type of ensemble. Some arrangements stay roughly within the original style of the source tune, with the main change being the way the song is being performed (e.g., a VOCAL HARMONY arrangement of “Blowin’ in the Wind” for a folk singer and four backup singers). An arrangement can be done in a musical style that differs from the normal version of the song. For example, a jazz vocalist could commission a Swing-style jazz arrangement of The Dead Kennedy’s “Holiday in Cambodia”. When HORN SECTION parts or string orchestra parts are used in a pop or rock song, a written arrangement is often needed.
* ATTACK: The time that it takes a sound to reach its peak amplitude. The attack occurs very quickly when a drum is struck. The attack on bowed low strings is slow. On a COMPRESSOR, the “attack” setting determines how quickly the compressor will react.
* AUTO-TUNE: A trademark for an audio processor made by Antares Audio Technologies which digitally corrects the pitch of vocals or instrumental parts. If you were wondering why so many modern pop and country singers sing so flawlessly, it’s not just because they’ve been staying late in the practice studio. The Auto-Tune processor can also create unusual vocoder-type effects, as heard in the Cher song “I Believe”.
* BACKUP VOCALS: Depending on the band, this may involve gruff shouting from the bassist and drummer during the choruses (e.g., a hardcore band or a death metal group) or sweet, crystalline HARMONY VOCALS from four female backup singers (e.g., a pop band or country group).
* BAFFLE: In sound recording, a cloth or foam/cloth divider which keeps sounds from one amp or performer from leaking into other parts of the studio. As well, this is the expression on band members’ faces when the band leader first plays them a recording he’d like to cover of a song by a Norwegian technical death metal band that is in a 13/8 time signature.
* BASS: This refers to the low, deep musical range. In a rock band, the term usually refers to the ELECTRIC BASS. In a jazz or rockabilly band, “the bass” typically refers to an UPRIGHT BASS. With singers, it is a male singer with the deepest vocal range (think of traditional country and western songs).
* BASS AMP: This either refers to a “combo” amp or an amplifier HEAD that is designed to be used with an ELECTRIC BASS or UPRIGHT BASS. Bass amps are built in a similar fashion to electric guitar amps, with a few differences. Bass amps use two speaker sizes that are also used for electric guitar (10″ and 12″), but in addition, bass amps also use 15″ speakers. As well, bass amps use special lower-range speakers that go down to 41 Hz or even below. While guitar amps often have an “open back” design, bass amp cabinets are usually entirely sealed up in the back. Bass cabinets often have a “bass reflex” tube or port in the cabinet to boost the low-end response. The equalizer controls on a bass amp have to go down lower than the EQ on an electric guitar–at least to 41 Hz (the low E string on the bass). Since blowing a speaker is a more of a risk with low-pitched sounds, bass amps are more likely than electric guitar amps to have an onboard COMPRESSOR or limiter. See also WATT, for information on amp wattage.
* BASS PEDALBOARD: A foot-operated pedal keyboard which can be used to play basslines on a Hammond organ, church organ, or MIDI synth. The smallest bass pedalboards have a one-octave range, from C to C. One small bass pedalboard from the 1970s was the Moog Taurus, an ANALOG SYNTH pedalboard which was used onstage by Sting (The Police), John Paul Jones (Led Zep), and several progressive rock bands (Rush, Pink Floyd, Genesis, etc.). Most modern bass pedalboards are MIDI CONTROLLERs that need to be connected to a synth MODULE or an electronic CLONEWHEEL organ. Large HAMMOND ORGANs typically have a two-octave bass pedalboard (25 notes). Church pipe organs usually have pedalboards with a bigger range (32 notes). The term “bass pedalboard” may also refer to a “GUITAR PEDALBOARD”, a panel or case for transporting EFFECTS pedals.
* BI-AMP: An amplification approach used for some bass amps, PA systems, and studio MONITOR speakers. In a standard system, the same POWER AMP powers both the low-pitched sounds which are sent to the woofer and the high-frequency sounds that are sent to the horn, with the frequencies being split up by a passive CROSSOVER circuit inside the speaker cabinet. In a bi-amped system, the signal is divided up into low and high frequencies before it is amplified, and then each frequency range is amplified by a separate amplifier. Advocates of bi-amping claim that it produces a clearer, tighter sound. Bi-amping for bass rigs can help to protect the high-frequency horns from damage, in cases where a bass player likes to push the amp into an overdrive condition. Some hi-fi sound enthusiasts even split the sound up three ways, thus creating a “tri-amped” system.
* BIN: An old-school term for low-frequency PA speakers. They were called bins because they were huge speakers that sent the sound through a maze of passageways that boosted the low-end response. The typical term for low-frequency PA speakers in the 2000s is SUB or SUBWOOFER. Most subwoofers simply have one or more speakers mounted in a cabinet, without the maze of passageways that were used in 1980s “bins”.
* BLEEDING (a.k.a. “leakage” or “spill”): When sound from an instrument or singer sneaks into a microphone that is set up in front of a different singer or instrument (e.g., during a recording). You can try to prevent bleeding by having people sing or play in different rooms (or in an ISOLATION BOOTH), but it can be hard to get a good “groove” happening when everyone is peering at each other through double-paned glass windows. In some styles of music, sound engineers purposely set up the mics so that there will be a little leakage, such as with blues or jazz bands.
* BLUESY: Refers to the use of blues playing styles or song forms in genres outside of the blues and blues-rock (e.g., a pop guitarist who plays blues-influenced solos or a rock song with a blues scale RIFF and slide guitar playing).
* BOARD: A slang term for a mixing board (see MIXER).
* BOUTIQUE: Refers to amplifiers or effects which have been made in small quantities using higher-grade components (switches, transistors, etc.) and hand-soldered point-to-point wiring, rather than pre-printed circuit boards. Boutique gear tends to be much more expensive than normal gear, but nevertheless, it has attracted a loyal following of musicians who believe that it provides better TONE and more solid reliability.
* BUSS: In a mixer, there are several “busses”, or grouped electrical signal paths. A standard mid-sized live sound mixer has a stereo main mix buss (that is sent out to the MAINS); a PFL (Pre-Fader Listen) buss, which is the signal from the channels regardless of the position of the faders; and the auxiliary send busses (e.g., one auxiliary send for the monitor mix and a second auxiliary send for effects such as reverb).
* CAPO: A wooden, metal, or plastic bar or clamp that clips onto the guitar fingerboard. Helps a lot when you have rehearsed a song in A major for four weeks, and then, right at the show, the lead singer says “I feel like doing the song in B major”. It also allows you to have the rich, resonant sound of “open” chords in unusual keys.
* CHORD: Three or more notes sounded together. The most commonly-used chords are the major chord (the notes of which are the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a major scale), minor chord (the notes of which are the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a minor scales), and seventh chord (the notes of which are the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and flat 7th of a major scale). On a guitar, an “open chord” is a chord that includes open strings. The similar-sounding term “open voicing” describes a chord whose notes cover more than an octave, as played on a chordal instrument. A “close voicing” is a chord whose notes are all within an octave. In jazz, chords are often played without their root note (a task left to the UPRIGHT BASS player) and with additional “extension” notes, either in their regular forms (e.g., adding the 9th, 11th, or 13th) or altered forms (e.g., flat 9th, sharp 11th, flat 13th). See also POWER CHORD and CAPO. A group of single note-instruments or singers can also blend their sounds to perform chords by using an ARRANGEMENT (for a HORN SECTION or HARMONY VOCALists, respectively).
* CHORUS: An electronic EFFECT which simulates the shimmering, rich sound produced by a 12-string guitar, a choir of singers, or a violin section in an orchestra. This effect is created when the pitch of two or more notes are almost, but not exactly, the same. The chorus effect is built into some amplifiers and keyboards (e.g., DIGITAL PIANOS and electronic organs).
* CLICK TRACK: An electronic metronome sound that is used in MULTI-TRACK music recordings to ensure that all the tracks are laid down in the correct tempo. You can improve your ability to play with a click track by practicing with a metronome or drum machine.
* CLONEWHEEL ORGAN: In the 1980s and in the subsequent decades, lighter-weight HAMMOND ORGAN emulator keyboards were developed, such as the Korg CX-3 and the Roland VK-7, which are easier to carry to gigs than the real Hammond B-3. The term “clonewheel” is a play on words that refers to the spinning metal tonewheels that a real B-3 uses to create its tone. In addition to keyboard-based models, clonewheel organs come in MODULES (small table-top devices like the Voce Micro B mkII Module) that you plug into any MIDI CONTROLLER keyboard and in software or “virtual” versions (which require a computer and a USB-MIDI controller keyboard). Some clonewheel organs, such as the Nord Electro, also act as STAGE PIANOs, in that they come with acoustic piano, ELECTRIC PIANO, and clavinet sounds.
* COMP: Musician slang for “accompany”. This term is generally used with chordal instruments (ELECTRIC GUITAR, HAMMOND ORGAN, etc). When a musician is comping, he or she plays CHORDs, arpeggios, and FILL lines. The best COMPing musicians–those who get called first for shows or recording sessions–are those who play with a great deal of TASTE.
* COMPRESSION: The EFFECT created by a COMPRESSOR.
* COMPRESSOR: An electronic device which acts as an automatic gain control, thus reducing the overall dynamic range of a signal. The compressor gives a smoother sound to a vocal or instrumental performance, protects speakers and horns from damaging signal peaks and helps to avoid unwanted clipping (distortion) due to peaks. While the compressor is an essential tool for live sound and recording, it needs to be used with care, because excessive compression can make a track or mix sound boring.
* COMPUTER AUDIO INTERFACE: If you want to make a rough recording of you and a buddy jamming, you can just plug a cheap mic right into any old computer using the mic input on the basic factory-installed sound card. To do a serious recording, though, you will need a computer audio interface–a specialized, high-end soundcard with that will allow you to plug in XLR mic cables and 1/4″ cables from electric guitars, basses, and keyboards. Computer audio interfaces also have a good quality A/D CONVERTER to convert the analog signals into a digital form with a good resolution (which means good sound quality). Computer audio interfaces include PCI (Peripheral Component Interface slots), USB, FireWire, and PC Card. If you are considering buying a digital audio WORKSTATION or digital MULTITRACK recorder that you will be using with your computer, make sure that your computer’s specs (processor speed, operating system, memory, etc) meet the requirements of the digital audio gear. See USB for more information.
* CROSSOVER: A device that separates an audio signal into different frequency ranges, usually low and high or low, middle, and high. Passive crossovers split up a powered signal after it leaves the POWER AMPLIFIER. Active crossovers split up a LINE LEVEL signal so that it can be routed to separate power amps, and then onto SUBWOOFERs, full-range speaker cabinets, and horns. Using an active crossover is more efficient and produces a cleaner sound. See BI-AMP for more information.
* DECIBEL (abbreviated dB): A measurement of the loudness of sound which is used as a reference point on mixing boards (see MIXER), in testing speakers, and in determining how loud a concert is. Some cities have bylaws that set a decibel limit for outdoor concerts.
* DELAY: An EFFECT that was originally created in the 1960s using two reel-to-reel tape decks. Even up till the 1973 Roland Space Echo, tape was still used to create delay. Today, delay is usually created using analog or digital effects. Depending on how much delay is applied to a sound, the effect can range from a subtle “thickening” to all-out weirdness. Delay pedals with very large storage capacity can effectively be used as a LOOPING PEDAL, in that you can play a riff and then have it repeat in a loop so that you can play over it.
* DI BOX (or “direct box”): A small device which matches the impedance of high-impedance instruments (electric guitar and electric bass) to the low impedance of mixing boards. DI boxes often have a GROUND LIFT switch to remove AC hum. DI boxes designed for acoustic instruments also usually include a pre-amplifier and equalization controls (for more details, see WOODY TONE).
* DIGITAL GEAR: Musical equipment such as digital keyboards, digital mixing boards (see MIXER), and digital EFFECTs in which the sound starts as, or is converted into binary code (1s and 0s) so it can be processed by a computer. Those who like digital gear like it a lot because it has tremendous versatility–just to give a single example, a digital MULTI-EFFECT unit that fits in your pocket may contain a hundred different effects (REVERB, FLANGER, CHORUS, PHASER, etc) and and GUITAR AMP simulations. Musicians who dislike digital gear claim that it lacks a rich, warm TONE (see WARMTH), and they tend to prefer to use vintage analog gear, TUBE pre-amps, and electromechanical instruments like HAMMOND ORGANS and Fender Rhodes ELECTRIC PIANOS.
* DIGITAL PIANO: An electronic keyboard instrument designed to play the role of an acoustic piano. Compared with an electronic HOME KEYBOARD, a digital piano may only have a small number of voices (e.g., two different acoustic pianos, an ELECTRIC PIANO, an organ, etc.), but the samples will have much better sound quality. Another difference is that a digital piano usually has a weighted keyboard (or even hammer-action keys), so that it feels more like a real acoustic piano. Due to these features, digital pianos cost much more than home keyboards. A digital piano shares some of the same features as a STAGE PIANO, except that whereas a digital piano is designed for in-home use (e.g., with the sustain pedal mount and stand bolted onto the chassis), a stage piano is designed for professional performance use and touring.
* DISCREET EXIT (also known as “getting stiffed”): An approach used by a small number of bar owners, in which they quietly leave before a band finishes its last set. Attempts by the band to contact the bar owner in subsequent days and weeks are unsucessful, because the bar owner is “not in”.
* DISTORTION: This refers to the overdrive sound created by turning up the gain of an electric guitar, keyboard, or other instrument. Distortion can be created on many amps by turning the gain knob all the way up. Another way to get distortion is to use a distortion effect pedal. When a distortion pedal is used with a modest setting, it adds a bit of grit and edge to the tone. With a distortion pedal set to 10, you can get buzzsaw-like power chords, sustained, screaming lead lines, and FEEDBACK-a-plenty. There is a huge variety of distortion pedals on the market. The simplest ones have three knobs (volume, distortion and tone) and a foot-switch to turn the effect on and off. The most expensive distortion pedals have a number of knobs and switches to enable the user to toggle between digitally modelled vintage effects units and BOUTIQUE distortion pedals and emulations of different GUITAR AMPLIFIERs and speaker cabinets. The term “OVERDRIVE” generally refers to a softer, warmer type of distortion effect created with TUBES (or by using transistors or digital modelling to re-create a tube-type sound).
* DJ CD PLAYER: As a beginning DJ, you could just bring your regular CD player from home, but to go to the next level, you will need a real DJ CD player. DJ CD players have features not found on home CD players, including pressure-sensitive platters to do scratching effects or cue up a track (as with a turntable). Other features on DJ CD players are “shockproof memory”, pitch control (for speeding up and slowing down a track) and digital effects (e.g., PHASER, FLANGER, etc).
* DJ MIXER: A specialized type of audio MIXER designed for use by DJs. There are two types of DJ mixers: those that are designed for hip-hop style “scratching” and those that are designed for making a smooth transition between songs at a dance club. Scratching-type DJ mixers tend to be smaller and have fewer channels. A scratching-style DJ mixer will usually have two RCA inputs for turntables, two line inputs for CD players, and aheavy-duty crossfader (for blending between channels and for creating scratching effects). Some models also have one or more KILL SWITCHes and electronic effects (e.g., PHASER, DELAY, etc.). When buying a used scratching mixer, check that all of the faders and switches work, because the controls on scratching DJ mixers tend to get very heavy use (and even abuse). Dance-club style DJ mixers usually have more turntable and CD inputs, so that the DJ can make smooth transitions between a larger number of audio sources. Some dance-club DJ mixers use rotary knobs rather than faders for the different inputs.
* DRUM PAD: A MIDI CONTROLLER that is used to trigger electronic drum MODULE sounds. Drum pads have a soft rubbery head or a tensioned mesh surface over top of a piezoelectric transducer which senses when the pad is struck and sends an electrical signal to the module. Another option beside using drum pads is to install a piezoelectric trigger onto a regular drum head. The benefit of installing triggers is that a performer can switch between using acoustic drums and electronic drum sounds.
* DRY: A recording of vocals or instruments which has no natural room AMBIENCE or which has not had electronic REVERB effects added to it.
* E-BOW: A hand-held battery-powered device that uses magnets to vibrate a single string of an ELECTRIC GUITAR, thus allowing the performer to create a sustained, violin-like sound or hold notes for long periods (like a synth or organ).
* EFFECTS: Electronic circuitry which alters the sound of a signal. Vintage effects from the 1950s and 1960s usually used reel-to-reel tape, TUBES, metal springs, and metal plates. In the 1970s, effects were usually based on analog circuitry. In the 2000s, digital effects use computer chips or computer software to modify the sound (see DIGITAL GEAR). Effects are available in stomp-box pedal, RACK mount, and software versions, and they are built into some gear, including MIXERs, Digital Audio WORKSTATIONs, GUITAR AMPS, DIGITAL PIANOs, STAGE PIANOs, HAMMOND ORGANs, and CLONEWHEEL ORGANs. For more information, see the definitions for CHORUS, COMPRESSOR, DELAY, DISTORTION, EQUALIZER, FLANGER, OVERDRIVE, PHASER, REVERB, RING MODULATOR, ROTATING SPEAKER, TREMOLO, and VIBRATO.
* ELECTRIC BASS (also called a “bass guitar”): An electric instrument used to hold down the bottom end in just about every form of music, from alt-country to death metal. The electric bass became popular in the 1950s, and players snapped it up as a replacement for the unwieldy, hard-to-amplify UPRIGHT BASS which had formerly been the go-to bass instrument in popular music. The electric bass usually has four strings (from lowest to highest: E,A,D,G) and a volume and tone knob. While the bass usually plays an accompaniment role, some players have had a solo or lead role (e.g. Jaco Pastorius or Cliff Burton). Some electric basses have five or six strings, which gives the instrument a bigger range.
* ELECTRIC GUITAR: While strummed stringed instruments have been part of jazz and blues ensembles since the 1920s, so long as players only had acoustic instruments, they tended to be mostly used as rhythmic time-keepers who played chords. Once guitar players discovered the pickup and the GUITAR AMP–Charlie Christian was one of the early users–they realized that they could play single-note melodies like a sax player. The use of the amplifier also created a creative tonal partnership between the electric guitar and the guitar amp. Guitarists don’t merely use an amp to make the electric guitar louder; guitar amps also add a unique TONE colour to the instrument by adding OVERDRIVE and shaping the timbre. In the 1990s and 2000s, some electric guitar trends included: vintage 1960s-style re-issues, 7-string instruments (with a low B string) and acoustic-electric hybrids. Like acoustic guitars, electric guitars also come in a 12-string version.
* ELECTRIC PIANO: A keyboard instrument which uses hammers to hit little metal tines, rather than the strings used on a regular piano. A magnetic PICKUP system like that used on a electric guitar is used to send the signal to an amplifier. The sound of a Fender Rhodes electric piano or a Wurlitzer electric piano can range from a sweet expressive tone to an “in-your-face” overdriven “barking” sound. Synthesized re-creations or samples of electric piano sounds are available on HOME KEYBOARDS, DIGITAL PIANOS and STAGE PIANOS (with STAGE PIANOs generally having the best quality and variety of vintage electric piano sounds).
* EQUALIZER (abbreviated as “EQ”): An electronic frequency-control device that allows users to boost or cut the responsiveness of different frequency bands. The simplest type of equalizer is the two-band equalizer found on “starter” practice amps and small mixing boards: one knob for bass and one knob for treble. The next step up is adding a knob which controls the “mid” frequency. There are several ways to get more control over the EQ of a mix or an instrument, one of which is a graphic equalizer, which has a number of sliders which allow the user to boost or cut many frequency bands. Another is a PARAMETRIC EQUALIZER, a more specialized type of EQ, which can be used to deal with problems such as FEEDBACK or excessive boominess that is occurring on a single bass note.
* EXPOSURE: A term used by some bar owners in their end-of-night “speech” to a band after a gig (see GIG), in which the bar owner tries to point out that the band has got a “huge amount of valuable exposure” from being onstage. The bar owner then goes on to suggest that the band should be happy with getting this “exposure” and drinking a few cheap draft beers, and not press the issue of getting paid.
* FADER: A sliding potentiometer which runs up and down in a metal track. Faders are used to control the volume of channels in mixing boards. DJ MIXERS have a horizontally-mounted fader called a crossfader which is used to make smooth transitions between recorded songs.
* FAIRLIGHT CMI: An early 1980s digital sampling synthesizer. In the early 1980s, a Fairlight cost over $25,000, so only the top stars could afford to use it, such as Stevie Wonder and Peter Gabriel.
* FEEDBACK: When a resonant loop is created between a microphone and a speaker, or between an amplified instrument and a speaker, either because the mic/instrument got too close to a speaker, or because the volume was set too high, or a combination of both. There are two types of feedback: intentional feedback and unintentional feedback. Intentional feedback occurred when Jimi Hendrix held his guitar up to a stack of speakers with the volume set to 11, so that the guitar’s notes would become sustained and wailing. Many people, except your Great-Aunt Gertrude, find this type of feedback to be exciting and fun to listen to. Unintentional feedback occurs when an inebriated vocalist drops a mic into a MONITOR horn, producing a 110 dB shriek. This causes people to run away from the bar with blood streaming from their ears, which puts a scowl on the bar owner’s face.
* FEEDBACK ELIMINATOR: An electronic device which automatically detects the early development of feedback howls or shrieks, and then aggressively (yet precisely) cuts the frequency which is about to feed back, using a NOTCH FILTER. Very helpful for use with vocal MICROPHONES, acoustic instruments with piezoelectric pickups (acoustic guitar, violin, UPRIGHT BASS, etc), and HOLLOWBODY guitars. Feedback eliminators can be purchased as rack-mount or table-top models. As well, some MIXERs designed for live sound have built-in feedback eliminator circuitry.
* FENDER: One of the electric guitar and electric bass companies that helped to launch these electric instruments into the world. Major Fender electric guitars include the Stratocaster (the “Strat”) and the Telecaster (the “Tele”). Major Fender electric basses include the Precision Bass and the Jazz bass. Fender also makes amps that became the stuff of legend, such as its tweed-covered Fender Bassman amps.
* FILL: A little musical line that is played at the end of a melodic line or between two sections of music, to “fill in” the space. Fills can be performed by a guitarist, keyboardist, electric bass player, drummer, or even a DJ who is scratching with a turntable. The most TASTEful performers play fills that are designed to complement the musical “feel” and mood of the song, rather than show off their virtuoso skills.
* FIREWIRE: A high-speed connection for hooking up DIGITAL GEAR (effects, MULTITRACK recorders, etc.) to a computer. The data transfer approach used in FireWire is similar to USB, except that FireWire is much faster.
* FLANGER: An electronic effect that adds a delayed version of a signal to itself, causing a swooshing, swirling sound. Like a phaser, it is most effective when used in small doses, rather than used throughout an entire song.
* FM: An abbreviation for “Frequency Modulation”, which, in addition to its well-known role in radio broadcasting, is also used in synthesizers. FM synthesis helped to make digital synths affordable and widely available in the mid- to late-1980s. Some music producers still love the retro sound of FM synth MODULES like the Yahaha TX 81z, especially its deep, fat synth bass voices.
* FURNACE-FACED: Ottawa music-scene slang (“Dave got all furnace-faced after Tom put a drumstick right through the head of his new snare drum”); sometimes it is also used to describe a situation where a person is blushing (“During a rehearsal at Dave’s house, Dave got all furnace-faced after Tom found a box of Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues under the hide-a-bed”).
* GEAR: Has a different definition for each person. For the guitarist in a retro-1950s blues band, “gear” means old Fender tube amps and vintage Stratocaster guitars. For an 18-year old electronica musician, “gear” means brand-new Digital Audio WORKSTATIONS, samplers, and digital effects. For the guitarist in a metal band, “gear” means stacks of 4×10″ Marshall cabinets, Marshall amp heads, and flying-V guitars; for a person with a home studio, “gear” means mics, rack-mount effects, and BOUTIQUE hand-made TUBE pre-amps.
* GHOST NOTES: Quiet, half-muted, percussive little notes that rhythm section players (drummers, bassists, etc) interpolate into their grooves, to add a funky, driving feel.
* GIBSON: A guitar maker whose electric guitars (Les Paul, SG, etc) have been used on countless historical recordings, by players ranging from B.B. King to Duane Allman.
* GIG: A short-term contract between a bar owner and a band, in which the band agrees to play at a bar for a certain amount, and then, at the end of the night, the bar owner comes up with a list of excuses for paying the band a lower amount.
* GROUND LIFT: A feature on better-quality DI BOXes which disconnects the ground, thus removing any hum that may be caused by “ground loops”.
* GROUPIE: A fan of a band or performer who hangs out backstage or at the stage door of a venue in the hopes of seeing his or her idol. They can be so over-enthusiastic that in some cases, security has to hold them back, to prevent them from jumping on the performers. Every teenage band dreams of this situation (emphasis on the word “dreams”).
* GUEST LIST: The row of names written on a piece of paper held by the 6′ 3″, 300-pound bouncer outside your local music venue. These people might get in free, depending on a) how they are dressed; b) personal attractiveness; or c) their attitude. If several conditions are not fulfilled, the bouncer will scowl at the piece of paper, peer at it, shake his head, and say “Nope. You’re not on the list”.
* GUITAR AMP: This either refers to a “combo” amp or an amplifier HEAD that is used with separate speaker cabinets. Guitar amps may be solid-state (using transistors) or TUBE-based, or a combination of both (e.g., a tube pre-amp with a solid state POWER AMPLIFIER). Small “combo” practice amps have an 8″ speaker and a 10 to 15 watt amplifier. Mid-size combo amps have 10″ speakers (two or sometimes four) or a 12″ speaker (in some cases, a combo amp may have two 12″ speakers). Speaker cabinets designed to be used with an amp head often have two or four 10″ speakers. Some players use two 4X10″ cabinets, especially in hard rock and metal. Guitar amps often have two footswitchable channels, so that the player can switch between a clean channel and an OVERDRIVE or DISTORTION channel. In addition to a distortion effect, guitar amps may come with other on-board effects, such as REVERB or CHORUS (e.g., the Roland Jazz Chorus). BASS AMPs and KEYBOARD AMPs have several differences from electric guitar amps, due to the specific requirements of these instruments. See also WATT, for information on amp wattage, and IMPEDANCE, for information on hooking up amps to speaker cabinets.
* GUITAR PEDALBOARD: A panel or case for transporting effects pedals. The simplest guitar pedalboard is a DIY (“Do It Yourself”) one made from a small strip of plywood with velcro strips to attach the effects pedals. You can buy store-bought pedalboards which have a built-in power supply and a latch-on cover which protects the pedals while the pedalboard is being transported to a gig. The most complex and expensive pedalboards are custom-built models that are made to order (your “guitar hero” probably has a custom-made pedalboard). One of the benefits of using a pedalboard is that you don’t have to set up and connect all of your pedals from scratch at every show.
* GUITAR TECH: An abbreviation for “guitar technician”, a member of the touring road crew for a band. The guitar tech tunes and maintains the guitars and sets up the GUITAR PEDALBOARD and GUITAR AMP at each performance. Some bands have technicians for other performers as well (e.g., a bass tech, drum tech, etc.).
* HAMMOND ORGAN: An electromechanical organ that was produced from the mid-1930s to the 1970s. Hammond organs were originally intended to be used as a sweet-sounding church organ, but musicians realized that if you turned up the TUBE amp on your Leslie ROTATING SPEAKER (see also LESLIE), you would get a warm, OVERDRIVEn growl. As a result, from the 1960s and early 1970s, a growling Hammond B-3 organ was a fixture in smoky jazz and blues clubs and rock concerts. The sound in vintage Hammonds comes from spinning metal tonewheels, a design feature that made it heavy, hard to transport, and hard to repair when you were on the road. In the 1970s, companies like AceTone produced lighter-weight electronic organs that synthesized the Hammond sound. In the 1980s and in the subsequent decades, more sophisticated electronic Hammond organ emulator keyboards were introduced, including the Korg CX-3 and the Roland VK-7 (see CLONEWHEEL ORGAN).
* HARMONY VOCALS: Backup singing behind the main singer’s melody which is usually a third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or octave away from the main melody notes. The singers in a band can either make up the harmony vocal parts “by ear” during a performance or recording, work out the vocal parts beforehand, or write out a note-for-note vocal ARRANGEMENT. Some expensive PITCH SHIFTER effects designed for vocalists can create digital harmony vocal parts in real time.
* HARP (or “blues harp”): In blues music, this is the slang term for a harmonica. In blues, harp players play single-note solos and melodies like a sax player. In many blues bands, the harp player holds a mic in front of the harmonica, and then amplifies the signal with a small TUBE amp, which gives a full-sounding, overdriven tone.
* HEAD: The amplifier part of a guitar “stack” (a guitar “stack” consists of two speaker cabinets with a separate amplifier chassis–the “head”– sitting on top. An amp head contains one or two sets of pre-amplifier and equalizer controls and a POWER AMPLIFIER. Amp heads may be solid-state (transistor-based), TUBE-based, or a combination of both. The term has other meanings, such as “head stock” (the wood part at the end of the neck where all the tuning machines are installed on a guitar) or HEAD SHOP.
* HEADROOM: The “safety zone” between the average power of an amplifier or level on a recording device and the point at which audible DISTORTION (clipping) starts to occur. To keep your speakers in good condition, you need to choose an amp with a good amount of headroom.
* HEAD SHOP: A store where acid rock bands and Grateful Dead-style jam bands buy their day-glo coloured t-shirts, bandanas, bongs, and rolling papers. Death metal and hardcore bands also go to head shops, but for different gear: metal studs, bullet belts and combat boots.
* HEADPHONES: In recording studios, headphones are used by performers to hear the “bed tracks” while they are recording their vocal or instrumental part. When recording vocal parts, closed-shell headphones are usually used to reduce the risk that the sound of the bed tracks will leak (see BLEEDING) into the vocal MICROPHONE. While sound engineers (in live sound and in recording sessions) and DJs use headphones to cue up tracks or check a channel, to actually listen to the overall mix (to hear the TONE and balance), engineers and DJs usually use MONITOR speakers.
* HOLLOWBODY: A type of electric guitar which has a hollow wood body, which produces a more resonant sound. The downside to the hollowbody is that it is also more prone to FEEDBACK, so hollowbody guitars tend to mainly be used in styles that do not have a loud stage volume (e.g., jazz). To lessen the likelihood of feedback, many hollowbody guitars are actually “semi-hollowbodies”, in that they have a block of solid wood inside.
* HOME KEYBOARD: The generic term for the relatively inexpensive “starter” electronic keyboards produced by Casio, Yamaha, and other manufacturers. The downsides of these keyboards are that they give a performer much less ability to “tweak” or edit the synthesized voices than a professional synth; the synthesized or sampled voices are of a modest quality; and they do not have a weighted keyboard like a more expensive DIGITAL PIANO or STAGE PIANO. Nevertheless, they pack a huge amount of musical fun for their price, which is can be a tenth of the price of a professional stage piano. A typical home keyboard will have 100 voices, including piano, ELECTRIC PIANO, HAMMOND ORGAN, imitations of wind, brass and stringed instruments, ANALOG SYNTH-type sounds and drum sounds, along with a simple drum machine. Some of the lowest-priced home keyboards do not have “touch sensitivity” (a feature which makes the voices loud or soft depending on how hard you strike the keys), a feature that you may wish to spend a little more to get.
* HORN SECTION: A small group of brass players which plays pre-written ARRANGEMENTs to back up a blues, jazz, rock, pop, ska or funk band. The term “horn” is used here in its jazz sense, which means “any brass instrument”, including saxophone, trumpet, or trombone. Depending on the song, a horn section might play a harmonized RIFF, soft backing “PADs”, or sudden chords to punctuate the vocal line.
* Hz: An abbreviation for hertz, a measurement for cycles per second, which is used to refer to the frequencies of notes or audio material. The low E string on an electric bass vibrates at about 41 Hz (or 41 times per second). A tuning fork for the note “A” vibrates at 440 Hz. The range of a typical subwoofer is from 20 Hz to 200 Hz.
* IMPEDANCE: The electrical resistance of a speaker, microphone, cable, etc. For more details, see the articles on OHM and Z (the abbreviation for “ohm”).
* INDIE: Short for “independent”, as in “independent record label”. Ideally, this refers to a small record label run by a local musician. Unfortunately, in the last 20 years, the major labels have figured out that having a band be on what looks like an indie label increases the “credibility” of the band. So some major labels created simulated indie labels. The same trend has happened with movies, and now there are multinational film conglomerates producing films and marketing them under a seemingly “indie” production company name. So do a Google search on that new, seemingly “indie” label you see at the record store, to see if it is the real thing.
* INPUTS: When you buy music gear, make sure it has the correct type and number of input jacks that you need. If the gear doesn’t have the right type or number of inputs, you will be frustrated. The type of inputs that you might want for a MIXER or P.A. SYSTEM gear include 1/4″ jacks (for electric guitar, bass, keyboards, etc); balanced or unbalanced inputs; XLR inputs (for mic cables or for patching in signals from a DI BOX); PHANTOM POWERed XLR inputs (for condensor mics); RCA or phono inputs (for hooking up a CD player or record player) and “insert” jacks, for patching in a compressor or other effect. For KEYBOARD AMPS, you will probably want three or four 1/4″ inputs, each with their own level control, so that you can plug in all your keyboards. For acoustic instruments (ACOUSTIC GUITAR, UPRIGHT BASS, etc), you might want both a standard 1/4″ input and a mic input, so that you can mix a mic signal in with the pickup signal. If you love to jam with pals, you might want to look for a guitar amp with two inputs. If your gear doesn’t have enough inputs, you can add more inputs by buying an inexpensive four-channel or six-channel mixer. If your gear doesn’t have the right inputs, there are many adapters available at music stores (e.g., 1/4″ to XLR, 1/4″ to RCA, etc.). For DIGITAL GEAR, make sure that it has the inputs you need (USB connection, MIDI input, etc). One way of getting more audio inputs for computerized MULTI-TRACK recording project is to buy a COMPUTER AUDIO INTERFACE.
* ISOLATION BOOTH: A small room in a recording studio with sound-insulated walls to prevent sounds from BLEEDING into other microphones elsewhere in the studio. Isolation booths usually have windows so that the singer or performer in the booth can see the other band members and the sound engineer.
* JACK: A metal receptacle with internal contacts into which a patch cord, XLR mic cable, MIDI cable, etc. is plugged. The newest addition to the “jack family” is the SPEAKON CONNECTOR.
* JAZZY: Used to refer to the use of jazz-oriented playing styles or compositional approaches in genres outside of jazz (e.g., a pop guitarist who plays jazz guitar chord voicings or a blues song which uses a I / vi / ii7 / V7 chord progression and a 32-bar form). See also BLUESY.
* JIGGLING: The standard way that musicians attempt to fix electric or electronic gear that doesn’t work. First they “jiggle” the output jack.Then they “jiggle” the input jack. Then they shake the patch cord repeatedly, which results in a loud hum as the shielding inside the cable finally wears through.
* KEYBOARD AMP: An electronic “combo” amplifier designed for use with digital pianos and synths. There are several differences between a guitar amp and keyboard amp. A keyboard instrument extends down to much deeper registers than an electric guitar, which means that keyboard amps have to be able to handle low-register notes. As such, keyboard amps often have 15″ speakers and bigger cabinets. As well, whereas many guitar players view the amp as an important part of their tone, a keyboardist typically just wants the amp to reproduce the signal coming out of the keyboard (the exception is keyboardists who use a LESLIE or other brand of ROTATING SPEAKER cabinet). Other differences are that keyboard amplifiers often have a high-frequency horn, a three- or four-channel MIXER (to blend together different keyboards), and, in some cases, a “rock-back” or wedge-shaped design, so that the amp can be aimed towards a seated keyboardist for monitoring purposes.
* KEYTAR: When keyboardists got jealous of watching electric guitarists and electric bassists strutting around the stage, they didn’t just get mad, they got even, and the keytar was invented. Does any other instrument so blatantly scream “1980s”? (OK, there is one possible competitor, the MIDI guitar). A keytar has a small battery-powered keyboard and a guitar-like “neck”, which has a modulation wheel and sustain/vibrato controls. Add a guitar strap, and the keyboardist can wear the keytar and do dueling solos up on the front of the stage with the lead guitarist.
* KhZ: An abbreviation for “kilohertz”. A hertz (or Hz) is a measurement for cycles per second, which is used to refer to the frequencies of notes or audio material. Six KhZ (or 6000 Hz) is the frequency range where the “highs” begin.
* KILL SWITCH: A toggle switch on DJ MIXERs which allows a DJ to entirely cut out a frequency band (e.g., the bass frequency or the high frequency). Using a kill switch for all the mid and treble frequencies can create a dramatic effect during a DJ set, because suddenly the entire song cuts out, except for the throbbing, pulsating bassline. This creates a sense of anticipation on the dance floor, as the dancers wait for the next song to be faded in.
* KNOB RATIO: The tongue-in-cheek “ratio” between the number of knobs on a guitar amplifier and the price. This ratio is well-known to amp manufacturers, and so some amps have “feature bloat”, with lots of different switches, knobs, and buttons covering the front of the panel. Amp buyers have to be wary of being hypnotized by gear with a high “knob ratio”. Just because an amp has four “shaping filter” buttons, six Digital Signal Processing switches, eight EQ knobs, and a PARAMETRIC EQUALIZER, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will have great TONE. Some vintage TUBE amps have just a volume knob and a tone knob and they sound great!
* LESLIE: A brand of rotating speaker cabinet intended for use with a HAMMOND ORGAN. The Leslie has a rotating horn and a rotating baffle around the woofer, which produces a CHORUS-type effect. See ROTATING SPEAKER for more details.
* LIMITER: A COMPRESSOR with a very high compression ratio that blocks any signal level above the threshold. Limiters protect speakers from harmful peaks. Limiters can be bought as stand-alone units and they are also integrated into some POWER AMPs, BASS AMPs, and MIXERs.
* LINE LEVEL: The signal level produced by ELECTRIC GUITARs, ELECTRIC BASSes, and keyboards. There are two types of line level: semi-professional line level and professional line level. Semi-professional line level is the level used on good-quality home hi-fi gear, and it is -10 dbV. Professional MIXERs and equalizers have a line level of +4 dBu. Some gear has a user-selectable line level switch, so that a component can be used in home settings and professional recording sessions. To get a microphone signal up to line level, you need to use a MIC PREAMP or a MIXER channel which contains a mic preamp.
* LIP SYNCHING: A technique used by a small number of pop stars to ensure that concert performances will sound as perfect as the CD. Several celebrity singers have been “outed” as lip-syncers when they forgot to hold up the mic when the lead vocals were sounding through the P.A. system or when the sound engineers accidentally played the wrong song on a live TV show. Ooops. See also AUTO-TUNE.
* LOCAL MUSIC STORE: An independent musical instrument retail and repair shop owned and operated by local, experienced musicians, rather than by a huge corporation.
* LOOPING PEDAL: A great pedal if you are a one-man (or one-woman) band. You play a RIFF, and then the pedal replays the riff in a loop, and you can solo over it.
* LO-FI: A musical movement that started when musicans began getting sick of what they viewed as the “sterile” sound of modern digital recordings and digital effects. People into lo-fi music love all gear that is analog, has TUBEs, reel-to-reel tape, old radio parts, scratchy-sounding vinyl records, old broken 1980s HOME KEYBOARDs, and vintage electric organs where the tonewheels are starting to “crosstalk”. The lo-fi sound can also be created by “lo-fi” pedals, which add hiss, hum and crackle, and make your ELECTRIC GUITAR sound like it is being played through a broken-down 1960s transistor radio.
* LUBE DEBATE: To lube or not to lube, that is the question. Should you lubricate the potentiometer controls (POTs) on electric guitars, basses, and mixers? Advocates of lubricating your pots claim that it increases the life of the control, because it reduces metal-on-metal friction. Critics of lubricating your pots point out that lubricants attract dust, which will eventually gum up the pots with crud. Ask the repair tech at your LOCAL MUSIC STORE for advice.
* MAINS: (also called “Front of House” speakers): A slang term for the P.A. speakers on a stage that are pointed towards the audience, along with the power amplifiers that are needed to drive the speakers. Mid- to large-size music venues–pretty much any venue bigger than a coffeehouse–also usually have a monitor speaker system (see MONITORS, meaning no. 1).
* MAINS ARE THE MONITORS: A phrase uttered by certain thrifty bar owners when band members arrive at the venue and then ask where the monitor speakers are. The bar owner points to the main “Front of House” speakers (which are pointing out at the audience) and tells the band that “the Mains are the Monitors”.
* MIC PREAMP: Compared with an electrical guitar or an electronic keyboard, which produce LINE LEVEL signals, the signal coming out of a microphone is very weak. Mic signals need to be pre-amplified up to line level before they can be used in live sound or recording. Mic preamps are provided in the mic channels of a mixing board. You can also buy stand-alone mic pre-amps, including TUBE models.
* MICROPHONES: Electrical transducers which convert sounds (singing, a sax, the tone from a guitar amp, etc.) into an electrical signal. The most common mic used in live performances is a cardioid mic, which is fairly resistant to FEEDBACK on a live music stage. PHANTOM POWERED condenser mics are often used for live-sound mic’ing of acoustic guitars, strings, and brass instruments. Recording studios use other types of mics as well, including ribbon mics, Pressure Zone Mics (PZMs) and omnidirectional mics.
* MIDI: An acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a “language” invented in 1983 that allows digital musical instruments and devices to communicate with each other. Unlike guitars, which are connected to effects and amps with 1/4 inch patch cables, MIDI gear is connected up with special multi-pin MIDI cables which carry digital instructions. See MIDI CONTROLLER and synth MODULE.
* MIDI CONTROLLER: An electronic device such as a musical keyboard, drum pads, or a wind controller which can send MIDI messages to a synth MODULE or computer in the form of MIDI data (see PANIC BUTTON for what to do if the messages get mixed up). If you are buying your first MIDI controller, remember that the controller does NOT produce any sounds by itself. You also have to buy a synth MODULE or “brain” which creates the synth sounds.
* MIXER: An electronic device which blends together the different signals from microphones and instruments. Each “channel” of a mixer has knobs for modifying the equalization and at the bottom of the vertical channel strip, there is a fader (or less commonly, a knob) for controlling the volume of the channel. Mixers also provide a number of OUTPUTs, so that the signals from the mixing board can be routed to the MAINS (the speakers facing the audience), to MONITOR speakers onstage (usually a different sub-mix), or to a recording device. Some small- to mid-sized mixers have their own internal POWER AMPs (this is called a “powered mixer”), which speeds up the set-up and tear-down process. See also BUSS.
* MODULE (also called a “synth module” or “tone generator”): A digital device which creates the synthesized musical sounds, ranging from simulations of real instruments (electric piano, violin, etc) to new sounds (buzzy sawtooth wave sounds or synth “pads”) or contains samples of actual instruments. A synth module may be housed in a 19″ rack-mount chassis or in a smaller case that is intended to sit on top of a keyboard. To use a synth module’s sounds, a MIDI CONTROLLER has to be plugged into the module. MIDI controllers include MIDI keyboards, MIDI drum pads, and MIDI wind controllers.
* MONITORS: Two meanings in the musical world: a stage monitor is a heavy-duty speaker and horn in a cabinet (often wedge-shaped) that is placed on the stage (pointed towards the performers), so that the band members can hear themselves; a studio monitor (aka “reference monitor”) is a speaker cabinet designed for listening to the playback of mixes or single tracks in the recording studio. While a studio monitor, especially a small “near field” monitor speaker, superficially resembles the bookshelf speaker your kid brother has in his bedroom, the similarities end with the appearance. If you ran an uncompressed, “hot” drum track from a MULTI-TRACK recorder straight into a home bookshelf speaker, it will blow it apart. Studio monitors are designed to be able to handle the demands of studio playback. Studio monitors are also designed to add as little tonal “colouration” as possible to the sound, so that a sound engineer can more accurately assess the sound of a track or mix.
* MONOPHONIC: A musical term which means “one voice”. Analog synths are monophonic, which means that they can only play single-note melodies.
* MULTI-EFFECT: A stomp-box pedal EFFECT or rack-mount unit which produces a number of different effects. Multi-effects designed for ELECTRIC GUITAR or ELECTRIC BASS often provide a number of digitally-modeled amp HEADs, “combo amps” and speaker cabinets.
* MULTI-TRACK: Refers to a recording process which allows multiple tracks to be recorded one after the other (or at the same time, on discrete tracks that can be edited or re-done). Up until the 1950s, before multi-tracking was invented, all of the performers for a song had to be assembled in the same space–the singers, the backup band, the HORN SECTION, and the string section. Moreover, if there was any mistakes, the whole song had to be re-recorded from the start. In the 1960s, when the first reel-to-reel tape multi-track systems were invented, it made recording much more convenient. Even more importantly, though, it allowed the PRODUCER and audio engineer to edit and re-mix the tracks to create new sounds and textures that were impossible to produce “live”. In the 2000s, most multi-track recording is done using digital multi-track recorders or digital audio WORKSTATIONS. See also PUNCH IN/PUNCH OUT.
* NEAR FIELD: In a recording studio, a MONITOR speaker which is close enough to the sound engineer that the engineer is hearing the direct sound from the speaker, rather than the reflections from the walls of the room. Listening to a recording using the “near field” speaker position gives a more accurate sense of how the track sounds.
* NEODYMIUM: A rare-earth metal that can be used to create magnets that are more powerful than iron magnets, for a given weight. This allows amplifier makers to build lighter-weight speaker cabinets.
* NOISE FILTER: An electronic device which removes high-frequency hiss or sub-audible rumbles from an audio signal. One issue with a noise filter is that in addition to removing hiss and hum, it may also alter the tone colour of the instruments or voices. For this reason, some audio engineers prefer to use a NOISE GATE.
* NOISE GATE: An electronic device which mutes a channel when there is no actual singing or playing taking place, thus blocking any hum or hiss sounds that may be present. Noise gates are also used on the different mics that are set up around a drum kit at a live concert, to prevent unwanted “leakage” or “BLEEDING” into adjacent mics. Noise gates are also used by electric guitarists to prevent unwanted hiss and hum from sounding during the breaks in their playing. Hiss and noise problems can be especially problematic in cases where guitarists are using high preamp or OVERDRIVE settings. The difference between a noise filter and a noise gate is that whereas a noise filter continuously affects the frequency of the audio material, a noise gate has no effect on the sound except when the “gate” function is engaged.
* NOTCH FILTER: An electronic equalization device that very precisely cuts (or boosts) a very narrow frequency band. A notch filter can be used with acoustic instruments that are plugged into a PA system, to turn down any frequencies that are feeding back. Feedback can also be reduced by turning down the “mid” or “high” equalization controls on the instrument’s channel, but this method will change the tone of the instrument much more than using a notch filter; in addition to killing the feedback, you will lose some of the natural TONE of the instrument. An automatic, computerized notch filter is called a “FEEDBACK ELIMINATOR”.
* NUT: A hard plastic strip with string notches that ensure that the strings on a guitar, bass, or similar instrument are spaced apart at the correct distance, and which determines the height of the strings above the fingerboard. The nut on a brand new guitar may need to be adjusted so that the strings are at the right height. Ask the guitar repairperson at your LOCAL MUSIC STORE for advice. If you are a rock and roll star, your GUITAR TECH will adjust your nut for you. And bring you a cold beer.
* OCTAVE EFFECT: An electronic PITCH SHIFTER effect available in guitar pedals, rack-mount effects, and multi-effects pedals. Most octave effects produce a note one octave below the note the performer is playing and some can also do two octaves below. When used with an electric guitar, it allows a performer to recreate the sounds of a 7-string guitar with a low B string. When used with a regular electric bass, it allows the performer to recreate the sound of having a 5-string bass with a low B string. When using octave-down effects, you can create extremely low pitches that may go below the rated specs of your speakers, which may lead to a risk of speaker damage if you play too loud. Some octave pedals can also produce a note an octave above the note the performer is playing (often combined with fuzz).
* OHM: The measurement for electrical IMPEDANCE, or resistance to electrical current. Typically, the speakers used in PA cabinets and guitar cabinets are 4 ohm, 8 ohms, or 16 ohms. When connecting speakers to an amplifier, do not hook up a speaker that has too low an ohms rating. If the amplifier is rated at 8 ohms, you could hook up one 8 ohm speaker or two 16 ohm speakers — but not a 4 ohm speaker (and not two 8 ohm speakers). If an amplifier is rated at 4 ohms, you could hook up one 4 ohm speaker or two 8 ohm speakers, but not a 2 ohm speaker (and not two 4 ohm speakers). If you hook up speakers with too low an impedance for an amp, it could overload the amp and potentially damage it. Ask your LOCAL MUSIC STORE staff for advice if you are unsure about impedance issues.
* OUTPUTS: When you buy music gear, make sure it has the correct type and number of output jacks. The type of outputs that you might want for a MIXER or P.A. SYSTEM gear include 1/4″ jacks (for connecting the mixer to the POWER AMP); XLR (for connecting some mixers to the power amp or to recording gear); RCA or phono outputs (for recording the main output from a mixing board), and “auxiliary send” outputs (“aux sends”) for creating your monitor mix or for effects like reverb. For power amps and powered mixers, you may want either 1/4″ speaker jack outputs or SPEAKON CONNECTORs (the latter is recommended for high-wattage gear). On a GUITAR AMP, you may want a “line out” jack for sending your signal to a “slave” amp or to a mixer, or for creating an effect loop (for an effect loop, you also need a “line in” jack); a “tuner out” jack (for sending your signal to a tuner) and a DI out jack (for sending a DI BOX signal from your instrument to the mixing board). Another output on some guitar amps is a 1/4″ extension speaker jack, for adding an additional speaker cabinet. For DIGITAL GEAR, make sure that it has the outputs you need (USB connection, MIDI output jack, etc). Some of the newest MIDI keyboards only have a USB connection, which means that you cannot connect these keyboards to your vintage 1980s synth MODULEs using MIDI cables unless you get a USB-to-MIDI adapter. See also COMPUTER AUDIO INTERFACE.
* OVERDRIVE: The classic 1950s and 1960s guitar overdrive sound was produced by pushing TUBE amps to (or beyond) their limit. An overdriven signal is called “clipped” because the ends of the waveforms are literally clipped off. Some players use the terms “overdrive” and DISTORTION indiscriminately, but “overdrive” generally refers to a softer, warmer, more natural type of tone used by blues or a classic rock guitarists. The term “distortion” often refers to a harder-edged clipping used by hard rock or metal guitarists. A simulated tube overdrive effect can be created by using analog circuitry or digital emulations.
* OWNER’S COUSIN: In some bars and taverns, the person behind the soundboard got the job not because he or she has a background in sound engineering, but due to the fact that he or she is the owner’s cousin. Expect this so-called “sound person” to have a baffled look when you ask them for a 20 dB “pad” on the keyboard channel (see PAD) or ask them to “lift the ground” on the bass-player’s DI BOX (see GROUND LIFT).
* P.A. SYSTEM: The overall name for the setup of POWER AMPLIFIERS, heavy-duty full-range speaker cabinets, SUBWOOFER cabinets, MONITOR wedges, a mixing board (see MIXER), and effects used in venues ranging from tiny coffeehouses to huge, warehouse-sized rock clubs. There are huge systems of amps and stacks of speaker cabinets at stadium concerts, too, but by the time the setup is that big, we usually call it a “Sound Reinforcement System”.
* PAD: An attenuation circuit on a mixing board (and some better-quality DI boxes) which provides a 20 dB reduction. Useful for very “hot” pre-amped signals coming out of some electronic gear or effects. Also refers to playing soft, sustained accompaniment chords on a synthesizer (think 1980s new age music or pop ballads), or to the DRUM PADS used to trigger electronic drums. In the late 1960s, the term had a different meaning; hippie musicians would invite groupies over to their “pad” to enjoy smokeable herbal products (see GROUPIE).
* PAN POT: An abbreviation for “pan potentiometer” (see POT), a control on a MIXER that allows the engineer to set where an instrument or vocal track “appears” in the stereo image (to the left, to the center, or to the right).
* PANIC BUTTON: A switch on some MIDI keyboards or sequencers which shuts off any notes that are stuck and resets the system. Since MIDI gear sends data (e.g., instructions to start and stop a note) along the MIDI cable, rather than a sound signal, in the rare case that a MIDI module does not get the “stop the note” message when a keyboardist takes her hand off the key, the note (or notes) can get stuck in the “on” position.
* PARAMETRIC EQUALIZER: A specialized type of frequency EQUALIZER. It allows you to precisely boost or cut a specific freqency range. Ih has three controls: a frequency knob which controls the center of the frequency you wish to boost or cut; a gain knob, which allows you to boost or cut that frequency, and a “Q” knob, which determines how wide of a frequency band you want to cut or boost. A parametric equalizer can be used to precisely turn down a frequency that is feeding back through the P.A. speakers or reduce the boominess of a frequency on an electro-acoustic guitar. See also NOTCH FILTER and FEEDBACK ELIMINATOR.
* PATCH: A preset synthesizer voice or sound, so-named because in the early days of ANALOG SYNTHS, a “patch” or sound would be created by connecting a number of modules and filters together with short patch cords. Digital synth MODULEs allow users to create “patches” simply by pressing buttons. Digital keyboards and modules usually come pre-loaded with a large number of preset patches (piano, guitar, brass, synth sounds, etc). Better-quality digital keyboards and modules also allow the user to edit the existing sounds or create new patches.
* PATCH BAY: A panel or box which groups together a number of INPUT and OUTPUT jacks. This way, you can change the connections on a mixing board (e.g., effects, routing of cables, etc.) without having to crawl around on your knees under the mixing console with a flashlight in your mouth. Patch bays are used in recording studios and in live sound set-ups (in live sound, patch bays are part of a SNAKE cable).
* PEDAL POINT: The repetition or sustaining of a note, usually a bass note, while the chords change over top of it. Since not all of the chords will be entirely consonant over top of the held bass note, using a pedal point can create a sense of drama or tension. The name comes from the pipe organ BASS PEDALBOARDS that were used to hold down pedal points in church music in the olden days (the 1300s and 1400s).
* PHANTOM POWER: Electrical power which is provided to a condensor mic from a mixing board (MIXER) or MIC PREAMP. Since the electrical power travels down the regular mic cable, along with the signal, it is called “phantom power”. It is usually between 12 to 48 volts. Some mics that require phantom power can also be powered by inserting a battery into the microphone.
* PHASER: An electronic effect that changes the phase of the input sound and mixes it with the original sound, thus creating a swirling, psychedelic sound. Most effective when used in small doses, rather than left permanently turned on. Also the standard sidearm for Starfleet officers on the USS Enterprise.
* PICK-UP: A “pick-up” is a magnetic or piezo-electric device mounted on a guitar or bass which senses the vibrations of the strings. A magnetic pick-up is a magnet wound with metal wire that converts the vibrations from the strings into an electric signal. A piezo-electric pickup consists of one or more transducers which sense the vibrations from the instrument. Some pick-ups are connected to an ACTIVE electronic pre-amp or equalizer that is built into the instrument. For some acoustic instruments (fiddle, UPRIGHT BASS), an external pre-amp/DI BOX may be needed (see WOODY TONE for more information).
* PICK-UP BAND: A group of musicians put together just for one show (or one series of shows).
* PITCH SHIFTER: An electronic effect pedal that provides a number of separate effects, including OCTAVE EFFECTS (below or above the pitch being played) and adding fourths or fifths. More expensive pitch shifters can also harmonize a melody in the thirds or sixths that are appropriate for the key you are playing in. The auto-harmonize feature is also available on some vocal effects processors; it allows a singer to electronically add multiple VOCAL HARMONY parts behind their vocals.
* POT: An abbreviation for “potentiometer’, the rotary controls on a guitar, bass, mixer, effect, or amplifier which control the volume, tone, or other parameters. With heavy use, the pots can get dirty, which leads to a crackling sound through the speakers. Your LOCAL MUSIC STORE’s repair person can clean dirty potentiometers. As well, DIY-minded musicians can do it themselves by spraying electronic contact cleaner into the control and then following this with bursts of air from a can of compressed air (the product used for blowing dust out of computer components).
* POWER AMP: An amplifier used in P.A. SYSTEMs to amplify the signal for the MAINS (the speakers facing the audience) and the MONITOR speakers. Some instrumentalists with rack-mounted rigs also use power amps in their set-up (e.g., bass players or keyboard players). Combo amplifiers contain a built-in power amplifier. Power amplifiers from the 1960s and 1970s tended to be heavy and they usually had a bare minumum of controls: an on-off switch and an attenuator knob. In the 2000s, amplifiers have gotten lighter in weight, more efficient, more reliable, and they offer more features. Some 2000s-era power-amps have variable-speed fans, on-board limiters to protect speakers and protection circuitry to guard against overheating or IMPEDANCE mismatches. Modern power amps often provide SPEAKON CONNECTORS in addition to old-style 1/4 inch speaker jacks. See also WATT, for information on amp wattage.
* POWER CHORD: The first chord your uncle showed you on his electric guitar. The magic of the power chord is that it can be used even with your distortion set to 10. A power chord consists of a note, the fifth above it, and the octave. While it is used in many styles of music, it is most important in hard rock and metal styles. Some purists grumble that it is “not technically a chord”, because it consists of two notes and an octave doubling of the root note. Technically, to be a member of the CHORD club, you need to have three or more separate notes.
* PRODUCER: The person in a music recording project who ensures that the band’s recordings are done in the right style and within the budget allotted for the project. The producer has a range of roles, which may include coaching the singers, making suggestions to the musicians, helping to select SESSION PLAYERs, and generally pushing the band to do the best it can during the sessions. The role of a producer in a music context has been compared to the role of a director in a movie, in that both people try to create the “big-picture” vision for their projects.
* PUNCH IN/ PUNCH OUT: During a MULTI-TRACK recording session, a performer can take a previously-recorded track and record over it by having the engineer “punch in” at a certain location, and then, once the desired part has been added or corrected, the engineer disengages the record function, which is called “punching out”. Some recording devices have a footswitch-operated punch in/out function, so that an instrumentalist can operate the recorder while playing an instrument with both hands.
* Q: An audio term which means “bandwidth” (literally, the width of a frequency band). On a PARAMETRIC EQUALIZER, there are three controls: a frequency knob which controls the center of the frequency you wish to boost or cut; the gain knob, which allows you to boost or cut that frequency, and the “Q” knob, which determines how wide of a frequency band will be affected.
* QUANTIZE: In a MIDI sequencer, quantizing is the process by which a performer’s rhythm is electronically slotted into a subdivision of a musical bar (e.g., eighth notes, sixteenth notes, etc.) selected by the performer. The benefit of quantizing is that it corrects any timing errors on the part of the human performer. However, too much quantizing can make a MIDI drum part or synth bassline sound robotic.
* QUILTED: A way of cutting pieces of wood used in guitar-making. The term “quilted’ refers to the unique appearance of the wood grain due to the way the wood is cut.
* RACK: A standard 19” frame that can be mounted in a plastic or wooden travel case or set up in a permanent installation in a studio. Many professional audio devices ranging from amps to effects have rack-mount “ears” so that they can be mounted in a rack. There are two benefits to rack-mounting all of your gear in a road case: the knobs and switches are protected during travel and you can leave all the components (effects, tuner, pre-amp, POWER AMP) hooked up together with patch cords, so you don’t have to set them up from scratch at every show.
* REFERENCE MONITOR: see MONITOR (meaning no. 2)
* REHEARSAL: A get-together of musicians in which they consume cool, refreshing beverages made from hops, tell exaggerated stories about last night’s adventures (“Yeah, and then after the show, they both came up to my bedroom, and then they…”), and, eventually, play their songs.
* REVERB: Two related meanings in music. The first meaning is the natural sustain of a singer’s voice or an instrumentalist’s tone that occurs in a hall or room that has sound-reflecting surfaces. The second meaning is the electronic re-creation of this reverberation using an analog or digital reverb effect. Early reverb effects used metal springs or metal plates to create the reverb effect. For vocals, reverb effects are best used in moderation; if it sounds like you are singing in a cave, you are using too much reverb! See also DELAY, a related effect.
* RIFF: A catchy musical line that is repeated throughout a song. A riff can be as simple as a single note repeated with a distinctive rhythm, or it can be a scale run with hammer-ons, pull-offs, and bends. Whatever form a riff takes, though, it has to be appealing–the listener’s ears should prick up the first time she hears it. A riff can be played by any instrument: an overdriven electric guitar, a sax player, a flute (think “Do the Hustle”) or even by the whole band. In the case of a rhythmic riff, it can be played by the drummer or percussionist.
* RING MODULATOR: An electronic effect which combines the sum and difference of an input signal, creating an unusual metallic sound. The ring modulator effect was used to create the Dalek robot voices in “Doctor Who” and in the Black Sabbath song “Paranoid”. Ring modulators are also used in ANALOG SYNTHs to create bell-like or clangy sounds.
* RMS: An acronym for Root Mean Square, a measure of the average power-handling capability of a speaker. When choosing a speaker to go with an amplifier, you need to make sure that the speaker has an appropriate RMS rating, given the power output of the amp. You also need to be aware of the IMPEDANCE rating (in OHMs) of the speaker, given the impedance rating of the amp (see OHM). Keep in mind that the power-handling rating for a speaker was measured using a pure, clean sine wave. Even though a speaker that is rated at 100 watts RMS may have been able to handle a clean 100 watt “sine wave” on the test bench, if you are pushing your POWER AMP to the point of serious clipping (unwanted distortion), the speaker might get blown at (or even below) its 100 watt rating.
* ROTATING SPEAKER: A speaker cabinet which has a motor-driven rotating horn for the high-frequencies and a rotating baffle that spins around the low-frequency woofer. Vintage rotating speaker cabinets like the LESLIE use a TUBE amplifier which produces a warm natural OVERDRIVE when it is turned up high. The rotating speaker produces a rich, full tone, because the rotation of the horn and baffle create a natural mixture of TREMOLO, VIBRATO, and CHORUSing. Even though rotating speakers were first intended for use with HAMMOND ORGANS, they have been used by some ELECTRIC GUITARists. Due to the large size and heavy weight of rotating speaker cabinets, a number of electronic effects have been created to emulate the sound (e.g., the Uni-Vibe).
* SESSION: When a musician is hired to come to a recording studio to lay down tracks with their instrument (either “COMPing” or soloing). A “session player” is a performer who does a lot of recording sessions.
* SHRED GUITAR: “In-your-face” electric guitar playing that features screaming lead lines, tapping, WHAMMY BAR dive-bombs, artificial harmonics, and ridiculously fast scale passages and arpeggios. This is music “by guitarists for guitarists”. By extension, the term is sometimes applied to other stringed instrument players who have scary amounts of virtuoso wizardry (e.g., banjo, electric bass, etc.)
* SNAKE: A thick multicore audio cable that houses a large number of individual cables, and which ends in a PATCHBAY (a box with XLR and 1/4 inch jacks). In music venues, a snake cable is run from the stage to the mixing board at the back of the club, so that the sound engineer doesn’t have to deal with a tangled mess of 50 mic and guitar cables running through the venue. Some electric guitarists with really complex GUITAR PEDALBOARDs use a multicore snake cable to run between their pedalboard and their amp, to speed set-up and tear-down and reduce the tangle of cables.
* SPACEMAN MUSIC: See the article on LOCAL MUSIC STORE.
* SPEAKON CONNECTORS: A trademarked name for a speaker cable that uses locking multi-pin connectors. The locking feature prevents the accidental disconnection of monitor speaker cabs or instrument speaker cabs if someone trips on the cable. The multi-pin feature in Speakon cables allows them to be used for bi-amplified systems, in which a separate amplified cable is connected to the low-frequency woofer and high-frequency horn (see BI-AMP). Speakon cables are considered to be safer than 1/4 inch speaker cables for high current systems, because all the metal components are shielded from possible contact by the user.
* STAGE MONITOR: A P.A. SPEAKER that is pointed towards the band members so that they can hear their vocals and playing. See MONITOR (meaning no. 1) for more details.
* STUDIO MONITOR: A heavy-duty, high-fidelity speaker used in recording studios to listen to tracks and mixes. See MONITOR (meaning no. 2) for more details.
* STAGE PIANO: An electronic keyboard instrument with a rugged, heavy-duty chassis that is designed to protect it from the rigors of touring. A stage piano is intended for professional touring and for use in performance venues such as piano bars or festival stages. Stage pianos are designed with a “do less, but do it better” approach. As such, a stage piano may only have a small number of voices (e.g., a few different acoustic pianos, several ELECTRIC PIANOs, a HAMMOND ORGAN, Wurlitzer organ, etc.), but the samples will be of a high quality. Stage keyboards usually have a weighted keyboard, to simulate the feel of a real acoustic piano. As well, a stage piano will usually have MIDI in and out JACKS, which allows it to be used as a MIDI CONTROLLER for a synth MODULE or a HAMMOND ORGAN emulator.
* SUBWOOFER (or “sub”): Big speakers in large cabinets that do the low-pitched thump and rumble. Most subs designed for clubs have one or two large-diameter speakers in a cabinet, typically 15″ or 18″ subwoofer speakers. If you are at an outdoor venue, you may even see 21″ subwoofer speakers. In the 2000s, subs are being made in lighter-weight versions that use NEODYMIUM magnets and integrated lightweight Class-D amplifiers. Subs are also getting “smarter”; some modern subwoofer cabinets have onboard electronic processors, COMPRESSORs and ACTIVE crossovers.
* SWEET SPOT: For mic’ing of an electric guitar cabinet, acoustic piano or other instrument, the “sweet spot” is the mic placement location which yields the best sound. In a studio monitoring situation, the “sweet spot” is the position of the studio MONITOR speaker, relative to the location of the engineer, which yields the most accurate sound image.
* TABULATURE (abbreviated as “tab”): A music notation method for guitar and bass in which the strings are depicted as horizontal lines on the page, with the number of the fret required for a melody, chord, or bassline written on the appropriate string’s line.
* TASTE: Knowing when to play a lot, when to play a little, and when to just listen. It is a far more elusive goal in music than mere technical proficiency. Having good taste in your playing will get you more GIGs and recording SESSIONs than being able to play really fast.
* TONE: Attaining the ideal tone–which for many people is a full, rich sound–is the goal of many singers and instrumentalists. While great gear can help a performer to get towards the goal of getting a good tone, one of the crucial factors in good tone is a singer’s throat and diaphragm and a guitarist’s or bassist’s fingers and hands, and in the skill and TASTE with which they are used. The exact definition of “tone” has been the subject of many a late-night debate in pubs and taverns, so an exact definition will not be attempted here. Suffice it to say that a person’s “tone” consists of the interaction of many different elements, including their timbre, style, emotion, expression, use of natural VIBRATO, and, for instrumentalists, the way of playing (e.g., plucking, muting, embouchure, etc.), the type of instrument, parts or accessories being used (e.g., type of strings, pick, pick-up, amplifier, TUBES, reeds, mics, etc.) and the settings on any amplifiers or effects that they are using.
* TRACK: In MULTI-TRACK recordings on reel-to-reel tape, a “track” is a strip on the tape where a single session is recorded. Even though digital recordings do not have a physical “track” where a session is recorded, the term “track” is still used.
* TRAIN WRECK: A total mess-up that occurs in a performance when singers and instrumentalists sing or play at the wrong time. Commonly happens on song endings with inexperienced bands if they spent the afternoon relaxing with their long-haired buddy from British Columbia who wears tie-dyed shirts (see HEAD SHOP). The occurrence of a “train wreck” can sometimes be camouflaged by stage-diving into the crowd, removal of clothing, extreme guitar feedback, or pretending it was the start of a drum solo.
* TREMOLO: This is an electronic effect available in “stomp-box” pedal and built into vintage guitar amplifiers from the 1950s and 1960s (and in their re-issued versions). Tremolo effects rapidly turn the volume up and down, which creates a “shuddering” or “stuttering” sound. The term “tremolo” is also used in the term “tremolo bar”, the bar which controls a WHAMMY BAR bridge, but in this case, the result is changes of pitch, not volume.
* TRUSS ROD: A metal rod that is used to stiffen guitar necks. If a neck is bowing inwards due to the pull of the strings, a guitar repairperson can make the neck straight again by adjusting the truss rod.
* TUBE: A glass vacuum tube with electrical components inside, just like the ones used in 1940s radios. They are still used in tube guitar amplifiers, tube pre-amps, and some effects units. Users swear that they produce a better WARMTH than transistorized amps or pre-amps. With guitar amps, the overdrive produced by a tube amp is smoother–some say “creamier”– than the OVERDRIVE produced by a transistorized (solid-state) amp. Did we mention that they look cool when the lights are off and the tubes are glowing?
* UKULELE: The essential instrument for Hawaiian music. Small, four strings, and you can bring a basic one home for under $100. Believe it or not, there are ukulele virtuosos who play fast jazz tunes and chord solos on this little munchkin of an instrument.
* UPRIGHT BASS: The largest, lowest-pitched member of the violin family, which is also called a “double bass” or a “contrabass”. It has a big, hollow wooden body, an unfretted fingerboard, and metal tuning machines which tighten or loosen the strings, which are held up by a wooden bridge. The upright bass is used in 1950’s-style blues bands, rockabilly groups, bluegrass bands, jazz combos and in other styles where its distinctive, woody plucking sound is desired. To get rich WOODY TONE through a P.A. SYSTEM or BASS AMPLIFIER, you will need to use an impedance-matching DI BOX (see WOODY TONE for more details).
* USB: An abbreviation for Universal Serial Bus, a high-speed communications protocol used for computers. With digital music gear, a USB connection can be used to allow a MIDI CONTROLLER keyboard, Digital Audio WORKSTATION or digital multitrack recorder to communicate with a computer or send files to a computer. A FireWire connection is similar to a USB connection, except that FireWire is much faster (see COMPUTER AUDIO INTERFACE).
* VALVE: The British term for a vacuum TUBE, which is a sealed glass tube that is used in guitar amplifiers and effects.
* VIBRATO: This term has two meanings in music. First, it is a natural effect created by singers, guitarists, violinists, wind players, and brass players, when they undulate a note subtly up and down in pitch. A guitarist does this by making a rocking motion on the finger that is pressing down on the string. The term also refers to an electronic effect which recreates the same sound. Vibrato effects were a standard built-in effect in vintage guitar amplifiers and electric organs. The electronic effect is also available in a stomp-box format or in rack-mount MULTI-EFFECT units.
* VOLUME PEDAL: A volume potentiometer (see POT) mounted in a treadle-style footpedal. Volume pedals come in mono and stereo models. Better-quality volume pedals have a chassis and pedal made out of metal, rather than plastic. Some volume pedals have a knob that adjusts the minimum volume on the pedal. In addition to allowing hands-free adjustments of the volume during a performance, volume pedals can be used to create bowed-string effects with a guitar. To create this effect, the player turns the volume pedal to its lowest volume position, strums a chord, and then fades the volume in so that the sound of the chord slowly swells out.
* VW BUS: German-made standard transmission van with an air-cooled engine you can hear four blocks away. It is an essential vehicle for jam-bands who play Grateful Dead and Phish songs. Ideally, it should be an early-1970s model. Psychedelic murals and tie-dyed curtains are a plus.
* WAH-WAH PEDAL: An effect pedal which is used to enable the electric guitar to imitate some of the expressiveness of the human voice. The effect is operated with a rocking footpedal that is mounted on top of a metal chassis. Rocking the pedal up and down turns a potentiometer up and down, which changes the frequency filtering and produces a “wah”-type sound. While wah pedals are most associated with the electric guitar, they are also used with keyboards, electric violin, electric bass, and other instruments.
* WARMTH: An adjective used to describe the rich TONE of: a) analog instruments or effects; b) TUBE amps; c) reel-to-reel tape recordings; d) piezoelectric PICKUPs e) vintage electromechanical instruments (e.g., a Fender Rhodes ELECTRIC PIANO or a HAMMOND ORGAN). Those who like the warm sound of vintage gear tend to describe DIGITAL GEAR as harsh-sounding, cold, and clinical. Whether a certain recording, instrument, or effect is deemed to have “warmth” is very subjective; what Jack finds to be “warm”, Jill may hear as “harsh”.
* WATT: A unit of electrical power. POWER AMPLIFIERs have a wattage rating (given for a specific OHMs rating, e.g., 4 ohms or 8 ohms). The power-handling measurement is often given as RMS (Root Mean Square), which is the average power handling capability. Another power rating system is “Program Power”, which means “do not apply more than this much amp power”. A fairly dubious power rating printed on some gear is “peak power”. This is not a very useful rating, because it is telling you the power that the equipment can handle for very brief peaks. What you need to know is the average, steady power that the gear can produce or handle, not its power handling ability for brief transient peaks. The wattage rating on an amplifier does NOT have a one-to-one relationship with the decibels that the amplifier will produce. If you have a 10 watt amp, and you need an amp that is twice as loud, you need to get an amp with TEN times the wattage (100 watts).
* WHAMMY BAR (also called a “tremolo bar”): A metal bar which is connected to a spring-mounted, hinged bridge. When the player pushes down on the bar, the pitch of the note or chord being played goes down. A gentle undulating pressure on a whammy bar produces a subtle vibrato; suddenly pressing the whammy bar all the way down produces a dramatic “dive bombing” sound that is popular in shred-metal guitar solos (see SHRED GUITAR).
* WOODY TONE: An adjective used to praise the natural, rich sound of an acoustic instrument, acoustic pre-amp, or piezoelectric PICKUP. If your ACOUSTIC GUITAR, fiddle, or UPRIGHT BASS sounds scratchy or thin through the P.A. SYSTEM, you may need an acoustic instrument IMPEDANCE-matching DI BOX/pre-amp. Acoustic instrument DI/pre-amps are available from Fishman, L.R. Baggs, Tech 21, and BBE.
* WORKSTATION: The term has two meanings. It may refer to what is basically a “digital keyboard on steroids” with keys and pads so that it can be used as a MIDI CONTROLLER, a synthesizer, a sequencer, digital effects, and even the ability to record, edit and mix digital tracks (MULTI-TRACK recording) and burn a CD of a finished song. The second meaning is a “virtual studio” software program like ProTools that includes a digital MULTI-TRACK recording system, a COMPUTER AUDIO INTERFACE, an A/D CONVERTER, and Digital Signal Processing (DSP) software for adding effects like REVERB and COMPRESSION.
* X, GENERATION (or “Gen X”): People born in the 1960s and 1970s, known for their “slacker” approach and resistance to authority, structure, and control. Gen Xers gave the world the distorted guitars of Seattle grunge. And the distorted guitars of Riot Grrl! And the distorted roar of buzzsaw guitars of hardcore revival.
* XLR: A three pin, low IMPEDANCE cable used for MICROPHONE cables and for connecting professional sound gear (e.g., a MIXER and a power amplifier). Unlike a 1/4 inch patch cable, XLR cables are “balanced”, in that they use three wires (a ground wire and two wires which carry the signal), which reduces noise.
* Y-CABLE: A cable in which one 1/4 inch plug and cable is connected in parallel to two additional cables with 1/4 inch plugs. This allows a guitarist or keyboard player to plug into two amplifiers at once, or drive two effects in parallel (which would then have to be blended together using a MIXER). Stereo Y-cables are specialized cables used to connect COMPRESSORs or REVERB units into the “insert points” of a MIXER.
* Y, GENERATION (or “Gen Y”): People born in the 1980s and 1990s, known for their love of all things digital, especially if made by Apple, and their frenetic multi-tasking (working on a Digital Audio WORKSTATION with one hand, talking on a cellphone held in the other hand, all while watching a music video playing on their MacBook).
* Z: An abbreviation for IMPEDANCE, which is the resistance of a cable, speaker, or microphone to carrying electrical current. Impedance is measured in OHMs and it is printed on the gear or listed in the manual. Low-impedance (or Low-Z) gear has a low resistance to electrical current. High-impedance (or Hi-Z) gear has a higher resistance to electrical current. Standard 1/4 inch cables are Hi-Z, which means if you use a very long cable for your guitar, your signal will suffer loss from all the resistance and you will lose some of the high-register tone. There are two solutions to dealing with the issue of long cable runs for electric guitar: using a signal booster pedal (a “clean booster”) or switching to a wireless system. XLR mic cables, on the other hand, are Low-Z, which means that long cable runs are OK.
* ZITHER: A folk instrument with a whole bunch of strings strung over a wooden box. You pluck the strings and folk music ensues. Along with an accordion and an UPRIGHT BASS, a zither would help you to form a traditional European-style folk band. An instrument related to the zither is the autoharp, which has buttons for different chords.
By Nathan Morris for Spaceman Music. Copyright, 2010.
About the author: In addition to contributing articles to the Spaceman Music website, Nathan is a volunteer editor on Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia. He formerly played upright bass with folk singer Trevor Tchir and upright/electric bass with the JW Jones Blues Band. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Music from the University of Ottawa and a Master’s degree in Music from Syracuse University, where he performed in the bass section of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. He is married and has two children (a boy and a girl).