14 of the Most Generally Confused Phrases in Music and Audio

[Editors Note: This article was written by Brad Allen Williams and it originally appeared on the Flypaper Blog. Brad is a NYC-based guitarist, writer/composer, producer, and mixer.]

As soon as upon a time, remixing a tune meant really redoing the combo. Many classic consoles (some Neve 80-series, for instance) have a button labeled “remix” that adjustments a number of features on the desk to optimize it for mixing somewhat than recording.

However someday within the late 20th century, the phrase “remix” started to tackle a brand new that means: creating a brand new association of an current tune utilizing components of the unique recording. Into the 21st century, it’s developed once more and is now typically used as a synonym for “cowl.” The latter two definitions stay in frequent use, whereas the primary has largely disappeared.

Language is consistently evolving, and musical phrases are clearly no exception. In actual fact, in music, language appears to evolve significantly quick, probably owing to plenty of interdisciplinary collaboration and the fast progress of DIY.

Ambiguous or unorthodox use of language has the potential to significantly impede communication between collaborators. In an effort to keep away from an unclear scenario, let’s break down commonplace utilization of among the mostly conflated, misused, or misunderstood music-related phrases.


Achieve, because it’s utilized in music electronics, is outlined by Merriam-Webster as, “A rise in quantity, magnitude, or diploma — a achieve in effectivity,” or, “The rise (of voltage or sign depth) attributable to an amplifier; particularly: the ratio of output over enter.”

To place it in much less formal phrases, achieve is simply a rise in power. If an amplifier makes a sign stronger, then it causes that sign to realize depth. Achieve is normally expressed as a ratio. If an amplifier makes a sign 10 occasions as loud, then that amplifier has a “achieve of 10.”

Alternatively, harmonic distortion is that crunchy or fuzzy sound that happens when an amplifier clips (because of its lack of ability to deal with the quantity of sign thrown at it).

Within the 1970s, some guitar amp producers started using further achieve levels of their designs to generate harmonic distortion on objective. In different phrases, they’d amplify the sign, then amplify it once more, and that second achieve stage — having been given greater than it might deal with — would distort. These turned often called “high-gain amplifiers.” Due to this, many guitarists simply assumed that achieve was synonymous with distortion. This was cemented when later amps just like the Marshall JCM900 had knobs labeled “achieve” that, by design, elevated the quantity of harmonic distortion when turned up!

Exterior the realm of electrical guitar, although, achieve continues to be most usually utilized in a standard manner. When a recording engineer talks about “structuring achieve,” for instance, she or he is normally particularly making an attempt to keep away from harmonic distortion. It’s simple to see how this would possibly trigger confusion!


To not choose on guitarists, however that is one other one which journeys us up. Tone has many music-related definitions, however the certainly one of curiosity in the meanwhile is (once more, per Merriam-Webster), “Vocal or musical sound of a selected high quality…musical sound with respect to timbre and method of expression.”

Alternatively, the dictionary definition of tonality is:

1. Tonal high quality.

2a. Key.

2b. The group of all the tones and harmonies of a bit of music in relation to a tonic.

It’s necessary to notice that “tonal high quality” right here refers to “the standard of being tonal,” or the standard of being in a specific key (in different phrases, not atonal). This can be a totally different matter from “tone high quality,” which is usually understood to imply “timbre.” Most musicians with formal coaching perceive tonality both as a synonym for key or as the standard of being in a key.

If you happen to’re making an attempt to sound fancy, it may be tempting to succeed in for phrases with extra syllables, however utilizing tonality as a synonym for timbre could be complicated. Think about you’re recording two piano items — one using 20th-century serial composition methods and the opposite using useful concord. If you happen to categorical considerations in regards to the piano’s “tonality” whereas recording the second piece, the composer would in all probability assume you have been criticizing his or her work!


Most musicians within the fashionable period perceive the distinction between these two ideas, however they nonetheless sometimes confuse people comparatively new to the method of recording.

Overdubbing is including an extra layer to an current recording.

“Punching in” is changing a portion of an already-recorded observe with a brand new efficiency.

To do a “punch-in” (as a way to repair a mistake, for instance), the performer performs together with the outdated efficiency till, on the applicable second, the recordist presses report, thus recording over the error. The recordist can then “punch out” to protect the rest of the unique efficiency as soon as the correction is made.


A portamento is a steady, regular glide between two pitches with out stopping at any level alongside the way in which.

A glissando is a glide between two pitches that stair-steps at every intermediate notice alongside the way in which. A glissando quantities, in essence, to a extremely quick chromatic scale.

To play a glissando on guitar, you’d merely pluck a string and slide one finger up the fretboard. The frets would make distinct intermediate pitches, creating the stair-stepped impact. If you happen to wished to play a portamento on guitar, you can both bend the string or slip a steel or glass slide over one of many fingers of your fretting hand.


Whereas typically used interchangeably in fashionable follow, vibrato and tremolo are literally distinct sorts of wiggle. Normally, tremolo is amplitude modulation (various the loudness of the sign), whereas vibrato is frequency modulation (various the pitch of the sign).

However over the previous few hundred years, tremolo has generally referred to many alternative performative actions. On string devices, tremolo is used to check with the fast repetition of a single notice, and in percussion, tremolo is commonly used to explain a roll. Singers use it for even crazier issues, like a pulsing of the diaphragm whereas singing¹.

Leo Fender should’ve had his phrases confused — he labeled the vibrato bridges on his guitars “synchronized tremolo,” and the tremolo circuits on his amps “vibrato.” Confusion has reigned ever since.


Analog and digital are maybe probably the most confused pair of phrases within the 21st-century musical lexicon. I as soon as had a considerably older musician inform me that my 1960s-era fuzz pedal and tape echo made my guitar sound “too digital” for his music. Likewise, numerous youthful musicians declare to favor the “analog sound” of the unique AKAI MPC (an early digital sampler) and the Yamaha DX-7 (an early digital FM synthesizer). However “analog” and “digital” aren’t merely stand-ins for “classic” and “fashionable,” nor for “{hardware}” and “software program.” They’re solely totally different mechanisms for storing and producing sounds. Let’s study somewhat extra!

Merriam-Webster’s most related definition of analog is, “Of, referring to, or being a mechanism during which knowledge is represented by constantly variable bodily portions.”

Additionally related is its first definition of analogue: “One thing that’s analogous or just like one thing else.”

Now, how does this relate to music know-how? All of it goes again to people’ longstanding seek for a manner to seize and retailer sound. Sound, on a fundamental scientific stage, is nothing greater than compression and rarefaction (decompression) of air that our ears can sense. Since air strain fluctuations can’t actually be saved, recording sound proved elusive for a very long time.

20th-century scientists and engineers, nevertheless, brilliantly found out that recording sound may be attainable if they might precisely switch that sound into one thing that could possibly be preserved. They wanted one thing storable that might symbolize the sound; an analogue to face in for the sound that might permit it to be captured and saved.

First, they used mechanically generated squiggles on a wax cylinder because the analogue. Finally, they found out that they might use alternating-current electrical energy (which oscillates between optimistic and detrimental voltage), as an analogue of sound waves (which oscillate between optimistic and detrimental air strain). From there, it was a comparatively brief leap to determining that they might, by means of electromagnetism, retailer that data as positively and negatively charged magnetic domains, which exist on magnetic tape.

That is analog recording!

Since electrical voltage is constantly variable, any course of — together with synthesis — that represents air strain fluctuations solely utilizing alternating present electrical energy is analog, per Merriam-Webster’s first definition above.

Digital, alternatively, is outlined as, “Of, referring to, or utilizing calculation by numerical strategies or by discrete items,” and, “Of, referring to, or being knowledge within the type of particularly binary digits, digital pictures, a digital readout; particularly : Of, referring to, or using digital communications alerts, a digital broadcast.”

That’s somewhat arcane, so let’s put it this manner: Moderately than relying instantly on steady analog voltages, a digital recorder or synthesizer computes numerical values that symbolize analog voltages at varied slices of time, known as samples. These will then be “decoded” right into a clean analog sign later as a way to be precisely transferred again into precise air strain variations on the speaker. If that’s a blur, don’t fear — you solely want to know that it is a essentially totally different technique of storing or producing sound.

Absent an actual acquaintance with the know-how of a person piece of apparatus or course of, it’s in all probability safer to keep away from leaping to conclusions about whether or not it’s analog or digital. For instance, there are reel-to-reel magnetic tape machines (just like the Sony PCM 3348 DASH) that don’t report analog voltage-based sign in any respect, however somewhat use the tape to retailer digital data (as easy ones and zeroes).

Since you possibly can’t choose whether or not a bit of substances is analog or digital along with your eyes, it’s in all probability finest to solely use these phrases when you want to check with the particular applied sciences as outlined above. In different phrases, subsequent time you’re recording in a studio with a cool-looking piece of outdated gear, it’s in all probability safer to make use of #classic as a substitute of#analog to caption your in-studio Instagram picture!


Section is outlined by Merriam-Webster as… (deep breath):

“The purpose or stage in a interval of uniform round movement, harmonic movement, or the periodic adjustments of any magnitude various in response to a easy harmonic regulation to which the rotation, oscillation, or variation has superior from its commonplace place or assumed on the spot of beginning.”

That’s a mouthful! This can be a idea that’s simpler understood with an instance, so let’s think about that you’ve got a swinging pendulum:

If you happen to have been to freeze that pendulum at two totally different occasions, the dot on the finish can be in two totally different places. The pendulum’s swing happens over time, so the placement of the pendulum will depend on once you cease it. We’d check with the part of the pendulum as a way to describe this phenomenon and the place the pendulum is in its cycle relative to time. And because it’s all the time shifting in a steady, clean arc, there are an infinite variety of potentialities!

Section turns into probably related for something that’s oscillating or undulating — just like the pendulum above or a sound wave.

Polarity, alternatively, is outlined as, “The actual state, both optimistic or detrimental, on the subject of the 2 poles or electrification.”

To place it in quite simple phrases, you’re coping with polarity any time you put in a battery. The battery has a optimistic terminal and a detrimental one. It’s important to make certain it’s put in the appropriate manner. Whereas part is infinitely variable, polarity has solely two decisions — it’s one or the opposite.

In our temporary rationalization of analog audio above, we talked about that optimistic and detrimental swings of voltage are used to symbolize optimistic and detrimental adjustments in air strain. If we swap polarity of a sign, we swap all of the optimistic voltages for detrimental ones, and vice-versa. +1v turns into -1v, +0.5v turns into -0.5v, and so on. That is normally completed with a button marked with the Greek letter theta or “Ø.”

Apparently, when you have one sign alone, it’s normally the case that our ear can’t actually inform the distinction between optimistic or detrimental polarity. It’s once you mix two or extra related alerts (like two microphones on one drum for example) {that a} polarity flip of 1 or the opposite can have a dramatic affect on the sound.

Confusingly, this affect is a results of part variations between the 2 sources, and switching polarity can typically enhance (or worsen!) the sound of two mixed sources that are barely out of part. For that reason, the polarity swap is commonly known as a “part swap,” and miserable it’s typically colloquially known as “flipping part.”

Within the graphic beneath, you’ll see a quick, zoomed-in snapshot of two waveforms. A single bass efficiency was concurrently recorded into each a direct field (blue) and thru a mic on its amplifier (inexperienced).

Within the first graphic, you possibly can discover that the 2 are barely out of part. The blue direct-in wave swings detrimental ever so barely earlier than the inexperienced mic–on–amp one does. It’s because the amp’s sound needed to journey by means of the air briefly earlier than being picked up by the microphone. Since sound in air travels rather more slowly than electrical energy does, this creates a slight time delay or part discrepancy.

Within the second instance beneath, I’ve flipped the polarity of the amp observe. You possibly can see that the time delay nonetheless exists, however now the amp observe’s wave is inverted or “the other way up.” Because the DI observe swings detrimental, the amp observe swings optimistic.

On this case, the swap made the mixed sound noticeably thinner, so I shortly flipped it again. Often although, flipping polarity improves the mixed sound of two sources that are barely out of part.

In follow, most recordists will perceive what you imply if you happen to say “flip the part,” however ought to there occur to be a physicist within the room, you would possibly get a raised eyebrow! Typically, although, it is a traditional instance of how unorthodox utilization typically turns into accepted over time.

Which raises the purpose: any of the musical and audio phrases above might ultimately, like “remix” earlier than them, evolve to include new shades of that means (and even have some earlier “appropriate” definitions fall into disuse). Within the meantime, although, the extra exact your grasp on the language of music, the much less doubtless you might be to misconceive or be misunderstood.

¹ In efficiency, for each singers and plenty of instrumentalists, pure tremolo is sort of unattainable to realize with out taking up some traits of vibrato — that’s to say {that a} passage is performed or sung with solely variations of both pitch or quantity.


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