All The Colour(ation) Of The Spectrum – uninvited sonic extras

All The Colour(ation) Of The Spectrum – uninvited sonic extras


image borrowed from wearisitfrom

Two things happened recently that let me crystallise the tangle I had got into with colouration. They both concerned loudspeakers.

We have a pair of speakers at work which are very unusual. Where most designers strive to make speaker cabinets that have as little effect on the performance of the drive units as possible, the designer of these has built a box like an acoustic guitar – very thin walled, no damping and using very high quality mahogany, a wood used extensively in acoustic guitar making. so the cabinets join in and become part of what you hear. For some music this turns out to be impossibly addictive: acoustic instruments sound quite wonderful, drums as well and some voices too. They bring a real sense of life and vitality, a real sense of instruments in the room. They’re also very coherent and easy to listen to as well.

I’d been meaning to take them home and I finally got round to doing it. I’d known since I first heard them that they weren’t really right, but they were very beguiling. However, if the cabinet was going to work as it should, there was a definite operating window; too quiet and they didn’t, too loud and they ran out of dynamics; very similar to acoustic guitars really. One of the marks of a great acoustic is the range of volume it can work over, the best will sing beautifully from a whisper to a shout. What swung it though was bass; about two weeks in I suddenly realised that every bass sounded the same. Every note was rounded, slightly plump and with hollowness to it, just like most electric semi acoustic basses I’ve played and heard. Not only that, but of course that had an effect on every other frequency; they went back to work the next morning.


Letritia Kandle image borrowed from muleskinner

The other experience was far simpler. We had a new pair of speakers and they were as usual put into the dem room to run in. A couple of days later we needed to check something and we used a track from The Delines’ album Colfax. I know this well and was looking forward to sharing it with Nick. Problem though: the achingly beautiful pedal steel guitar (a friend of mine once said it was the sound of a man crying) didn’t sound anything like a pedal steel guitar. So instead of “listen to that, it’s wonderful” it was “err… that sound there is supposed to be a pedal steel, but even knowing it is I still can’t recognise it – better put some different speakers in”.

This is about colours or timbre. Timbre, like many things musical, is a beautifully indistinct term; everything about a note that isn’t the fundamental of the note. It’s why a rosewood bodied guitar sounds so different from a mahogany guitar – the first almost crystalline in its purity with wonderful bass and treble definition; dynamic, fast to react and so responsive to touch. Mahogany – warmer, more comfortable with a wonderful and expressive midrange. The same is true of electrics as well, not quite so obvious, but still there, mahogany sounds different to alder, mahogany with a maple cap sounds different to ash. Pianos, brass, reed and woodwind, brass and steel, alloys in cymbals, the warmth of Hammond, the strange organic-ness of a Moog. There’s a wonderful world of musical colour out there and anyone with a half decent hi-fi can explore it.


image borrowed from movie-interiors

So it’s hard not to think of music as colour; people with perfect pitch often see music as colour as much as they hear it. The big deal though is that the colour that fills your room when you play music should come from the music and not from the equipment, or the rack, or the cables, and all these things add their own colours. Always within the compromises that everyone makes there will be colours that shouldn’t be there.

One of our aims when we design and build cables is that they should have as little effect on the signal they carry as possible, and particularly in terms of unwanted colour. Cables should not be tone controls. Cables should carry a signal as accurately as possible and add as little as possible. Customers often tell us that when they first fit one of our cables they think (depending on what they were using before) that the initial impression is of less bass. It only takes a short while though to realise that what they’re hearing is actually more accurate, and more importantly because it’s more accurate it makes everything they listen to more coherent, everything fits better, there’s more clarity, better definition. Actually it’s better!

The problem with bass is that there is a tendency to assume that more is better. More isn’t always better and bigger isn’t always better. Too much bass will destroy coherence, it will affect the colours of every other instrument, it will spoil the voices of your favourite singers, and it will spoil your favourite music. Most of all, it will affect the beautiful and delicate colours of every other instrument.

When you were a child you probably played with paints, and when you got the colours wrong you ended up with shades of brown.  Don’t do the same with the music you listen to. There’s a whole world of beautiful, delicate, bold, vibrant, dramatic and distinct colour to explore and wonder at. It’s in your music collection.  Nigel Finn



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bass coherence colouration colours loudspeakers pitch timbre


2 comments on this post

  1. Great article Nigel. Using colour to describe sound is a wonderful analogy.
    I’m a mahogany girl myself, with my faithful Washburn Woodstock.

    Reply to Yvonne
    • Hi Yvonne,
      I lean towards Rosewood. Got a beautiful Huss & Dalton parlour with rosewood back and sides, mind you, wouldn’t say no to a mahogany version as well.

      Reply to Nigel

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