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Physics of Sound

Within music and music production, there are many different aspects to take into account
as producers or sound engineers. Whether you are recording a band, solo singer or working
on a live performance, each aspect can affect the final product and it is up to you as
producers, sound engineers and music technologists to make sure that everything is done
properly. In this article I will discuss the basics of acoustics and sound all around us.

What is sound?

Sound is an energy caused by vibrations that travel through a medium that is received by
either a human ear or an animals ear and interpreted by your brain. Sound is all around us
all the time and the process of your ears receiving vibrations of air and your brain
interpreting them as sound is ongoing 24/7. Sound is omnidirectional meaning sound travels
away from the source of the sound with the same energy in every direction.

Sound waves & Waveforms

Now I have discussed what sound actually is, now we can talk about how sound travels as
sound waves. Sound waves are waves of compressions and rarefactions as sound travels in a
medium such as air. A sound wave is a visual representation of a sound bubble which
pulsates outwards. Without sound waves we would not be able to hear sound because
sound wouldnt be able to t ravel.

For there to be sound, there needs to be a disturbance of air particles from a sound source
causing a chain reaction which then creates a collision
between atoms and molecules.
The compression and rarefaction of air molecules
cause the vibrations which then, in turn, creates

For example, when Pitching Forks vibrate it creates
regular periods of high and low pressure. These are
known as the compressions and rarefactions of the air

molecules, and will produce a frequency. I will discuss frequency in the next section of this

Waveforms are visual representations of sound waves and are curves showing the shape of
a wave at any given time. You will see waveforms when producing music in Logic when
recording or importing audio. Please note you will not see a waveform when
recording/working with MIDI as you will only see the MIDI notes in Logic.

Frequency, Amplitude & Envelopes

Frequency - One complete compression and rarefaction is known as a cycle. The number of
cycles within one second is called the frequency which is measured in Hertz.

The perfect human hearing range is from 20 Hertz (Hz) to 20 Kilohertz (kHz) which decreases
over time as you get older. This is why sometimes shops use mosquito alarms to deter
loitering by younger people as it emits a high frequency sound which can only be heard by
younger people.

The frequency of the

mosquito alarm is
approximately 17.5kHz for
young people or 8kHz for
most people as they are
fitted with two frequency
settings depending on its
target or purpose.

Musical notes are set to
specific frequencies. On a
musical keyboard, if you go
an octave higher the
frequency doubles and if
you go down an octave
lower the frequency is
halved. This is seen on the
table on the right.

Remember that each frequency has its own wavelength and high frequencies are more
easily absorbed than low frequencies. Thats why whenever you are talking, if you were to
put your hand over your mouth your speech is muffled because the high frequencies are
absorbed by your hand

Amplitude The amplitude is the range of a vibration or oscillation, measured from the
balanced frequency (the centre).

Beats - Two tones where there is only a small difference in frequency and have a relatively
similar amplitude will produce an effect known as beats. The effect sounds like the volume
is pulsating because of the difference in frequency.

The beats effect can be heard/shown by the Logic screenshot below. You have a 440Hz tone
and a 445Hz tone which creates a pulsating sound as if the volume is changing.

Envelopes Envelopes are a major component of many synthesizers, samplers, and other
electronic musical instruments especially within Logic. In music production, us producers
use envelopes to change an aspect of an instruments sound. The change could be subtle
but it can make a big difference in the quality of the sound produced.

An envelope is made up of ADSR. ADSR stands for Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release.

Attack Attack is the amount of time it takes for the sound to reach full volume after the
sound is activated (e.g a key pressed on a Piano).

Decay Decay is how quickly it takes for the sound to drop to the sustain level a fter the

Sustain Sustain is the state of a constant volume of the sound after the decay until the
note is released. This is a volume parameter rather than a time parameter like the attack,
decay and release.

Release - The release is the time it takes for the sound to fade out when a note ends (e.g
when a key on the Piano is released). The release will tend to be longer for a percussion
instrument such as a glockenspiel.

The screenshot below is an Envelope setting within Massive by Native Instruments which is
a synth plug-In for Logic.

Speed of Sound

Speed of sound is always measured in metres per second (m/s) and is worked out by
dividing the velocity by the wavelength plus frequency.

The main speed of sound you really have to know is the speed of sound through air. The
speed of sound through air at 20 degrees Celsius is 344 metres per second (m/s). This is the
fastest speed of sound through different mediums out of air, petroleum, the human body,
Iron and Aluminium. The slowest speed of sound through a medium is sound travelling
through Aluminium also at 20 degrees Celsius. You can compare differences in the speed of
sound using the graph below.


Whenever two or more waveforms travel to a
single location out-of-phase, the relative signal
levels of each waveform are added together to
create one amplitude level at that certain point.

Whenever two waveforms that have the same
frequency, shape and peak amplitude and have no
relative time difference, they are fully in-phase.
This causes the newly-joined waveform to have the
same frequency, phase and shape but with double
the amplitude. If the same two waves are joined
completely out-of-phase, which means it has a
phase difference of 180 degrees, they will cancel each other out when added together.
This creates a straight line of zero amplitude. If the second wave is only slightly out-of-
phase, by a degree other than 180 degrees, the levels will be added at points where the
combined amplitudes are positive and at a level where the combined product is negative.
Take a look at the screenshot below to find out more and read through the description
below it.

If you were to listen to tracks 1 and 2 while muting track 3 and listen to the results, it should
result in a summed signal thats 3 decibels (dB) louder.

If you were to listen to tracks 1 and 3 while muting track 2 and listen to the results,
it should cancel out, resulting in no output.

If you were to offset track 3, relative to track 1, it should result in a difference
in degrees of cancellation.

This is just one example of how you can test/try out the Phase effect within Logic.

Please note that this is universal to the whole of music and not just Logic,
it happens elsewhere in the world of music too! Remember, it is all to do with frequencies.


The ear is able to interpret frequencies that have ratios that are whole multiples of the
fundamentals as being specifically related. There are two types of harmonics which are odd
harmonics and even harmonics. To be odd harmonics the frequencies have to be odd
multiples of the fundamental and to be even harmonics the frequencies have to be even
multiples of the fundamental. To the ear, even harmonics tend to be more pleasing while
odd harmonics tend to give a harsher and more dissonant sound.


The amplitude is the height divided by the depth of the wave which is the volume measured
in decibels. Decibels are measured relative to the observer, so 10dB to one could seem like
20dB to another.

The Doppler Effect The Doppler effect is when either a source moves towards something,
the wavelength decreases and the frequency increases or when a source moves away from
something, the wavelength increases and the frequency decreases.

An example of this is when a fire engine or ambulance driving past with its siren on. The
pitch of the siren appears to change to the human ear as it drives closer to you, as it passes
you and as it drives away from you.

Equalisation (EQ)

Equalisation is the process of making
adjustments to the balance between
frequencies within an electronic signal.
EQ allows us to correct specific problems in a
recorded sound to restore
a sound to its natural tone (fidelity), correct
problems in the frequency response of a
microphone or in the sound of an instrument,
contrast sounds from instruments or recorded
tracks to blend the mix together properly and
alter a sound for musical ideas or creativity.
You will use EQ in everything from live music
performance to music production in the studio with Logic Pro X as seen in the screenshot on
the right.

There are two main types of EQ. These are Shelving EQ and Bell or Peak EQ.

Shelving EQ is designed to correspond to a rise or drop in a frequency response at a selected
frequency which refers to a preset level and continues at that level
until the end of the audio spectrum.

The Bell or peak EQ is the
most common type of EQ. It is
started by a peaking
filter and as its name
suggests, a peak-shaped bell
curve can either be boosted
or reduced around a selected
middle frequency.

As music producers, sound engineers or music technologists, it is vital that you know and
understand all of these basic concepts within acoustics and the physics of sound. Once you
understand the basics you can then start working on producing professional standard music
and professional recordings.