If you’ve just stepped into the world of all things audio related and don’t seem to understand pretty much anything that everyone is talking about, you’re in the right place! We’ve put together this handy A – Z guide to some of the most commonly used audio terms you’ll come across.
Looking for a specific term? Use the index below to jump straight there!
AC stands for ‘alternating current’ and is the polar opposite of DC (direct current). Most standard adapters for electric guitar pedals and pedalboards operate on this type of electricity.
‘Acoustic’ is a pretty broad term used in both audio engineering and in the world of musicians. In science, ‘acoustics’ refer to a branch of within the realm of physics that correlates to the studying of different types of waves, such as vibrations, sounds, ultrasounds & infrasounds.
In audio engineering, the term is used to define how soundwaves behave in different room settings. In the world of musicians, the term ‘acoustic’ relates to non-electric instruments (guitars, basses, etc.)
Acoustic treatment is basically a relatively broad term referring to a process of isolating or reinforcing products and constructions with additional ‘acoustic’ qualities.
There are two types of acoustic treatments; the first type refers to ‘isolating’ a product (or a construction, room, and such). Items that feature acoustic isolation tend to prevent the sounds produced by the same item from leaving it.
A good example of an acoustically treated product is a set of headphones with ambient noise reduction technology. Headphones typically come supplied with a driver unit (or a multitude of drivers) that reproduce the music from external sources (PC or a smartphone, for example), but in most cases a fraction of the sounds produced this way leak outside of the headphones.
There are ‘active’ and ‘passive’ sound isolation technologies and techniques, both of which aim to reduce the ‘leaking’ of the sound.
The second type of acoustic treatment is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Rooms or buildings where concerts or rehearsals are typically taking place (as well as certain venues) need to conform to the ‘sound pollution laws’ and require additional isolation.
On the other hand, musical bands and groups would have a hard time practicing or performing live if external noises were to leak inside the room in question. That’s why acoustically treated rooms prevent any sounds from leaking in and out at the same time.
The word ‘active’ is used in a variety of situations in the world of music. There are active ‘pickups’, active ‘hardware’, and active ‘features’ on guitars, pedals, and such.
In plain words, any active ‘feature’ requires power in order to function. Additionally, active features can be toggled on and off for additional versatility, which basically means that they do not need to be ‘active’ the whole time the item is in use.
AFL stands for After-Fade Listen and refers to a special system generally used on the mixing consoles. AFL allows the audio engineer to monitor different parameters and signals at a pre-set level (after the ‘fading’ process); this allows the engineer to compare the end result with the initial PFL (pre-fade listen) results.
A single unit of EC (electrical current) is described by the symbol ‘A’, which stands for ‘Amp’. The ‘amperage’ of an electrical contraption (electric amplifiers, for example) shows us how many amps it features. The higher the number is, the stronger the electrical device is, but the more power it also consumes.
Analog (or Analogue) is one of the broadest terms in the world of music, as it has numerous similar meanings and uses. Vaguely described, analog is a type of audio signal that is ‘initial and original’. Analog devices utilize the created electric signals ‘as is’ and reproduce the audio without any sort of modifications or tweaks. Analog signal is completely opposite to ‘digital signal’.
‘Attack’ refers to a time any type of sound needs before it reaches its ‘peak’ (maximum amplitude). This time interval is measured in milliseconds, but it substantially affects the overall sounds of instruments on various levels.
Drum parts, for example, have the fastest attack time, as they are capable of producing sounds that can reach their maximum amplitude almost instantly. Bowed instruments such as violins, for example, have the slowest attack time.
‘Attack’ time is in tight correlation with the musician’s technique in some cases. Guitar players can tweak their ‘attack’ by taking different approaches with their pick or the way they press on the frets of their guitar.
The second use of the term ‘attack’ concerns compressor pedals and (noise) gate pedals. In this particular scenario, the term ‘attack’ refers to the time the CPU of the pedal needs to reduce the level of the given signal.
Audio frequency is a scale of signals audible to human ears. Typically, humans can ‘recognize’ sounds from 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz, with the 20 Hz being the least, and 20 kHz being the most audible sounds.
Audio interface is basically a contraption that helps musicians and audio engineers utilize various programs and plug-ins, allowing for a substantially more ‘digital’ approach. Most audio interfaces come supplied with various built-in features that can drastically change how the recording process functions, and how the end result turns out to be.
Audio interfaces are typically connected to PCs via USBs and often feature integrated their own pre-amps. The main difference between audio interface models is in the number of channels they provide (ranging from two to beyond thirty).
A ‘backup’ is essentially a copy of your current work progress made in any form of software – Guitar Pro, Pro Tools, Cubase, etc.
Making a ‘backup’ is one of the most essential parts of being a studio engineer or a musician. Regardless of whether you’re recording bits and pieces or multiple tracks, there are countless scenarios where your progress can be lost forever – blackouts, accidentally turning off your PC, and so on.
Although there are certain programs that will save your current progress periodically and automatically, making copies in time is always the best way to go.
BPF stands for ‘Band-Pass Filter’. This type of filter either removes or diminishes frequencies that are distanced from the central frequency. Any frequencies above or below the center will be ‘filtered’.
Bandwidth represents the range of different frequencies within an EC circuit (amplifiers, or filters, for example).
‘Bass’ in its original sense is a four-string instrument that can be acoustic or electric. However, in the world of audio engineering, you’ll find ‘bass’ labels on pretty much every console and pedal.
In this sense, Bass refers to the frequencies located at the low-end of the sound spectrum. The lowest bass parameters indicate frequencies of the lowest level, as well as indicating the lowest possible frequencies an object is able to reproduce under normal circumstances.
Bit is basically a representation of a binary digit; it can be either one or zero.
Bit rate refers to the number of bits that can be reproduced or replayed within a given time frame (typically, this is a single second). Under normal circumstances, bit rates are expressed in kilobits/second or megabits/second.
A ‘boost’ pedal and the ‘boost’ function you’ll see on your desk are two completely different things. First of all, a ‘boost’ (booster) pedal is meant to amplify the sound of a guitar or bass, and that includes all frequencies at the same time.
The main difference between a booster and the ‘boost’ function is that the boost function extends the span of frequencies that can pass through the filter. On another hand, the ‘cut’ function reduces this range.
BPM stands for beats-per-minute; this parameter tells you the exact information of the track’s tempo. Although there are several opinions and schools regarding tempo markings, this one seems to be widely accepted by musicians worldwide (ranging from the slowest to the fastest markings):
- Grave – 20 to 40 bpm
- Lento/Largo – 40 to 60 bpm
- Adagio – 66 to 76 bpm
- Andante – 76 to 108 bpm
- Moderato – 108 to 120 bpm
- Allegro – 120 to 168 bpm
- Presto – 168 to 200 bpm
- Prestissimo – More than 200 bpm
Generally speaking, most commercial songs are written in Moderato, which seems to be the ‘golden middle’ in terms of pace and song’s speed.
Buffer represents storage for short-term data particles. Temporary data is stored in the buffer until it is processed and transferred to another location within the system.
Just like the name implies, a cabinet is basically a large, wooden enclosure where loudspeakers are typically housed. They’re meant to protect the components of speakers, but also they are capable of substantially affecting their sonic performance through different sealing techniques.
There are numerous types of microphones, cardioid being one of them. This type of microphone is capable of catching up audio in front of them while almost completely ignoring the sounds on the rear end. They earned their name due to the shape of the angle at which they pick up the sounds (cardio = heart).
Cardioid microphones are normally used for situations when audio needs to be recorded from the front, when ambient sounds from the rear could improve the overall atmosphere, and in situations when noise in the back needs to be excluded in total (all three conditions need to be met cumulatively). A perfect example is recording a band performing on stage – the microphone faces the core of the band, it picks up the monitors and cabinets on the sides while ignoring the noise the audience makes.
CD-R is essentially a compact disk on which you can record data exactly once. Data contained on CD-Rs can’t be erased or reused. Nowadays, CD-Rs are a relic of the past, replaced by DVDs, Blu-Rays, and newer types of data sharing.
The term ‘channel’ in the world of audio engineering means pretty much the same as in its traditional form. A channel is a single line of controls bound to a single input on the mixer (mixing console).
The term ‘chord’ can be described as ‘group of 3 or more notes played simultaneously’. Groups of 2 notes are called ‘dyads’ and are sometimes referred to as ‘chords’ by laymen and beginner musicians. If the notes are played in succession, they form a ‘melody’ rather than a chord.
Within the context of audio engineering, the word ‘chorus’ has two separate meanings; it refers to either the chorus as a part of the song, or to chorus as a sound effect. As a sound effect, chorus doubles the signal and implements effects of delay or pitch shifting, which makes the sound richer and fuller.
Digital-audio-workstation (or DAW) is a form of a virtual studio program used for recording. Some of the most popular DAW programs are Cubase, Sonar, and Logic Pro.
A decibel (properly pronounced as ‘deciBel’) is a unit expressing the intensity of an audio signal. It’s often used in comparison to another source of audio; typically input & output level of amps and filters are compared through decibels.
‘Decay’ refers to the situation where the sound’s amplitude gradually diminishes over time.
The time interval between the moment a sound is generated and the moment it actually takes effect is called ‘delay’. In audio engineering context ‘delay’ is commonly called ‘latency’, whereas ‘delay’ stands for an effect caused by guitar pedals.
Everything ‘digital’ is on the opposite end of the spectrum of where ‘analog’ is. Simply put, digitalized contraptions, tools, and gadgets rely on digital information storage (based on binary codes) and utilize DC to represent sonic signals with samples. Generally speaking, an adequately built digital system has the potential of having infinite resolution (just like an average analog system). However, most digital systems operate at fixed sample rates.
DNR (Dolby Noise-Reduction Technology)
Dolby is a pioneer of noise reduction technology. Simply put, ‘noise reduction’ refers to specifically engineered isolation that retains all audio within the given device (microphone, headphones, and similar).
Their noise reduction systems are comprised of type B, type C, and type S for domestic machines, as well as Type A and Type SR for more professional machines.
A driver is basically a bridge between a programs’ peripherals (for instance, it could be a sound card, a printer, or a scanner) and the software’s core -main components that relay the tasks and initial information. On a loudspeaker, the term ‘driver’ actually refers to its ‘drive unit’ rather than the ‘driver’ and gains slightly different meaning;
A drum pad is a drum-shaped synthetic surface packed with ‘triggers’ (sensors) that send signals whenever they’re hit with a drum stick. They’re generally used by drummers for practice, although most modern software programs feature a variety of drum pads as standalone instruments.
‘Dynamics’ explain how certain aspects of the soundstage behave in correlation with one another. In short, the dynamics define the performance of lows, mids, and highs by observing their behavior between them.
Effects are, simply put, ‘modifications’ to the sounds, recorded or played. Effects alter the signal in one or more ways (depending how many effects are used) for the sheer purpose of bringing a bit more creativity.
Effects Loop (FX loop)
Effects loop is basically an interface, commonly equipped with great connectivity, that allows engineers and musicians to make and control a chain of effects.
‘EQ’ is short for ‘equaliser’. It can be an effect, or it can be a pedal; its purpose is to allow the engineer (or a musician) to adjust various parameters by either boosting or by attenuating specific frequencies.
Fader is a sliding pot control commonly found on mixers and similar processors.
Fidelity represents the precision of reproduced acoustic soundwaves in comparison to electric inputs. The truer the representation is, the higher the level of fidelity is.
While equalizers are meant to either boost or to attenuate certain frequencies, filters can only do the latter.
‘Gain’ stands for the amount of decibels a signal was amplified by in comparison to the initial signal’s strength.
‘Glitch’ is synonymous with ‘bug’ – it’s an unwanted and unintended signal corruption.
Harmonic distortion is a parameter describing the amount of additional harmonics that weren’t present within the initial signal.
Hertz (Hz) is a standard symbol for frequency measurement.
The high range stands for the top fraction of audible frequencies; normally, frequencies of above 1 kilohertz are within this range.
In-ear monitors are essentially special headphones used by live musicians that offer superb fidelity and sonic performance.
Impedance relates to ‘resistance’ of a given object in the context of changing its initial state.
Interface can be used to describe a panel of settings in a software or a physical device that serves as a bridge between different pieces of audio equipment (for instance, between a guitar and a PC).
Jack is essentially an audio connector, typically 0.25 inches in diameter. Most common versions are TS and TRS versions (for balanced and unbalanced signals).
Latency is the parameter expressing the extent of the ‘delay’ effect.
A loop is a ‘cycle’, or a ‘repetition’. Musicians often record repeatable riffs as ‘loops’ to get inspired to create melodies, harmonies, or solos.
The low range is the lowest fraction of audible frequencies. Normally, frequencies below one kilohertz are within this range.
Machine heads, tuning pegs, or tuning heads are the small tuning contraptions on the guitar’s top. Additionally, Machine Head is the name of a popular heavy metal band.
Frequencies between the low range and the high range are within the ‘mid-range’. These are all the frequencies that are between 300 hertz and 3 kilohertz.
MIDI stands for Musical-Instrument-Digital-Interface. This is a standard interface format, enabling musicians to emulate hundreds of instruments on a computer program.
A mixer is a contraption that is used to merge several signals together. Bigger models are typically called ‘consoles’ and ‘desks’.
Noise reduction is a technique of attenuating the levels of output audio.
A unit by which electrical resistance is measured (impedance).
Software used by PCs and laptops; it is required in order to start-up and load every other program.
Overloading the analog circuitry on purpose is called ‘overdriving’. It can be used in numerous ways, but it’s most popularly used by overdrive pedals.
Passive is on the opposite end of the spectrum of where ‘Active’ is. Passive features are not powered by electricity, and can’t be toggled on or off. They are always ‘off’, in a sense.
Pickups are sometimes called ‘magnets’. These magnets ‘pick up’ the vibrations in the strings and convert them into electrical signals.
Smaller, subsidiary software meant to augment the versatility and functionality of the main software (platform).
Ram is short for Random-Access-Memory. It’s a specific type of computer memory used for temporary data storage.
Reverb is a short word for ‘reverberation’. This term relates to the situation where the sound bounces off of different surfaces, somewhat altering the frequencies during the process.
A ‘cut’ fragment of a track or a song. In most cases, a sample can be used with a MIDI controller.
Sample rate defines the number A/D converter can sample incoming waveforms each second.
By definition, ‘stereo’ sound features two channels that can mimic the situation of two separate audio sources playing the same sounds.
The pace of a song; consult ‘BPM’.
Tremolo is a type of sound modulation utilizing an LFO. Alternatively, the term ‘tremolo’ can relate to a part of a guitar (‘tremolo or whammy bar’).
What effects are for guitars, ‘voices’ are for pianos and synthesizers.
Watt is a standard symbol (name) for electrical power (W).
Signals with a flat power density are called ‘white noises’. They sound like static crackling and are almost exclusively caused by accident.
That wraps up our guide to the basic audio terms and definitions! Looking for a specific term we didn’t list? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll be sure to include it!
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