A Sound-Quality Glossary
Bruce Bartlett

   By Guest Contributor   Categories: Recording

The sound of mic techniques, effects, and EQ in a recording can be hard to translate into engineering terms. For example, what EQ should you use to get a “fat” sound or a “ thin” sound? The glossary below may help. It’s based on conversations with producers, musicians, and reviewers over 30 years. Not everyone agrees on these definitions, but they are common. This glossary does not suggest the cause of the sound quality or how to change it; that’s up to you to determine.

AIRY Spacious. The instruments sound like they are surrounded by a large reflective space full of air. A pleasant amount of reverb or early reflections. High-frequency response that extends to 15 or 20 kHz.

BALLSY OR BASSY Emphasized low frequencies below about 200 Hz.

BLOATED Excessive mid-bass around 250 Hz. Poorly damped low frequencies, low frequency resonances.

BLOOM Adequate low frequencies. Spacious. Good reproduction of dynamics and reverberation. Early reflections or a sense of “air” around each instrument in an orchestra.

BOOMY Excessive bass around 125 Hz. Poorly damped low frequencies or low frequency resonances.

BOXY Having resonances as if the music were enclosed in a box. Speaker cabinet diffraction or vibration. An emphasis around 250 Hz to 600 Hz.

BREATHY Audible breath sounds in vocals, flute, or sax. Good high-frequency response.

BRIGHT High-frequency emphasis. Harmonics are strong relative to fundamentals.

BRITTLE High-frequency peaks, or weak fundamentals. Slightly distorted or harsh highs. Opposite of round or mellow. See THIN. Objects that are physically thin and brittle emphasize highs over lows when you crack them.

CHESTY A vocal signal with a bump in the low-frequency response around 125 to 250 Hz.

CLEAN Free of noise, distortion, and leakage.


CLINICAL Too clean or analytical. Emphasized high-frequency response, sharp transient response. Not warm.

COLORED Having timbres that are not true to life. Non flat response, peaks, or dips.


CONSTRICTED Poor reproduction of dynamics. Dynamic compression. Distortion at high levels. Also see PINCHED.

CRISP Extended high-frequency response. Like a crispy potato chip, or crisp bacon frying. Often referring to cymbals.

CRUNCH Pleasant guitar-amp distortion.

DARK Opposite of bright. Weak high frequencies.

DELICATE High frequencies extending to 15 or 20 kHz without peaks. A sweet, airy, open sound with strings or acoustic guitar.

DEPTH A sense of closeness and farness of instruments, caused by miking them at different distances. Good transient response that reveals the direct/refl ected sound ratio in the recording.

DETAILED Easy to hear tiny details in the music; articulate. Adequate high-frequency response, sharp transient response.

DISTANT Too much leakage. Low direct-to-reverb ratio.

DRY Without effects. Not spacious. Reverb tends towards mono instead of spreading out. Overdamped transient response.


ECHOEY Having audible echoes or reverberation.

EDGY Too much high frequencies. Trebly. Harmonics are too strong relative to the fundamentals. When you view the waveform on an oscilloscope, it even looks edgy or jagged, because of excessive high frequencies. Distorted, having unwanted harmonics that add an edge or raspiness to the sound.

EFFORTLESS Low distortion, usually coupled with flat response.

ETCHED Clear but verging on edgy. Emphasis around 10 kHz or higher.

FAT See FULL and WARM. Also, a diffuse spatial effect, or smeared out in time, with some reverberant decay, or the sound of a snare drum tuned low.

FOCUSED Referring to the image of a musical instrument which is easy to localize, pinpointed, having a small spatial spread.

FORWARD Sounding close to the listener. Emphasis around 2 kHz to 5 kHz.

FULL Opposite of thin. Strong fundamentals relative to harmonics. Good low-frequency response, not necessarily extended, but with adequate level around 100 to 300 Hz.

GENTLE Opposite of edgy. The harmonics—highs and upper mids—are not exaggerated, or may even be weak.

GLARE, GLASSY A little less extreme than edgy. A little too bright or trebly.

GRAINY The music sounds like it’s segmented into little grains, rather than flowing in one continuous piece. Not liquid or fl uid. Suffering from harmonic or IM (intermodulation) distortion. Some early A/D converters sounded grainy, as do current ones of inferior design. “Powdery” is finer than “grainy”!

GRUNGY Lots of harmonic or IM (intermodulation) distortion.

HARD Too much upper midrange, usually around 3 kHz. Or, good transient response, as if the sound is hitting you hard.

HARSH Too much upper midrange. Peaks in the frequency response from 2 kHz to 6 kHz. Or, excessive phase shift.

HEAVY Good low-frequency response below about 50 Hz. Suggesting great weight or power, like a diesel locomotive or thunder.

HOLLOW See HONKY. Also, too much reverberation, or a mid-frequency dip, or comb filtering.

HONKY The music sounds the way your voice sounds when you cup your hands around your mouth. A bump in the response around 500 to 700 Hz.

IN YOUR FACE Dry (without effects, without reverb), possibly with compression.

LIQUID Opposite of grainy. A sense of seamless flowing of the music. Flat response and low distortion. High frequencies are fl at or reduced relative to mids and lows.

LOW-FI (low fi delity) “Trashy” sounding. Tinny, distorted, noisy, or muddy.

MELLOW Reduced high frequencies, not edgy.

MUDDY Not clear. Weak harmonics, smeared time response, IM distortion. Too much reverb at low frequencies. Too much emphasis around 200 to 350 Hz. Too much leakage.

MUFFLED The music sounds covered up. Weak highs or weak upper mids.

MUSICAL Conveying emotion. Flat response, low distortion, no edginess.

NASAL The vocalist sounds as if he or she is singing with the nose closed. Also applies to strings. Bump in the response around 500 to 1000 Hz. See HONKY.

NEUTRAL Accurate tonal reproduction. No obvious colorations. No serious peaks or dips in the frequency response.

PAPERY Referring to a kick drum that has too much output around 400 to 600 Hz.

PHASEY Having phase interference (comb fi ltering). The sound of a direct signal and its delayed repetition mixed to the same channel (delay usually under 20 msec). Might be due to multiple mics picking up the same source, or one mic picking up direct sound and delayed refl ected sound. Also, a delayed signal mixed with itself undelayed, or some opposite-polarity crosstalk between stereo channels, or one monitor speaker is reversed in polarity.

PINCHED Narrowband. Midrange or upper-midrange peak in the frequency response. Pinched dynamics are overly compressed.

PIERCING Strident, hard on the ears, screechy. Having sharp, narrow peaks in the response around 3 kHz to 10 kHz.

PRESENT, PRESENCE Adequate or emphasized response around 5 kHz for most instruments, or around 2 to 5 kHz for kick drum and bass. Having some edge, punch, detail, closeness, and clarity.

PUFFY Bump in the response around 400 to 700 Hz.

PUNCHY Good reproduction of dynamics. Good transient response. Or conversely, referring to highly compressed transients (especially snare drum and kick drum) that sound like hitting a punching bag. Sometimes a bump around 5 kHz or 200 Hz.

RASPY Harsh, like a rasp. Peaks in the response around 6 kHz, which make vocals sound too sibilant or piercing.

RICH See FULL. Also, having euphonic distortion made of even-order harmonics.

ROUND High-frequency rolloff or dip. Not edgy.


SIBILANT, ESSY Exaggerated “s” and “sh” sounds in vocals, too much output around 5 to 10 kHz.

SIZZLY See SIBILANT. Also, too much highs on cymbals.

SMEARED Lacking detail. Poor transient response. This may be a desirable effect in large-diameter mics. Also, poorly focused images.

SMOOTH Easy on the ears, not harsh. Flat frequency response, especially in the midrange. Lack of peaks and dips in the response. Low distortion.

SPACIOUS Conveying a sense of space, ambience, or room around the instruments. To get this effect, mike farther back, mix in an ambience mic, add reverb, or record in stereo. Components that have opposite-polarity or out-of-phase crosstalk between channels may add false spaciousness.

SQUASHED Overly compressed.

STEELY Emphasized upper mids around 3 to 6 kHz. Peaky, nonfl at high-frequency response. See GLASSY, HARSH, and EDGY.

STRAINED The component sounds like it’s working too hard. Distorted. Inadequate headroom or insuffi cient power. Opposite of effortless.


SWEET Not strident or piercing. Flat high-frequency response, low distortion. Lack of peaks in the response. Highs are extended to 15 or 20 kHz, but they are not bumped up. Often used when referring to cymbals, percussion, strings, and sibilant sounds.

THIN Fundamentals are weak relative to harmonics. Note that the fundamental frequencies of many instruments are not very low. For example, violin fundamentals are around 200 to 1000 Hz. So if the 300 Hz area is weak, the violin may sound thin—even if the mic’s response goes down to 40 Hz.

TIGHT Good low-frequency transient response. Absence of ringing or resonance when reproducing the kick drum or bass. Good low-frequency detail. Absence of leakage.

TINNY, TELEPHONE-LIKE Narrowband, weak lows, peaky mids. The music sounds like it’s coming through a telephone or tin can.

TRANSPARENT Easy to hear into the music, detailed, clear, not muddy. Wide, flat frequency response, sharp time response, very low distortion and noise.

TUBBY See BLOATED. Having low-frequency resonances as if you’re singing in a bathtub.

VEILED The music sounds like you put a silk veil over the speakers. Slight noise or distortion, or slightly weak high frequencies.

WARM Good bass, adequate low frequencies, adequate fundamentals relative to harmonics. Not thin. Also, excessive bass or midbass, or pleasantly spacious, with adequate reverberation at low frequencies, or gentle highs, like from a tube amplifier. See RICH.

WASHED OUT Phase interference from multiple mics picking up the same source. Too much leakage or reverberation.

WOOLY, BLANKETED The music sounds like there’s a wool blanket over the speakers. Weak high frequencies or boomy low frequencies. Sometimes, an emphasis around 250 to 600 Hz.


Sound engineer glossary of termsThe above is an excerpt from Bruce’s book, Practical Recording Techniques, 6e.

Bruce Bartlett is a microphone engineer, audio journalist, and recording engineer. A member of the Audio Engineering Society and Syn Aud Con, he holds a degree in physics and several patents on microphone design. He is also a musician and runs a 16-track digital studio specializing in live recording.He has written over 600 articles on audio topics for such magazines as Modern Recording, db, Recording, EQ, Mix, Recording Engineer/Producer, Radio World, Pro Audio Review, Audio, and the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society. He has also written a number of books including Stereo Microphone Techniques, Recording Music on Location, and the best-selling Practial Recording Techniques, all published by Focal Press.  The new sixth edition of Practical Recording Techniques has just published!  The above post is an excerpt from Chapter 9.


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