What Does “Muddy”, “Boxy”, & “Tinny” Sound Like? | WORDS TO DESCRIBE SOUND QUALITY

February 12, 2021

There are so many words used to describe sound quality – “warm”, “muddy”, “tinny”, “harsh”… While we all have an idea of what these words mean, relying on subjective words like these can be really limiting.

In this post, I’ll highlight the biggest limitation that words like these place on us as audio engineers, but I’ll also introduce you to a trick that completely revolutionized my ability to hear, identify, and correct problems while mixing and tuning sound systems.

Limitations of Subjective Words in Audio Production

I won’t lie – I use words like “muddy”, “boxy”, and “tinny” every day to communicate with clients and colleagues. I’ll admit that it’s important to get a feel for the words people use to describe audio if you plan to work in the audio industry.

However, our job as audio engineers isn’t just to communicate about sound – it’s also our job to use the tools that are available to achieve the desired sound in a given situation.

That’s where subjective words like these lose their value. Most equalizers don’t have a “muddy” knob. Our job is to translate subjective experience into the objective terms so that we can do what is necessary to arrive at the end goal.

Common Words Used for Sound Quality

Like I said, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the words most people use to describe sound quality. We can’t expect everyone we communicate with to speak in objective, technical terms.

Let’s first go through some of the most common words used for describing sound quality. Then, I’ll show you a trick you can use to train your ears so that you can identify problematic frequencies just by listening.

Frequency Bands of Human Hearing

For the purposes of this video, let’s divide the range of human hearing into six sections – Sub-Bass, Lows, Low-Mids, Mids, High-Mids, and Highs.

Sub-Bass Frequencies (20 Hz – 60 Hz)

In the lowest ranges of human hearing, from 20 Hz up to 60 Hz, you’ll find the sub-bass frequencies. 

“Rumbly” is a common word for a build-up of sub-bass frequency energy. Some problems in this range result in “sloppy bass” or “slow bass”.

Low Frequencies (60 Hz – 200 Hz)

Above the sub-bass range, between 60 Hz and 200 Hz, is the low-frequency range.

You may hear the quality of this range described with words like “boomy”, “tubby”, or even “punchy” in some cases. 

Low-Mid Frequencies (200 Hz – 700 Hz)

The low-mid-frequency range spans from 200 Hz to 700 Hz.

Excessive energy in this frequency range is often described with words like “muddy”, “boomy”, or “boxy”.

Mid Frequencies (700 Hz – 3 kHz)

Mid frequencies include the range of 700 Hz to 3 kHz.

If a mix contains too much energy in this range, it might sound “nasally”, “honky”, or “hollow”.

High-Mid Frequencies (3 kHz – 7 kHz)

The high-mid frequencies range from 3 kHz to 7 kHz.

This range is sometimes described with words such as “tinny”, “bitey”, or “airy”.

High Frequencies (7 kHz – 20 kHz)

Finally, the high frequencies, from 7 kHz to 20 kHz, are found at the upper limits of human hearing.

You will often hear words like “articulate”, “airy”, and “shimmery” used to describe this range.

Identifying Frequency Imbalances By Ear

You may disagree with the way I define some of these words. If you disagree, well, that’s kind of the point of this post.

We all define these terms differently, making them a source of confusion more often than not.

There are also many reasons that a mix might sound muddy, for example. Sometimes a muddy mix is a result of too much low-mid frequency energy in one instrument, but other times a muddy mix is the result of too little high-frequency energy in a different instrument.

Getting too caught up in subjective terms like these will just leave you feeling frustrated.

That’s how I felt when I first started mixing – frustrated and powerless. Then I came across a simple method of ear training that changed everything for me.

A new professor came to my university, and he brought with him an ear training program that helps audio engineers develop their ability to listen critically.

Within a few months, I could hear problems in a mix and almost instinctively correct them, because I had learned to better understand what I was listening to.

Rather than relying on words like “muddy” and “boomy”, my classmates and I started to communicate more objectively, saying “too little 2kHz” or “too much 500Hz”.

I wrote a post that explains the best ear training method for audio engineers. However, you’ve been warned… Once you start developing your ability to critically listen, there’s no turning back.

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