The Golden Ratio:
In nature we find many patterns that appear man-made, but are actually natural. There’s a lot of evidence for the “golden ratio” of proportions in everything from stock markets to seashells. The golden ratio is defined as “a line segment divided into two unequal parts, such that the ratio of the shorter portion to the longer portion is the same as the longer portion to the whole.” My eyes are glazing over already, but don’t worry – we won’t be focusing on the math. The golden spiral is commonly used as a guideline and cropping overlay tool for design and photography, allowing people to compose images that please the eye. The golden spiral suggests a proportional “balance” of elements that create compelling images and satisfying industrial design, but what about music?
If the correct ratio of dimensions can please the eye, can a ratio of frequencies please the ear? The answer is a definite yes, and it’s the foundation for all great composition, mixing, and mastering, whether we realize it or not. It’s easy to overstate universal principles and take things too far, so we’re going to stick to some practical examples that really work. You can use several techniques to mimic the familiarity of nature and the sensitivity of the ear to make better music. Proper technique will help translate your music to more people with greater clarity and impact. Let’s look at five ways to harness the power of nature to improve your music, using noise, randomness, decay, pre-transients, and intervals.
One of the most unique elements that makes us human is the ability to consciously create music. Everywhere else in nature there are vocalizations and “random” noise. But noise can be incredibly useful in music. White noise can be used for dramatic sweeps to fill the spectrum and create transient clicks and plucks to trigger sounds, but pink noise is the secret weapon to balance your mix and shape your busses. Use plugins like Izotope Ozone to match your master EQ to pink noise in small amounts to help even-out your mix, or simply set the volume of one element while pink noise plays in the background (mix so you can faintly hear the individual track over the noise). White noise is equal power per frequency, while pink noise is equal power per octave, which roughly mimics a more pleasing curve for our ears. You can also layer bits of pink noise behind drums to add fullness, or other recorded “room tones” and noise types like vinyl pops and bubbling bacon fat to add an organic feel to your song. Take it even further and sidechain your noise to different triggers and see what works. Noise often provides the grease for the machinery of your song, much like room-tone fills the gaps in a movie’s background audio.
On synths, you can introduce randomness into a patch by choosing noise as a source input, and sending it to a destination like a filter or wavetable position. Soft synths like Serum allow very wide sounds that retain their phase by using random panning for each note that is triggered. Using analog synths that are a little unstable can add a nice element of randomness as tuning and oscillator stability can fluctuate. With drums, you can also use randomness by turning off the grid and manually dropping a sample in place, and pre-shifting sounds for a layered effect.
Every sound in nature has a decay, however short. There is no truncated waveform that exists in the natural world – so pay close attention to your waveform tails. Your ears rely on this information to process sounds, and without this decay it goes mad. Nobody can last in an anechoic chamber (free from echo) for more than 45 minutes. Natural decay is yet another good reason to bounce your soft synths and crop your sounds appropriately. The ears loves a little sustain on nearly everything, so make sure your sounds resolve and don’t clip the zero threshold (make sure to crop the last wave cycle as it reaches zero).
When recording live instruments, make sure to capture the sustain – especially with pianos. I’ll often record each piano chord with 10 seconds or more of natural sustain, then crop them appropriately to play at the right time. You can always shorten a longer recording without losing quality, whereas time stretching a shorter sound will add artifacts. You can even use the golden ratio here and use delays based on the Fibonacci sequence that morph and evolve, and tune harmonics that ring out proportionally to the golden ratio.
The ear likes to hear highs, mids, and then lows that resolve in that order after the initial strike of a noise transient, but have you considered the pre-transient elements? My favorite analogy is the sound of a bull whip.
The “crack” of the whip gets most of its impact from the elements before the actual hit. Spectrally these often occur in the order of lows, mids, then highs – the opposite of the transient trigger. Try adding an inhale/exhale breathe before a note hit, a fret slide before a guitar note, a snare brush before a drum hit, or a reversed shaker before a kick. You can also use doppler effect plugins to add more pitch drama to your pre-transient sounds. Experiment with exponential fades rather than using ordinary linear fades to increase the urgency of the sound. Also remember to tune your pre-delays to note divisions of a song’s master tempo to achieve greater effect clarity (try 1/16ths, 1/32nds).
The golden ratio found in nature also applies to musical scales and intervals. Both octaves (2:1) and fifths (3:2) are considered golden ratios. These are extremely useful building blocks for adding impact and variety to bass lines, leads, chords, distortion harmonics, and tuning your drums. Tuning your sounds a fifth apart allows better balance and proportion, and opens up more sonic space in the mix. Shift your snare up one fifth from the kick. Modulate your chords with a bassline one fifth up from the root. Add distortion plugins to your sounds and watch how the spectrum evolves with a sprinkling of harmonics for the octave, fifths, and other partials.
Integrating natural patterns into your music isn’t an exact science, it’s merely a guideline. You can try to fight the physics and attempt to do things through trial and error, or take a page from nature and use these techniques in a fun and playful way. Enjoy, and let me know if you find any other applications for the golden ratio (i.e. arrangement, room size).
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