It's a fact of life that some things are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to define. Take the concept of time, something that Einstein once referred to as 'a stubbornly persistent illusion'. Check its entry in any dictionary and you'll see that time is only ever defined using words that already imply an understanding of what time is, such as 'past', 'present', 'future' and 'order of occurrence of events'. Clearly, such definitions are meaningless, as they bring us no closer to understanding the true nature of time, even though we all have an instinctive grasp of how time applies to our own reality.
Equally complex is the subject of music. Although the mathematical relationships between notes are well understood and we have theory explaining rhythm and harmony, why we like some pieces of music and dislike others, or why certain musical forms evoke specific emotions, remains something of a mystery. We can compose music on an instinctive level, but if you try to devise a set of rules that allow a computer to make music the results are invariably disappointing, because we don't really know what those rules are.
A similar quandary exists when it comes to choosing sounds. I can go through a bank of synth patches or guitar tones and some will engage me on a musical level, while others leave me cold. Clearly established forms, such as the classical orchestra, sound 'right' because we've been exposed to them all our lives, but they had to evolve from simpler beginnings. I can see that if a sound mimics some familiar quality, such as a similarity to the human voice, we may find ourselves drawn to it, but beyond that, the appeal of harmonic makeup, envelopes and evolving timbres seems just as mysterious as any other aspect of music. Perhaps that's because music is art rather than science, but then definitions of art vary too. Some say that art can be anything that creates an emotion in the observer, in which case somebody sticking an ice pick in your arm would most certainly qualify. Maybe a better definition would include something along the lines of 'art is that which can be created without adherence to specific rules'?
When it comes to recording, there are aspects that have a scientific basis, such as not clipping your input converters, avoiding unwanted noise or arranging edits so as to avoid clicks, and we can explain the workings of recording and mixing techniques that have been shown to work in the past. But the reality for the recording musician is that they have to straddle the worlds of both science and art. This means that while it is possible to tell if a recording is technically OK, nobody is really qualified to tell you what you should record, or how it should sound when it's finished. After all, if your song makes everyone want to throw up or break furniture, then by at least one definition of art it has done its job!
Paul White Editor In Chief