006 – distorting reality

Continuing on with the theme from last week, let’s dive into some distortion. This is another incredibly important aspect of sound design and mixing.

When used to excess, distortion and saturation can be used to create entirely new sounds. This. for me, is where waveshapers and convolvers come in. These are distortion plugins that allow the user to determine how they want the original sound to be distorted. Ableton has some of this functionality built into Saturator, and other included effects are useful for certain sounds, but I usually go for the sheer control and power of iZotope’s Trash 2. This particular software allows for extraordinarily specific control of what type of distortion you would like, and where you want it. If you haven’t yet explored Trash 2, it will absolutely help you up your distortion game.

Trash allows you to distort your sound with customisable waveshapers, as well as a convolving effect, some resonant filter banks, a few delay models, and a very nice sounding compressor. Ableton has some of these capabilities built into the stock plugins as well. By shaping the way the original wave is processed, the output levels, distortion areas, and added frequency content is all adjustable. Interesting effects can also be created by adjusting any of these parameters in time.

When used to excess, distortion often sounds absolutely terrible. When used in proper amounts, and with the proper setting as adjusted for the sound and the particular effect desired, it will really improve how your tracks sound and feel. What works for you is entirely dependent on style and how you like to work. I do most of my mixing as I compose, so my use of distortion tools is built into my creative process. Experiment with what you like, and try all sorts of plugins for different sounding distortion. Combining multiple effects, whether that is in series or parallel, can be used to make all sorts of wonderfully thick and gritty sounds only you can make. Sounds don’t have to be clean to sound great.

005 – saturated fat

Keeping with the theme of destroying sounds, let’s get into some distortion and saturation goodies. As you may notice by now, a huge part of my music writing process has to do with destroying sounds. With saturation, we can add some lovely (gross) harmonics to sounds to make them punch out of the mix, or just to simply change the character so the sound fits into the track in a smoother, more natural way. Of course, we can also make things stick out in a very non-natural way, depending on the specific sound and what feeling you are going for.

Very simply, saturation is what happens when there is too much audio data for a magnetic tape to store. It is another one of those analogue things we try to emulate in the digital world. It turns out that our ears don’t necessarily like things sounding too “clean.” In digital workspaces, saturation is usually done with a plugin that squishes the waveform slightly and adds some of the randomness associated with the varying magnetic field of a tape. This can, of course, be adjusted from very subtle, to incredibly obvious and over the top. Used sparingly, it functions as a mixing tool. Our ears are more sensitive to slight amplitude changes at higher frequencies, so by adding a little high-end to a low- or mid-range sound, we can actually increase the perceived volume of the primary sound, without changing its amplitude. Used a little more liberally, saturation makes a lot of sounds feel a little bit “warmer.” This is also one of the reasons analogue systems are often preferred by audiophiles and mixing engineers. Analogue systems often impart slight distortions onto sounds, which can make them feel nicer to listen to.

In a digital system, either a little or a lot of saturation can be very important to achieve a complete “feel” for a track. Digital sounds are, by their nature, very clean, and even if we don’t consciously hear this difference, we can sense the subtlety. Just a little bit of saturation, or other types of distortion, as I will go into next week, can make all the difference between a sound that is lost in the mix, to a forward element that is exactly where you want it to be heard.

004 – delay

Delay is great to play with and incredibly useful, especially when you don’t follow any rules, and just go with what sounds awesome. Last week I talked a bit about the Haas Effect, which is a simple way to use a delay to spread out the stereo image and improve the perception of a sound within the mix, but without any echo effects as are usually associated with delay. This week I’ll take a look at some ways to create new sounds and textures with delay.

With many digital delay plugins, there is an option to repitch the delayed sound as the time is changed. This effect is, of course, from the tape delay used in these plugins are modelled on. This effect can be used to change the pitch as the delay time is adjusted throughout the track. I use this to increase tension, as the delay changes speed and thus pitch into a transition within the track. Because the pitch change is based on time, the resultant frequencies are often not harmonic, or in key, with the rest of the track, but for a few beats or bars, and on key sounds in specific places, this technique is incredibly useful for piquing interest and adding flavour to the track.

Some of my favourite plugins are the delay-based Glitch Machines devices. I find myself going back to Hysteresis, Fracture, and Convex, for nearly every track I produce. All of these plugins are fantastic for glitchy delays and aural artefacts that can be changed in time. Convex is particularly useful in this way, with extensive LFO and envelope banks. Not only will they produce delays, but we can also use these plugins to change the pitch of some echoes, use reversed sections of the original audio, change the grain size that is echoed, and of course modify each parameter with an LFO or a repeating envelope. I will use these effects sparingly on main track elements, and heavily on background elements, adding some additional interest and randomness.

As for delay return tracks, I do use one for some builds to increase tension or allow a sound to naturally fall out of the mix, but I primarily set up each delayed sound with its own delay parameters; increasing the complexity of all the subtle and primary delay elements by allowing them to create their own micro-rhythms and strange artefacts created with multiple release times and feedback settings.

003 – dimension

I think something that the brilliant producers of the world do very well is adding a massive level of spaciousness to their mixes. In some clubs and studios, technologies such as Dolby Atmos are making their way into use. What this can do to your experience of the music is incredible, and I think this is a less appreciated way some of the world’s top producers create their own personal dynamic. Here I’ll dive into some of the ways I create space, and how I hear it in other tracks.

With my background atmosphere, I will often use two completely destroyed drum loops, each with separate effects chains. These loops will be panned hard to each side, so there is a difference between the stereo channels to create width. This effect is subtle as I mix this in at a very low level, but it gives me a baseline width and adds body to the track without distracting transients or harmonics.

I will also use a similar effect with my high-frequency elements. If I want to layer hi-hats in any way, usually to thicken the sound and add a chorus-like harmonic, I’ll often set one of these sounds to mono, often the snappier sound, and spread out the thicker sound to the edges. This effect can be achieved in a few different ways. One, with a delay effect set to full wet and very short delay times, but with the left and right times slightly offset. Second, I may also use a left/right split EQ bank with a slightly different frequency curve on each channel. Finally, I may also set a full left and full right channel for the same sound, and ever so slightly detune one or both. Reverb has a place here as well, but this is better used for front-to back space.

Reverb has a place here as well, but this is better suited for front-to back space. One of the tricks I have heard and make use of is sidechain compression of the reverb on a sound, with the peaks of another sound, in doing so adding some groove to the reverb tail and preventing it from taking over the mix. In this way, it is also very useful to use multiple reverb settings or plugins as well, to establish further three-dimensional distance between elements. Pre-delay is an especially powerful parameter to create a perception of distance.

The final element I will mention here is collapsing tracks to mono. Lower frequencies really need to be collapsed to a mono sound, to keep the power and feeling up. Low frequencies really don’t play nice with bad harmonics and benefit greatly from the extra power of being played in sync from both stereo channels. Mono elements also make more apparent the very wide elements, as people notice contrast and difference very acutely.

002 – breaking things

In my mind, one of the primary ways electronic production sets itself apart from acoustic writing is the glutton of choice and possibility when it comes to destroying sounds. I also use certain effects in a way that maybe wasn’t intended. In future posts, I will go into effect and plugin specific techniques, but for now, this will be a brief look at a few of my methods.

The effects can also be added on top of each other in a more subtle way, by using only a little amount of wet signal, bouncing the audio out, and processing again. But that also takes far too much time to be included in a regular workflow.

A simple way to create some noticeable grit and pique some interest is with Ableton’s Warping Modes. This effect can again be consolidated and broken up again. But even without consolidating, it’s still a strong way to break up sounds and change them into something completely different. Simply by changing the bpm by a large amount, and scrolling through the warp modes, adjusting the parameters to extremes will often leave you with a result entirely different from the initial sound. The bpm can be returned to the original later if desired but make sure to consolidate beforehand. This effect is not nearly as powerful when the clip is played back at or very near the original speed.

One effects chain I go back to again and again is made with various instances of a complex delay device, often Hysteresis or Convex from Glitch Machines. This is a great way to add subtle or very apparent glitches and artifacts to a sound, and a great way to fill and spread out a track. A key here is to have a different effect panned hard to each side. This can be a subtle difference or an entirely different patch, it depends on the sound I want and what the track needs. This can be intensive on CPU resources, but with Ableton’s ability to save entire tracks as files, it’s very easy to work around. The processed audio can be flattened and the original track can be saved so adjustments can be made later in the process.

One last thought for this week. Using an analog-modelled delay can create some interesting pitch shifts when the feedback time is adjusted in real time. This is useful for calling attention to sounds echoing out, or simply adding a further dimension into the mix.

001 – workflow

Where to begin. I will aim to have a new one of these up every week from now on. I can keep my head in the game and hopefully teach a few of you some new tricks. One topic per post, keeping it nice and simple.

I will start with workflow, particularly when it comes to DAW use. I use Ableton Live, however many of these ideas translate well to other software.

It’s really important, for me, that I have everything ready for me when I start. I go through different phases of how I like to write, so near the start of each phase I will set up my Ableton default Live Set and default Audio and MIDI Tracks to suit the particular style. It’s unbelievably more efficient when you already have initialised an EQ, Compressor, and whatever else you find yourself using time after time. This way you can more easily keep your head on the creative aspect, instead of messing about so much with the processing tools you need to put onto each track. This same idea applies to the overall default Live Set. Currently, I only use audio tracks, so I have those all ready to go. My master channel is also setup with the tools I use on there, including a gentle Glue Compressor, a Spectrum Analyser, and a gain-staged Limiter for mix reference.

On the topic of processing tools, Ableton also allows one to set default configurations for each device. If you find yourself always high-passing, set that as a default so it is all ready to go on your tracks. I often set these up with the effect unit off, or on 0% wet, so the parameters are close to where I usually have them, but it’s simpler for me to dial it in for the specific sound and use.

Sample organization is also a huge key for me here. Many sample packs already come well organized, so sometimes this is very simple to do. I also split mine by style or genre. While I generally write in the mid-120bpm range, I find myself using samples from entirely different genres. In order to know where I am in my sample library, I have these split up so I can find exactly what I want in the moment.

All of this comes down to personal comfort, of course, so it’s important to experiment and decide how you like to work personally. As always, backups are hugely important. Not just for your Live Set files, but your samples and presets as well. If the worst happens and you need a new production machine, it will save you immeasurable time and stress by having everything backed up so you can start from where you left off.