Sound design is one of the most fun parts of making music. Before the modern age, making sounds was somewhat limited to things you could hit, strike, rub together or make with your mouth and body. Sounds occur in nature like winds, thunder, earthquakes, and rain. Today, we have an altogether far vaster palette of sounds in our lives. We have the sounds of machinery and the sounds of metropolitan streets. We have digital and analogue equipment and mechanisms of all kinds – just think about how many trillions of sounds exist in the universe! It’s near infinite…
A Note on CPU Usage
One thing to bear in mind when sound designing is CPU usage. Stacking effects is a quick way to render your project unusably slow so start getting used to recording out your FX parts. For those who don’t know, this is the practice of routing your tracks to another track and recording it internally within your DAW. For example, an audio track with 10 effects tracks can be outputted to another audio track and then recorded into fresh audio. You can do this with any track – audio, MIDI, etc.
Sound Design Technique 1 – Location sound and sampling
An excellent way to start designing creative sounds is to start recording things from your environment. It’s quick, easy, fun and you can quickly build up a vast quantity of weird and wonderful sounds for manipulation in your DAW. This technique is called Foley, which is the technique in which everyday sounds are used in video to create sound FX. A famous example would be the lightsaber in Star Wars. This was created from a recording of interference from a TV set into a shieldless microphone. There are tons of examples of songs that have been built around or inspired by environmental sounds, like Mistabishi’s ‘Printer Jam’.
Of course, location sound is a form of sampling and sampling is one of the primary techniques used to generate sounds for music. Sampling is not quite the same as sound design, but they are still intrinsically linked. Tiny chunks of other tracks or even longer loops can be requisitioned for reuse, manipulation, and redesign.
Sound Design Technique 2 – Plugin experimentation
Plugins can be used to generate millions of types of random and unique sounds. This is known as plugin abuse or plugin torture – use and abuse! If you stick delays, phasers, and flangers onto a channel then you’ll notice how feedback and noise accumulate into chaos. Refining the controls can result in crazy experimental FX so get layering, tweaking and twisting. You’re sure to find some sounds that no one has ever created before.
To better control this technique, you can put several plugins on a bus and then experiment with sending signals to it. Try your lead guitar, vocals or some drums, for example. By automating the send volume you can have a crushing, experimental FX channel running parallel to your normal signal. Automate the controls of the plugins on the send too for maximum experimental control!
The key to this is just being spontaneous and experimental. One example might be to set a flanger to extreme feedback, sync it to your master tempo and then add a single beat of a 4 bar loop. Once triggered, the flanger will create an extreme effect that lasts just a fraction of a second. You can drop other sounds into your ‘plugin abuse channel’ and really torture the hell out of them! Automating delays is another great way to create unheard sounds. Automate the delay time in either beats or milliseconds and listen to how the delays bend oddly.
Sound Design Technique 3 – MIDI effects chains
Chaining MIDI effects can yield lucrative creative sound design opportunities. A chord generator can create a chord from just one note, which you can then feed into an arpeggiator for instant complex melodic lines from that same 1 note. So, for example, you could take a 909 tom or snare, or any pitched hit, feed it into a chord generator and then into an arpeggiator. The most powerful plugin for doing this is Xfer records Cthulhu. Using chains of MIDI effects with arps can create weird glitchy effects. You could feed MIDI drums into an arpeggiator to quickly create random grooves that are editable in the arp, acting almost like a sequencer. Using percussive sounds, arps and chord generators can yield impressive rhythmic effects.
Sound Design Technique 4: Randomize
This isn’t so different to using chain FX in the plugin torture method, it’s just a bit more random! These techniques are used in a form of music called ‘generative music’. In generative music, random elements within the track combine so the song is never the same each time you listen to it! It’s a very cool concept and a very cool way to design unique sounds.
Many plugins have a randomise setting already with parameters that control how randomly it affects the sound. For example, Native Instruments’ Massive has a set of randomization controls contained within its global tab. Here, in Ableton’s MIDI effects rack we find the randomise module which can be controlled to influence a sound chaotically or subtly.
Similar controls can be found in many plugins and when combined, you can create some incredibly glitchy effects.
Of course, we usually want our songs to make musical sense so you can feed your randomised notes into the Scale module within Ableton, or into an arp, to correlate them to a musical progression.
Some plugins allow you to combo your automation. Many Waves plugins, like the fantastic Metafilter, allow you to automate many effects at once. Sometimes, highlighting multiple controls and twisting them all at once can create eccentric textures that change randomly and chaotically.
Sound Design Technique 5: Warp, shift, and stretch
Every DAW comes with lots of built-in manipulation tools. You can achieve all sorts of effects using these more traditional controls. You can pitch shift vocals down hugely into rumbling ambient sounds, or pitch percussion up into high-pitched, glassy riffs. Shifting and expanding sounds you record from the environment can create otherworldly textures. Try slowing down wind sounds by 10 to 20 times, it’ll turn into a strange evolving texture. These are perfect for intros, outros, ambient sections or for film sound design. You can do anything and undo it with ctrl + Z so don’t be afraid!
Sound design techniques are numerous and diverse. Try some of these and you’re sure to find some nice unique processes which suit your workflow. Sometimes, the best sounds are found by accident, so keep experimenting!
About the Author
Sam Jeans is a musician, producer, and audio engineer. In his brief collaboration with MasteringBOX he's wrote several interesting articles.
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