I thought it would be fun to put together a small list of useful timbral-shaping tools. They are presented in no particular order along with a few words on how I like to use them. I tend to refer to a similar list in my head whenever I’m trying to come up with a creative way to improve upon a sound rather than just replacing it altogether. Please note that I’ll be using tools from Ableton Live to illustrate the concepts.
Perhaps the most obvious tool to mention, and yet it’s so underutilized in my opinion. While many contemporary pieces of electronic music feature a filter sweeping out low or high frequencies to signal a transition, it’s rare that composers take the tool any further than that. My favorite example of someone who goes that extra mile is Amon Tobin. If you pay close attention to some of his tracks, you’ll hear what sounds like entire chains of different filter types all morphing over one another. With the basically infinite computing resources we have access to in modern DAWs, it pays to try this for yourself. I like to use the instrument rack device in Ableton Live for this, chaining 3 or 4 filters together at different starting cutoff and resonance settings. Two of the filters might be band-pass filters while the other two are high-pass and low-pass. I map one macro knob on the instrument rack to the cutoffs of all the filters so that one knob movement creates an insanely complex morphing of the sound. This takes our old friend, the filter sweep, into entirely new territory. Add in the morphing filter capabilities of a tool like Sampler, and I guarantee that you’ll come up with a cool timbre.
The typical discussion involves using one LFO to, for instance, wobble the pitch or cutoff frequency of a bassline to obtain a Dubstep sound. The possibilities of these powerful modulation devices go light years beyond such basic applications, though. If you load up an instance of Sampler, you’ll see that the modulation section features three LFOs, one hard-wired to four different destinations while the other two are freely assignable to two simultaneous destinations each. If you look at the destination options for the freely assignable LFOs, you’ll see not only a list of typical things like filter and and pitch but also the settings of the other LFOs. Try setting up a chain of three LFOs, each altering the rate of another until you get to the last one in the chain (which might be assigned to cutoff). The result will be a modulation waveform that is FAR more complex than a simple sine or square wave. You don’t have to stop there: Each of the LFOs can be assigned in varying amounts, too. Try assigning both LFO2 and LFO3 to the rate of LFO1, but use differing amounts on each. The sky’s the limit on modulation complexity, and you can really establish a unique sound by digging just a little deeper.
Crossfade Looping a Sample
This one is a little less obvious, but it’s given me such interesting and varied results that I thought I should share it. In order for this setting to actually affect the perceived timbre of the sound, the sample itself must be very short so that it creates a simple tone while it loops.
Using Sampler as an example again: One of the options in the waveform view allows you to set a very short fade in/fade out on the ends of the looping sample.
Assuming you’ve chosen a short enough segment of audio to loop, altering the loop crossfade will smooth out or roughen the ends of the waveform in a way that drastically effects timbre. Experimentation will pay dividends here. I’ll leave you with these three options for now, and in the next post we'll take a look at some more!Going the Extra Mile for Unique Timbres: Part 1 by Nick Maxwell