With the holidays swiftly approaching, I thought it might be a fun twist to apply classic sound design techniques to the festive sound of sleigh bells—both in the context of creating original synthesizer textures and as a rhythmic element for dance tracks and pop music. Taken out of its traditional context, the character of this instrument has a quality that’s reminiscent of both tambourines and vintage ’80s digital synthesizers.
For these tutorials, I used a sleigh bell sample from one of my sample libraries, but finding a decent sample is pretty easy thanks to numerous online freeware resources. Just search for “sleigh bells wav” and you may be shocked by your array of options.
Once you’ve found a sample you dig, here are two tutorials for transforming that classic holiday sound into elements for your next track. While these examples are based on Ableton Live’s warping and sampling tools, they’re also applicable to other platforms, including Logic and Cubase.
Using Sleigh Bells Melodically
With a bit of editing and some creative processing, sleigh bells are great for ethereal melodic parts - either solo or layered with other synth textures. Here’s a straightforward technique for turning them into a sampled Ableton instrument with a unique flavor.
Step 1: Load an empty Simpler into a new MIDI track and import your sleigh bell sample of choice.
Step 2: Next, select a single shake from the sleigh bell sample and set the sample start and end points accordingly. When you’ve got a selection that works for you, tune the sample to C3 or C4—either by ear or with a tuner plug-in, like the one in Ableton Live 9.2.
Step 3: Once you’ve completed those steps, your sleigh bell sample should sound like a short transient, similar to some of the sampled waves in Roland’s classic D-50. From there, add a long hall reverb and adjust the decay and wet/dry to taste. The resulting sleigh bell patch should work well both on its own as an atmospheric lead or layered with a warm sawtooth pad for that vintage LA synthesis sound (there’s an example of this online). And for those who want to cut directly to the chase, there’s a tuned and processed C3 sample on the Keyboard website for dropping into your preferred sampler of choice.
Using Sleigh Bells Rhythmically
Ableton Live’s warping and looping features make light work of turning even the messiest sleigh bell performance into a dance-floor-ready rhythmic element. Here’s how it’s done.
Step 1: Drop your sleigh bell sample onto an empty audio track to create a new clip. Then move its start point to the first shake of the sleigh bells. From there, right-click and select “Set 1.1.1 Here.”
Step 2: Next, turn looping on and create a one-bar loop. Because most sleigh bell rhythms are rather sloppy, you’ll need to add some warp markers and move the rhythm around to get the sleigh bells synched. Unless the loop is severely arrhythmic, you should be able to pull it together with warp markers placed at quarter-note intervals.
Step 3: Based on your musical objectives, you can either use the warped loop as-is for an alternative to shakers or tambourines, or take it a step further and apply a clip envelope to the volume of the loop for a tight, syncopated gating effect. From there, you can process the loop further until the sound is completely unrecognizable. As always, experimentation is key.