Know Sound Design: Harnessing Thor's Thunder, Part 1

Expanding the role of the mod wheel in Reason's Thor
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This month and next month, I’ll show you a variety of techniques that expand a synthesizer’s expressive capabilities by routing velocity and the modulation wheel in unusual ways. To demonstrate, I have chosen one of the world’s most ubiquitous software instruments: Propellerhead Thor. Thanks to its availability within Reason and as an affordable, standalone iPad app, Thor is an ideal laboratory for exploring innovative performance options. So let’s get started.

Mod-Wheel Timbre Morphing

When playing analog keyboard synths, it’s easy to forget that the modulation wheel can be used for more than just vibrato or wah-wah effects. With the elaborate modulation matrices that soft synths such as Thor provide, it is possible to use this type of controller for powerful timbral shifts, rather than standard LFO-based processes.

With its three oscillators and six synthesis modes, Thor is capable of unique sonic transformations (especially when you combine multiple oscillator types in a single morphing patch). For example, by controlling the amount of FM via the mod wheel, you can achieve effects that are far more harmonically complex than opening and closing a lowpass filter. The same applies to modulating the amount of Phase Modulation or scanning the wavetable position. Fortunately, the routing process is quite straightforward.

Step 1. Since all of the oscillators include a universal knob that governs a timbral element, select a mode that suits your sonic goals. Pictured is an FM oscillator with the operators set at a 1:3 ratio, for a distinctly DX vibe. Set this to a low value for your first experiment.

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Step 2. In the modulation matrix, select the Mod Wheel as your source. This selection is tucked away under the Performance options of the Source menu.

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Step 3a-b. Select Oscillator 1’s FM amount as the destination for the mod wheel. Then, set its value so you hear the desired effect of the mod wheel as you move it, and you’re all set. Now, repeat this process with the other oscillators, mixing and matching synthesis modes, octaves and detuning.

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Pro Tip. It’s important to keep in mind that you can also apply mod-wheel control negatively to the destination, allowing you to start with a bright timbre that becomes increasingly muted as you move the mod wheel up. Try using each option on different oscillator types as you explore this technique.

Real-Time Effects Control

By applying the above technique to Thor’s integrated effects, you can create patches that go from dry to processed, depending on your mod wheel position. Here’s how.

Step 1. Set up Thor’s delay and/or chorus for the type of effect you’re after. Keep in mind that the chorus can also double as a flanger when set with very short delay times, while the delay can serve as a slapback or wobbly tape-echo, depending on its settings.

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Step 2. With the outputs of both effects set to dry, assign the mod wheel to the wet/dry amount for each. Note that if you’re starting from a dry signal, setting the depth to 100 will make the result completely wet. Unless that is your goal, stick with values of 75 or less as you get started.

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Next month, I will show you ways to develop expressive patches that you can tailor to your playing style by using keyboard velocity to control unusual synth parameters.