Sound Design Workshop: Beyond Arpeggios

Part 1: Waveform Design
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Arpeggiators have come a long way since they appeared as accompaniment tools in vintage analog synths. Nowadays, nearly every DAW includes an arpeggiator, usually packed with features ranging from customizable patterns to unusual transposition steps to incredibly small note values. Although these advanced features are useful for crafting melodic rhythms, they are equally loaded with possibilities in terms of sound design.

In the next two Sound Design columns, I will demonstrate the sonic possibilities of arpeggiators, beyond how they are normally used. Let’s begin by exploring their potential as a source for new waveforms. Once you’ve created a sound you like, it can be recorded and imported it into your favorite sampler for use as a timbral resource.


Most modern arpeggiators include a broad array of pattern options and the ability to set very small note values. These two features are the keys to turning an arpeggiator into a waveform generator in conjunction with extremely fast tempos.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Begin by setting your arpeggiator to its fastest setting; 128th notes are ideal, but 64th notes will also work (see Figure 1). Then, set your master tempo to at least 200 BPM; 400 BPM if you’re using 64th notes.


Select an instrument from your DAW’s tool kit. Although any softsynth or sampler will work well with this technique, I recommend beginning with an instrument that can generate a simple sine wave; Figure 2 shows the standard default preset in Ableton’s Operator.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Starting with a single-frequency sine wave will help you differentiate between the timbres that are created by the arpeggiator, itself, and those that are the result of the synth or sampler’s settings. Once you get the hang of this process, you can then investigate the synth parameters more deeply for wider spectral variety.


With your arpeggiator note value, master tempo, and sine wave generator in place, play a note. Instead of a rhythmic cascade, you’ll be greeted with a single pitched tone. Once you’re hearing the tone, play a chord and the tone will change. Select an alternate pattern and you’ll get a different timbre.

If you are looking for consistent results, restrict your arpeggiator to one octave. If your pattern goes beyond that, you’ll have less control over the sound.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

Finally, apply a tuner plug-in at the end of your chain and use the master tempo of your DAW to tune your newly developed waveform to C (see Figure 3). That way, when you render or record your results, it will import cleanly into your sampler of choice.

Once you’ve got a handle on the above techniques, you can explore the numerous interactions between synthesizer parameters and arpeggio settings. With a bit of experimentation, this approach can be a treasure trove of unique waveforms that will set your sounds apart from the pack.