Sound Design Workshop: Inharmonic Layers - KeyboardMag

Sound Design Workshop: Inharmonic Layers

Adding metallic breath to pads and bells
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Many of the hallmark sounds of the Roland D-50 and Ensoniq VFX are the result of layering inharmonic waves—shimmering noise samples with a slight pitched component—that impart a vaporous, airy texture to many of their signature pad presets.

Creating these elements is a straightforward process, once you know how it’s done. So, for this column, I’ll dig into my private bag of tricks and explain the technique for creating them. Once you have a few, you can load them into your sampler (Ableton Simpler is great for this) and layer them with pads or tuned percussion for a vintage digital flavor that is hard to achieve by other means.

Step 1: Round up some bright drum and percussion sounds that have a lot of high-frequency content. Hi-hats, cymbals, and tambourines are excellent candidates. Cabasas, maracas, and triangles are also appropriate choices.

Step 2: Place one of these samples on an audio track—or in an Ableton clip in session view—and make sure that it doesn’t loop. All you need is a single hit of the source material to serve as the basis for the sound.

Step 3: Since its earliest versions, Ableton’s reverb device has included an obscure feature called Freeze that is often overlooked, as it doesn’t have any obvious applications for most types of production. However, for this particular design technique, it’s essential.

Freeze captures the reverb tail and loops it endlessly, until the parameter is toggled off. To set it up for this trick, set the Wet/Dry control to 100% wet, the Decay to maximum (60 seconds), Quality to High, and then dial in the parameters for your desired reverb coloration (see Figure 1). From there, experiment with the freeze button by playing the clip with your unlooped percussion hit and immediately hit the Freeze button at the beginning of the reverb tail, before it decays too much.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Step 4: Now, you’ll need to set up a track to record the frozen reverb once you’ve got a feel for how the feature works. Create a second audio track with a name such as Record Reverb and route the signal from the reverb channel to its input. Then, set the track’s monitoring mode to Input and arm record so you can record the effect (see Figure 2).

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Step 5: Play the sample, immediately hit freeze, then while the reverb plays, record an extremely long sample onto the second track; 10-20 seconds will help facilitate looping the end result by hand (or longer, if an unlooped sample suits your goals).

Step 6: Finally, create a third track with the Simpler instrument and drop the newly recorded reverb sample into it. If the amplitude is low, right-click and normalize the volume (see Figure 3). Then, if desired, set up a long loop, with crossfading to smooth the loop.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

Step 7: At this point, you should have your first inharmonic loop for layering with other sounds via instrument racks (see Figure 4). It’s a useful tool for adding vintage digital “air” to almost any other instrument, including Operator or Collision presets.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4