Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

Sound Design Tips

By Nick LucasJune 27, 2013


nick_lucas_bio2Nick Lucas
Hi, I’m Nick and I’m a Pro Tools columnist at Audio Times.  I started out producing music when I was 15, and now work under the pseudonym ‘Veranova’.  Having released various records, produced for up and coming artists such as Lewis Mokler, and composed for companies such as Morphsuits; I took an interest in teaching.  So I started Production Bytes, a source of video tutorials and products for music production; now my main business.  Thanks to the success of this I also took an interest in writing and have settled into a columnist role with Audio Times.  Which brings us to now.  Enjoy!

Something which my role in Production Bytes has encouraged me to do, for various reasons, is learn a lot more about sound design and synthesis.  It’s an absolutely vast area, so today I’m going to share 6 of my favourite tools for sound design.

1. Paulstretch

1 Paulstretch

This is an increasingly popular tool for creating vast soundscapes and pads.  Simply drop in any audio file, mess with the settings and what comes out will be totally different to what went in. Its algorithms can do a lot of things, which makes it perfect for re-sampling uses, but it is especially good at slowing down audio by huge amounts using its hyper-stretch algorithm.

A famous use of Paulstretch, is the Justin Bieber 800% Slower meme. 

But many artists also use Paustretch to make pads and ambient music.

Paulstretch is a free, open source project, and is available here.

 2. Audiopaint

2 Audiopaint

Whereas Paulstretch is great for creating musical effects and pads, Audiopaint is the opposite, but arguable twice as cool.  Audiopaint allows you to load in images, and convert them to audio files.  Its settings determine exactly how images are read, however in a simple situation, it reads the image as a sound spectrum; with frequency on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal axis.

Audiopaint is superb for creating weird un-natural sound effects, as-well as alien soundscapes, and anything which you can draw in Microsoft Paint!  There are also applications which can read audio files and convert them to images in exactly the same way, any spectrogram which can be set to “Linear” pitch will work great.

Playing back your track and seeing your dog appear during it, is something to behold.  One famous use of this is at the end of Aphex Twin’s track “[Equation]”, which will have the best impact on you if you watch it yourself.

Audiopaint is free, and is available here.

3. Image-Line’s Harmor, and Re-synthesis.

3 IL Harmor

Speaking of reading sound spectrums, Image-Line’s Harmor can do the same thing.  However Harmor is far more powerful than just that.  Not only is Harmor an amazingly powerful additive synthesizer, where the top half of the interface is entirely additive processing, which is then fed in to the bottom half for traditional audio processing. But Harmor’s additive engine is also capable of reconstructing even the most complex sounds and images as Additive signals, known as re-synthesis.  For me this is the biggest breakthrough in additive synthesis since it was first created, as until Harmor, converting anything more than a single cycle waveform was unheard of.

But here we are, you drop an audio file or image in to Harmor’s IMG tab, and it will be resynthesised as individual sine waves and fed through the Harmor engine as if it were a normal oscillator. Then you can mis-treat the audio in even more powerful and literally “additive” ways than old-school re-sampling allowed.

On top of all this Harmor’s modulation is a beast, and while difficult to master, once you’ve “got it” Harmor is probably the most powerful additive synthesizer out there right now.

For a small example of Harmor’s potential, check out the first few seconds of this.

Harmor is fairly priced for what you get, and is available here.


4. Re-sampling

4 Resampling

This has been one of the staple processes for sound designers since digital audio came around, and possibly even before.  In the early days of digital audio, running a soft synth live in a project was impossible; and constantly sending midi and receiving audio from hardware synths, would have tied down that hardware to that task.  Because of this, re-sampling was essential. Quite simply you just record the output of your synth to audio, and then it’s free’d up to do something else with.  Producers in dance music, probably most famously in Drum & Bass, soon discovered that resampling meant you could now chop up and destroy the sampled audio in creative ways.  Using time-stretching, slicing, unison, distortion effects, and anything your brain could come up with; seemingly impossible sounds were now possible.

Re-sampling is still very popular today, and artists such as Noisia make huge use of it in all of their tracks.

Just check out the bass sounds in this.

Ultimately sending midi to a synth will never give you quite the level of control that audio does.

5. Native Instruments Massive

5 NI Massive

Massive is almost eponymous with Dubstep.  Skrillex famously/infamously has used it for almost all of his synthesis.  And any sound you’ve heard (or tried to avoid) in Dubstep in recent years, was probably made in this synth.  Although Massive has been very popular for 10 years now!  Massive can’t JUST be used for making talking basses and screaming formants though.  It is an wavetable synthesiser, where its 3 oscillators have a wealth of additive waveforms, which can be modulated and messed with to your hearts content. Massive’s 4 Envelopes, 4 LFO’s (All of which can be a standard LFO, “Performer” LFO, or Step sequencer), and 8 macro’s, can all be assigned to almost any parameter using a simple drag and drop interface.

Its simplicity of modulating parameters is its biggest boon, with the array of unique and powerful waveform’s following that up.  Furthermore, the superb effects and routing controls have solidified Massive as one of the most popular synths in the world.

Like or Loath Dubstep’s sound design. Massive is one of the most powerful and easy to learn synths for sound design you’ll find.

Massive is available for a price here.

6. Grab a Mic

6 tascam dr05

This one is easy to overlook when you consider how much you can do in the “box”.  But consider getting yourself a handheld recorder and just whipping it out when something interesting happens.

You can look extremely odd to passers by, by repeatedly slamming your car door, throwing metal rods on the street, or turning on your lawn mower upside down and recording (safety first) the blades spin.  But by taking these sounds back and using some thoughtful editing and processing, you can build yourself a library of fantastic sounds ready to use in your work, or process in many of the aforementioned applications.

A great example of something like this is Wilkinson’s Blender Bass video.

This is exactly what it sounds like it might be.


In a much simpler example however, you could climb a tree and plant your recorder on a branch, go for a drink at your local pub, and when you come back you’ll have the sounds of nature waiting for you.  When you consider the effort all these other methods can require, this one starts to sound very drawing.  But where’s the satisfaction in that?

Nick Lucas
June 2013

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