Separating the sound design process from writing and producing can help to focus each task. When trying to finish your latest arrangement you don’t want to get caught up designing custom sounds to help smooth transitions or beef up a sparse drum track, this can stifle workflow. Simultaneously, it’s arguably easier creating sounds when there’s no specific end game in mind; it removes the pressure creating something specific and free’s up our creative headspace to simply make great sounds – just be sure to label all your audio correctly with BPM and key information!
Below are some techniques for creating unique samples and loops, you could even go to the extent of producing your own sample pack! You’ll develop some great skills in the process, and you’ll have some awesome (and completely original) audio at the end of it, ready to fire into your latest productions.
MIDI effect chains
Think about chaining MIDI effects together for some unique MIDI playback. Using a chord generator fed into an arpeggiator can create a complex melodic line from just a single note, don’t limit this technique to synth parts either, this method can work particularly well with percussion sounds too. Take a 909 tom, add a chord generator set to your project scale and run this into an arpeggiator. If you like the results, you could even pitch it down an octave for a percussive bassline.
Programming with an Arp
Talking of MIDI effects, try programming your drums using an arpeggiator, it’s a very quick and intuitive way to get ideas down, and chances are you’ll come up with some grooves you wouldn’t have thought to program otherwise. Some arpeggiators can act more like a sequencer, allowing you to drop notes out, extend notes, edit velocity and add swing. Don’t always limit yourself to 1/8 or 1/16 speeds, experiment with all kinds of timing – triplets can produce some very interesting rhythmic textures.
Field recording be a useful technique when you’re struggling creatively in the studio, but also a great source of free and unique audio! Of course, if you’re serious about field recording it’s worth investing in something like a Zoom H4N Recorder, the quality of what you’ll capture will vastly improve when compared to your smartphone. Try to capture weird or different sounds, without too much background hiss – avoiding going out when it’s windy might be an idea. This is a great way to capture and create textures or backgrounds, or even weird and experimental percussive hits. Be sure to EQ off any rumble or even isolate and eliminate unwanted noises on a recording with a spectral EQ or Denoiser.
Revisit an old project
A great technique for creating some unique audio is to revisit an old project. Load it up and bounce out the audio as stems, especially if there are any synth parts in there. Import some of your favorite stems into a new project and start to edit the audio, chopping it up and rearranging. It’s a great way to edit MIDI parts, now that the MIDI has been rendered the temptation to tweak settings on the synth or sampler constantly is gone, and furthermore you can edit audio in a way that simply isn’t possible with a MIDI part, which can lead to some highly usable results. It’s also worth trying this technique with a group of sounds, bounce your drum tops from a project and try editing the group of sounds together, rather than editing the individual parts.
Make use of your DAW’s audio manipulation tools to transform pieces of audio. Pitch percussion hits right down to turn them into bass drums or bass hits, and then render out and re-process. Or even go the other way and pitch sounds right up to transform them into hi-hats or percussive stabs. Or even squash and expand sections of a loop for otherworldly textures and backgrounds. Be bold with your editing here; we’re not talking about subtle alterations, we’re talking about taking some audio and transforming it into something new entirely.
Swap the samples
Take a beat you’ve put together and try swapping out all the samples. Make sure it’s quite a full beat featuring a kick, snare/clap, hats, some 16th’s, percussion hits, etc. Swap out each and every sample; you don’t even need to do “like for like” – swap out a clap for a percussive hit for example, then render out the results. Alternatively import a loop you like the feel of and Rex the audio, chopping it at all the transients – then swap out the samples, creating something of your own but keeping the feel of the original loop.
Looping with Ultraloop
Ultraloop by Twisted Tools is an extremely powerful loop playback sampler. It comes pre-loaded with numerous presets containing loops you can layer and process, effectively remixing them into something new entirely. You use the main panel to select what sections of a series of loops playback, and from there you can edit things like filters, envelopes, EQ, half/double speed and even record in glitch effect automation. You can also load your own loops in for further manipulation, even a series of relatively straightforward loops can instantly become interesting using this tool. Try recording some of your vocals and editing them into loops to import here, or use some outtakes from a vocal session – you need to make sure you load 2/4/8 bar loops though for things to playback coherently. Bounce out the results for some great twisted glitch vox or percussive workouts, or even resample some synth hooks to spark some melodic inspiration!
Rather than sticking to the same effect processes, try to break the mold and use plugins you’ve never used before. The plugin list native to DAW’s like Logic Pro, Cubase & Ableton are extensive, and there are some great creative tools in there, and no doubt a fair few you rarely use. Then go one further and create some extensive FX chains, add a delay fed into a ring shifter, or a reverb directly on the channel 90% wet and fed into an auto-filter with the cutoff set to sweep automatically to 1/4 notes. Experiment with everything, and don’t hold back – the more extreme you go the more likely you’ll create something completely new.
Many tools feature a randomize option, from synths to samplers to MIDI effects – experiment with randomizing settings when you’re stuck for inspiration during the sound design process. Native Instruments’ Massive features a set of Randomize options in the Global tab, where you can select exactly what parameters you want to randomize. Another great feature in this section of the synth is the Copy & Paste function, where you can copy oscillator, filter and FX settings from one preset to the next. Create a MIDI part with Massive, and use the randomize and copy & paste functions to create a series of variations of your melodic phrase, rendering them down to audio as you go. Reimport these pieces of audio and take the sections that work the best, or even layer them up, for some uniquely different melodic lines.
Recording your hardware
If you’re lucky enough to have some nice hardware in the studio, rather than recording down a short audio part, record a whole jam. This is particularly useful if you have enough of a set up for a live performance, at the most basic level a drum machine and a synth. Record 10-15 minutes of jamming and then go back and edit out the best takes for later use. There is a tendency for approaching the use of hardware differently from staring at a computer screen and clicking with a mouse. If you don’t own any hardware synths or drum machines, try recording some parts using your MIDI keyboard/controller. It’s undoubtedly more fun to produce in this way, and you’ll potentially imbue more of an organic and natural feel into your productions.