Fix It Before The Mix!
Top 10 Tips For Sound Design
Recording music on a computer can easily lead to option paralysis. The number of ways you can edit your work is essentially infinite. When a track is almost working, but not quite, you can spend days tweaking things without getting any closer to sonic nirvana.
I mostly use software synthesizers for my music, so I don’t have the option of calling the whole band back into the studio to rerecord the song. I have to grab knobs and sliders with the mouse and massage the tone until it works. There are hundreds of ways to do this, depending on what software you’re using, and any of them may be the magic solution at one time or another. In this feature I’ll share the sound edits that I turn to again and again. Most of these ideas will work equally well whether you’re using a hardware or software instrument, and whether it’s a synthesizer or a sampler.
1) Choose A Different Sound
It may seem obvious, but sometimes the easiest way to deal with a sound that isn’t sitting well in the track is to replace it with a different sound all together. Synths and samplers today come with libraries containing hundreds of sounds. If you spend an evening or two exploring what’s available in your instrument’s browser, you won’t have to waste an hour in the middle of a composing or arranging session, getting distracted and losing the inspiration while you hunt for a sound.
If you have several instruments, you’ll find that some of them are better at certain types of sounds. I wouldn’t use Native Instruments FM8 for a thick, dirty sound, for instance, because FM synthesis tends to produce sparkly sounds. Conversely, a new synth from U-he software called ACE is great at thick, dirty sounds, but I wouldn’t go to it first if I’m looking for something sparkly.
Some instrument patch browsers let you make a list of favorites. Tuck a dozen patches into this list that work for your style of music, and you’ll waste less time hunting.
Fig. 1: The effects rack in Spectrasonics Trilian (a high-end bass synth plug-in) can be packed with modules. In the rack shown here, you might want to lower the feedback of the Radio Delay or the depth of the Ultra Chorus.
2) Dial Back The Reverb
The sound designers who create presets tend to like big, impressive sounds. The trouble is, a big sound can easily fill up too much space in the mix, smothering the drums and the vocals. One of the worst offenders, I’ve found, is the built-in reverb. I often move the reverb wet/dry mix knob over toward dry and shorten the reverb decay time slightly, in order to leave more space in the mix.
Tempo-based delays are another frequent offender. Try lowering the feedback amount so the echo trail clears out more quickly, or move the wet/dry control toward dry. A patch might also have too much chorus – big and rich when soloed, but the sound may lack definition when placed in your mix (Fig. 1).