Fix It Before The Mix: 10 Tips For Sound Design

3) Solo/Don't Solo

When editing a sound for a track whose MIDI sequence data has already been recorded, you may want to solo the track so you can hear the details of the sound clearly. Soloing is good, but it’s also dangerous. First, you may be tempted to make the sound that you’re soloing bigger and fatter, so it may end up fighting with the rest of the mix when you unsolo the track. Second, the details you so lovingly edit while the track is soloed may end up being completely inaudible in the mix.

Quite often, a sound that has a small, distant, or unimpressive character when soloed will be perfect in the context of a mix. (Bandpass filtering is a good way to make something sound small and distant, by the way. The tone will be confined to a narrow frequency band, leaving the rest of the frequency spectrum wide open for drums, keys, and so on.) It’s a truism of both mixing and live playing that not everything can be out in front at once. Some instruments play supporting roles, while the spotlight shines elsewhere. A mix where you try to make everything big can end up sounding small and cramped, because it has no sense of space. Leave some space around your sounds.

Fig. 2: Native Instruments Massive has dozens of slick voicing features. The two filters (upper center) can each be set to any of a number of modes, as seen in the drop-down menu, including exotic options like double notch, daft, and scream. The vertical sliders to the left and right of the filters adjust the series/parallel routing and the output mix.

4) Adjust The Filter

Probably the most important module in any electronic instrument is the filter, so it’s a good place to start when sonic changes are needed. At least four types of filter edits are often useful.

First, try moving the cutoff frequency up or down. Depending on the raw tone coming from the oscillator, moving the cutoff will most likely add or remove overtones, making the sound brighter or more muffled. With a synthesizer track, I will usually edit the filter first, rather than change the EQ for the track. The result may be similar in either case, as both a filter and an equalizer alter the frequency spectrum of the sound. But since the filter moves dynamically as it’s modulated by velocity and an envelope, changing the filter cutoff may contour the frequencies in a more musical way.

Second, grab the drop-down menu and try some other filter modes (Fig. 2). The bad old days when synthesizers had only lowpass filters are gone forever. You may find as many as 15 or 20 modes – lowpass and highpass with various rolloff slopes, bandpass and notch, comb filters, formant filters, and so on. Choosing a different mode is almost guaranteed to give the sound a different flavor. If your instrument has dual filters, try changing the series/parallel signal routing. You never know what may kick the sound up to a higher excitement level.

Third, try adding a little filter resonance (or a lot). The resonance knob adds a frequency peak, which will emphasize certain frequencies. With a sampled drum hit, for instance, adding resonance and moving the cutoff up or down is a quick way to change the sound of the stick or beater.

Fourth, play with the filter’s envelope controls. The envelope amount will usually interact in some way with the cutoff-frequency knob: Adding more envelope will move the cutoff frequency more actively each time a note is played. It’s normal to work back and forth between these two knobs until you have the sound dialed in. The velocity-amount knob will also get into the act at this point: Try playing both hard notes and soft notes to make sure the filter responds the way you want it to.

5) Layer The Sound

Rather than edit a preset, consider layering it with a second synthesizer whose sound complements it. Recently I had a soft, breathy sound that worked well in the intro of a song, but its notes were getting lost as the mix got busier. I layered it with a plucked sound, which was inconspicuous but cut through the mix and kept the line audible.

If you’re layering, you’ll need to be careful to keep the MIDI data for the two tracks coordinated so that listeners have the impression that they’re hearing a single sound. Before doing a final mix, solo the two tracks that make up the sound layer and listen to them all the way through to make sure you haven’t created a train wreck by editing one without editing the other to match. The two tracks may or may not have identical data: One might need higher or lower velocities, for instance, or you may need an octave transposition. But they have to be playing the same part, so that when mixed they sound like a single instrument.

Fig. 3: The graphic display at the center of FXpansion Cypher gives extra information about whatever module you’re editing. Here, the mouse cursor (near the lower right) is on the attack slider for Mod Envelope 2. The display shows the envelope shape, and also has an information line that reads, “Env2A 18.34ms,” which tells you the current value of the slider.

6) Change The Attack

Our ears focus closely on the beginning of a new sound. In a synthesizer, that’s the attack segment of the envelopes. By shortening the attack, you can make a sound tighter and add punch (Fig. 3). Conversely, by lengthening a short attack, you can make a sound more gentle. However, with a longer attack, it may also sound late, so you might want to scoot the MIDI data of the track forward a little in time so that it’s still subjectively on the beat.

Many synths let you modulate attack time from velocity. As you strike a key or pad harder, the attack time can get shorter, producing a note that’s not only louder but snappier. A slight amount of velocity modulation may be all you need. The attack might be 10 or 15ms with low velocities, and 2 or 3ms with high velocities. Your instrument may not display the actual millisecond values, so you’ll need to use your ears.

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