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Reorganized Noise


By Benjamin McFarlane
Nov 1, 2006

Click here for an MP3 demo of the Filter Modulation effect.
Click here for an MP3 demo of the All You Need is Dub effect.
Click here for an MP3 demo of the Timbre Waves of Grain effect

Many producers strive for originality through clever sonic inventions and reinventions: unusual melodies, effects and morphed sample sounds that are idiosyncratic yet appropriate. When music of a certain genre is heard nonstop, certain clichés stand out. For example, at clubs and dance parties, it is quality and quantity — not always originality — that count. You hear a lot of music that is well-produced but riddled with clichés, such as canned snare rolls that explode the dancefloor into a roiling tangle of limbs. Unique effects in these situations can refresh the listener's attention.

Genuine sonic experimentation from avant-garde composers, minimalists and glitchcore fly-by-nighters can still turn people's heads. Some experiments will succeed, and some will fail. But the successful results, however crude and wild, can be tempered and integrated into something that listeners will enjoy. When people hear experimental noises interlaced with what they normally enjoy, they perk up and pay attention. Timbaland is one of the sharp-minded producers who can make that happen seemingly at will. However, I — following the advice of Missy Elliott — will not attempt to match his techniques here. Instead, this article uses well-established effects as bases for further variation and examines roughly how to re-create and refine them using a software sequencer and effect plug-ins.

Filter modulation is popular in club hits. Sometimes it's well done; sometimes it's overdone. Probably the most popular filter modulation trick is sweeping: a lowpass filter swept from high frequency to low, progressively filtering lower and lower frequencies until just the bottom remains. If it's a club track, the filter ramps back up, and the highs and mids of the lead line reappear. Everyone who's been to a club more than once has thought, “Hey, it's that trick again.”

The filter sweep becomes mildly more interesting if something is added to fill the gaps, such as a vocal line or a new song element appearing in place of the missing frequencies. In general, though, more work and diligence with the same technique can effect results that are vastly more interesting. The best software plug-in for managing filter movement is Antares Filter ($199; http://www.antarestech.com/). The program incorporates four identical filters that can be set as lowpass, highpass, bandpass or notch. Filter parameters can then be routed to four independent LFOs and rhythm generators.

Here are the routing diagram, filter diagram and rhythm generators. The filters are routed in parallel, and the RG1 is set to run a full bar of 16th notes. The rhythm generator turns the gain to maximum for the 16th notes that are marked with a black square. Otherwise, the filter remains off. Since it is routed to the yellow filter 1, the frequencies below roughly 500 kHz appear for a 16th note, creating a rhythmic gating effect that loops every bar.

You'll need two filters; these sections in Filter control filters 1 and 2. The first is set as a 2-pole lowpass, and the second is a highpass. Note the gain settings of - dB and -4.6 dB. Taking filter 1 and sweeping it from 20,000 Hz down to 100 Hz would enact the familiar filter sweep that is so ubiquitous in club music. But this technique will mix things up a bit.

The routing section of Filter controls the motion of the filter. RG1 is a “rhythm generator,” which is routed to filter 1 gain here; and LFO2 is routed to filter 2 frequency.

Filter 2, the blue highpass filter, is routed to the FG2 LFO shown here, which is set to a synced sine wave. The result is something similar to the filter sweep, except instead of sweeping a lowpass filter from high to low, I'm leaving it where it is and allowing it to appear intermittently. Thus, it creates a bass rhythm set against the sweeping treble frequencies of filter 2, which intermittently merge with the bass. It sounds all right.

Filter is not the only program capable of this process, but it makes it easy and sounds great. These parameters can be replicated manually in a DAW, most of which make it possible to add plug-in parameter automation through the course of a track. This effect can be created with parametric equalizers as well. Replicate the rhythm generators by drawing in 16th notes with a pencil tool, and approximate the sweeps by recording on-the-fly manipulations to the filter parameters.

There are much broader horizons than that for filter modulation. The technique described here can be much more complex with extra routing and modulation. Scrolling through the Filter presets is a good way to start and learn. The basic lesson is that you don't need to constantly revisit clichés.

Dub, a production style full of reverb and delay, is intertwined with Jamaican culture and mythology at least as much as the older, broader genre of reggae. King Tubby, Scientist and Lee “Scratch” Perry are a few of the first great dub masters credited with shaping the genre and setting its boulder-size bass lines rolling across Jamaica and the world.

Generally, delays and reverbs are linked to individual tracks. A convention of dub that started with its first producers is to set the processed signal of a delay circuit to a delay time that creates a 3/4 polyrhythm with the unprocessed signal. For the majority of the track, this delay is kept silent until a note needs to be accented. When an accent is desired, usually at the end of a bar or every four bars, the wet signal is turned up, and the delay feeds back for a few beats. Snares are frequently accented with short delay times with medium feedback settings. In all cases, the chosen effects are basic echoes and reverbs stacked up. Here's how to create a classic dub delay with the Sonic Flavours DP5 ($109; http://www.inuamusic.com/); then you can experiment a little further.

Usually, you can take one of the tracks you want to accent and just turn up the wet signal when an accent is desired. Here, however, I placed a section of the original track on a separate track and transposed it up an octave. Note the second accented section. I created an automation curve in Live for the DP5 delay time.

In many — but not all — delay plug-ins, modulating the delay time creates an abrupt Doppler-like effect on the signal. That is also the case for most hardware digital delays. So it was only a matter of time before dub incorporated this unique effect. Delay time modulation can mangle the original sound, stretching it way out or compressing it down. If done by hand, the stretching or compressing is usually uneven and makes for interesting variations.

This screenshot shows the previous automation curve drawn to increase the delay time on a section. During this section, there is a higher pitched percussive element that feeds back for about as long as the plain signal does. Every delay sounds a little bit different and responds differently to this abuse.

If the sequencer is set at 120 bpm, and you want to get the classic 3/4 polyrhythm, the delay for a third of the beat is 333 ms.

Make the settings for feedback reasonably high; for example, 86 percent.

Beyond DP5, the best sounding delay time — modulation tool is Sonic Flavours R66 ($149), a delay-based reverb. Recording manual manipulations of the Size and Symmetry knobs on the R66 produces entirely unique modulations. A good experiment is to place slices of samples a fair distance apart — as in the previous example — and try random modulations on the R66.

“Baba O'Riley,” Pete Townshend's classic song for The Who, has re-emerged recently in TV commercials and sports broadcasts for its opening lyric, “out here in the field.” But what music fans know it for is the opening lead line, which sounds like a synthesized harpsichord playing a crazy pattern. The song is named after Meher Baba, whose spiritual teaching inspired Townshend, and Terry Riley, a minimalist composer. Townshend programmed the song's intro using some significant numbers from the life of Baba Meher. Though I won't be showing you how to integrate an incarnate deity into your music, the following steps done in Ableton Live's ($499; http://www.ableton.com/) grain delay should produce something with a similar spirit.

One wonderful thing about grain delays is that pitch shifting can be applied to the processed signal. That enables you to quickly snap together a countermelody, which makes it possible to emulate Riley-style minimalism.

Ableton's Operator synth ($149) produces simple, clean synth tones. Any simple recording or MIDI instrument will suffice for this minimalist progression. Operator is set to a staccato chime because it makes the effect of the grain delay stark and easy to hear.

For this kind of effect, simple melodies with wide intervals and only two or three notes of a scale are preferable. If more notes are used, the result is usually dissonant harmonies. Here you're looking for something clean that sounds both accidental and pleasant. The sequencer is set at 70 bpm. The melody, like Townshend's, is a 3-note progression (Bb2, F3 and F4) using paired 16th notes. This is essentially the base on which the rest of the melody will be built; the grain delay will fill the gaps in the scale. The melody without any processing over it is pretty neutral and is in the scale of Bb. Depending on how much you decide to alter the pitch in the wet signal of the grain delay, you will achieve melodies that are in majors, minors or perhaps modal scales like the Dorian or Lydian. If that sounds daunting, just use your ears to mix the result with the appropriate chord changes.

To get lots of variation, I've added two grain delays each, shifting the pitch in a different direction: The first goes two semitones down; the second goes two semitones up. For an even split between the unprocessed and processed signal, the Dry/Wet on both delays is set at 50 percent. Because the sequencer is set at 70 bpm, a delay time of 107 ms is almost precisely a 32nd note, so the resulting processed signal of the first delay places pitch-shifted notes exactly between the existing 16th notes. The second delay places an additional set of notes against the first, creating a chord.

The unprocessed signal — without any intervention from other notes — is in Bbmaj. The first grain delay switches the key to a G# by adding a second melody that is a major second (two semitones) flat of the first. Shown here is the graph for the pitch of the second grain delay. The pitch is sequenced to change from a major second sharp to a fourth (five semitones) sharp of the output of the first grain delay. The resulting melody and mix sounds approximately like an alternating Cm7 and C#maj7 chord. It is a vastly more complex pattern built on manipulations of a simple minimalist melody.

Finally, a few words on grain frequency should round out this process. For any grain-delay manipulations that occur with a sequencer set at 60 to about 120 bpm, low-grain frequencies can split up the sound even further, which adds a flutter. To take advantage of that, I've switched the frequency of the second grain delay from 10 Hz to 1 Hz toward the end of the sample. That adds an extra layer of complexity and rounds out the effect.

Live's grain delay is probably the best tool for this kind of effect. It can be used with the signal from Live's arpeggiator. The Tweakbench Pudding (free; http://www.tweakbench.com/) granular delay is another option, but you need to work with two copies of the sound you're processing because Pudding does not allow mixing the dry and wet signal. You can re-create these effects using multiple tracks in a sequencer and some delays. Many delays have step options in them, but often you'll have to convert notes to milliseconds. The formula is (60,000/x) yz, where x = the tempo in bpm, y = the denominator of the time signature and z = the note value. In the above example, I wanted 32nd notes at 70 bpm, so (60,000/70) 4(1/32). The product is approximately 107 ms.

Inspiration strikes randomly, but precedent is a never-ending resource. Looking back at established traditions and ideas ahead of their time can lead to examining how those ideas may be expanded. The production techniques here dig up a few ideas. The rest, as always, is up to you.


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