Music Software? It's Not Just for Normal People Any More
by Craig Anderton
Yes, you can use a digital audio editor for digital audio editing. But why not use it to create a beatbox? Or emulate variable tape speed controls? Or to find more tax deductions?
Okay, so it doesn't really do the bit about taxes. But today's software often does a lot more than advertised. Want proof? Keep reading.
1. VARIABLE SPEED ANALOG TAPE IN A DIGITAL WORLD
Fig. 1: Sony Sound Forge is one of many programs that allows pitch shift processing.
Back in the days when rock was young, payola was rampant, and anything a groupie gave you could be cured by a shot, a common hitmaking trick was to speed up the tape by a percent or two (or in the case of Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2," considerably more). It tightened the timing, brightened up the timbre, and made the vocalist sound a bit more youthful.
Today's host programs don't have a variable speed control any more, but two two-track editors like Audition. Sound Forge, and Wavelab do - it's just disguised. Go right past the elaborate time-stretch/pitch stretch algorithms, and dial in "bend pitch." (Fig. 1).
This provides the effect we want: Raises pitch without preserving duration. Bump it up a per cent or two, and recreate that fabulous hit sound of yesteryear. Or if you want to slow things down, you can do that too.
2. SUPER BANDPASS RESPONSE
Fig. 2: Create a bandpass response with skirts that just don't stop.
Remember those telephone-type effects you'd hear on vocals? Today's parametrics are a thing of beauty, but there's a problem with the band pass response: It rises out of a flat response, so the bass and treble are still there. What do you do if you want a bandpass response with a rolloff that just doesn't know when to stop?
You can throw in some high and low pass filtering to trim the highs and lows-but there's an easier way. Adjust the EQ on the track you want to "bandpassify" for an approximation of the desired effect. Now clone that track. Make sure EQ is disabled for both tracks, then throw one of the tracks out of phase. Adjust the levels so that the tracks cancel. Now enable the bandpass filter on one of the tracks (Fig. 2).
You'll hear the highs and lows magically melt away, leaving only the bandpass peak. Vary the filter frequency, then do a little tweaking, and you can also do some really convincing wa-wa pedal effects.
3. THE REX FILE DATA SCRAMBLE
Fig. 3: Propellerheads' Reason is the grand-daddy or REX file coolness.
REX files slice up a digital audio waveform into little pieces, then play these slices back sequentially. Why? So you can stretch tempo: Slow down the tempo and the slices play further apart, speed up the tempo and they play closer together.
What triggers these slices is a companion MIDI file. But hey, it's just MIDI data, so we can move pieces around, copy data and stack it, apply randomization algorithms, or whatever we feel like doing (Fig. 3).
If nothing else, this is one way to remove the boredom element out of using loops: Each iteration can sound slightly different. It takes a little work to associate which MIDI note triggers which slice, but once you have that figured out, you're good to go. Click here for an audio example of the REX scramble technique.
4. THE LOOP FACTORY
We all know how cool acidized files are. Well, most of us do. Some still struggle with programs that aren't really that adapt at handling acidized loops. Sure, they'll load okay - but you can't edit them, which is often crucial because a lot of commercially-available loop CDs are pretty sloppy about acidizing a loop (the end result: try to stretch them, and they sound horrible). So if you want to create loop files that work at different tempos or keys, you're hosed. Or are you? Not if you have Sony Acid Pro.
Load the loop into an Acid project (I find it most convenient to load it into a single track), then if needed, use Acid's toolset to edit the loop points for the best stretching characteristics.
Next, copy the loop multiple times on the same track. Insert a tempo change for the desired tempo before each loop, and/or a key change if you want to change keys. Then go Edit > Export Loops (Fig. 4). This saves each loop into the folder of your choice as a WAV file at the desired tempo and key (and the loops are acidized, too). Now you can import these into your acidizationally-challenged host, and rock on.
Fig. 4: Use Sony Acid Pro to stretch loops to different tempos, then save them at those tempos for use in programs that don't recognize Acidized files.
5. MAKE YOUR OWN BEATBOX WITH A WAVEFORM EDITOR
Fig. 5: You can use a digital audio editor to synthesize drum sounds.
The raw materials for those old analog beatboxes were damped sine waves and noise, with transient envelopes. As it so happens, some digital audio waveform editors (e.g., Wavelab, Audition, and Sound Forge) can synthesize those exact types of sounds. Of these, Wavelab works really well. Go Tools > Audio Signal Generator and you'll find waveforms galore, as well as the means to shape frequency, level, and vibrato (Fig. 5).
6. CUSTOMIZE YOUR REASON COMBINATORS
Fig. 6: Customize your combinators for coolness.
You can create your own skins for Reason's Combinator device. Why bother, you might ask? Because Combinators are really cool, so much so that I use a lot of them...and when you're scrolling around the rack, having distinctive skins makes it easy to parse which one you want.
When you load a skin, all that remains of the Combinator are the knobs, buttons, wheels, and whatever names you gave them. The rest is up to you (Fig. 6).
All you need to do is right-click (people of the Macintosh tribe should Ctrl-click) on the Combinator, choose Select Backdrop, navigate to the nearest suitable 758 x 134 JPEG or Photoshop graphic, and load it. Done!
7. TURN RECYCLE INTO THE PERCUSSIVATOR
Fig. 7: ReCycle is intended to make loops, but it can also do some pretty bizarre signal processing.
I sure like pulsing, rhythmic effects. Give me a vocoder and drum machine for a modulator, and I'm a happy guy. But sometimes you have sounds that refuse to be rhythmic, like a power chord, or held organ note. Yes, you can process it through gating or vocoding to impart synchro-sonic, rhythmic characteristics, but with ReCycle, you can build rhythmic characteristics into the sample itself.
Just load the sample into ReCycle, and place slices that create a rhythm. For example, you could place a slice every eighth note for a constant eighth note rhythm-but we can get more creative than that, like adding a flurry of 16th-note divisions at the end of a power chord, or syncopations (Fig. 7).
Set the attack and decay parameters (decay would typically be a few hundred milliseconds) to give the desired amount of percussification, then save it as a REX file if your host supports REX files. Or, set the tempo to that of your host's project, and export it as a WAV or AIFF file you can import directly into the host (remember to first go Process > Export as One Sample, or you'll save each slice individually). Click here to hear a percussified power chord that's gotten some rhythm, courtesy of ReCycle.
8. MASTER YOUR TUNES IN REASON
Fig. 8: Use Reason's MClass mastering effects with standard audio files.
Of course you like those MClass mastering effects introduced in Reason 3.0. Now if only Reason had an external input so you could process your files through the effects...
It doesn't, but here's the next best thing. Treat the tune as a single sample, and load it into the NN-XT sampler (note that the NN-XT doesn't stream from disk, so any sample has to be able to fit into the available RAM). Now create a one-note sequence (draw the note at C3) that triggers the sample for as long as the tune lasts, and feed the NN-XT output into the MClass processors (Fig. 8).
Once you have the sound exactly as desired, render to disk using the File > Export Song As Audio File command.
9. CREATE NASTY VINYL SCRATCHES AND NOISE WITH A DIGITAL AUDIO EDITOR
Fig. 9: You don't always need a plug-in to create vinyl-type effects.
You gotta love some of those hip-hop drum samples that were taken from funky old vinyl. But what if you have a pristine sample and want to mess it up?
There are plug-ins that do vinyl effects, with one of the best ones (because it's free!) being iZotope's Vinyl. But you can create the precise type of noise and scratchiness you want with Wavelab or other digital audio editors. Basically, use the program's signal generating options (see tip #5 above) to throw in some noise, a low-level 60Hz sine wave if you want some hum, some heavily low-pass filtered noise for rumble, and for the crowning touch, draw in some scratches with the pencil tool. Drawing a scratch is easy: Just create a spike where you want a scratch (Fig. 9).
And for a really authentic sound, have a scratch repeat every 446 ms if your "virtual record" is spinning at 33.3 RPM. This simulates the effect of a scratch that goes across multiple grooves. Click here to listen to an example of vinyl-type noise generated with this technique.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.