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Creating Character Sounds in the DAW

Posted on 19th October 2012  · 
Sterile or lifeless sounds are outdated and often less than inspiring to listen to, today it is all about character and movement. The good news is that there are several ways to induce the human DNA into your otherwise digital thinking DAW.

Here is a little insight on how we did it in our upcoming Loop Tools & Grooves library.

The first place to start is with the rhythm. Computers are very good at controlling your beats to the point of perfection, but in the long run things can soon start to feel too tidy and robotic with every single element aligned perfectly in time.

Here are three tips to get your groove on:

1. Quantize range

Use your keyboard or drum pad to play in the notes you want. Don't worry about it being too loose as this method relies on a feature found in almost every DAW's quantizing menu which is often referred to as "Range" or "Iterative quantize". The range function allows you to dial in how effective the quantization will be in percentage. If you set the range to 50% for example, all the notes will be moved halfway towards the optimal quantized position. This lets you make the perfect blend between human randomness and digital precision in very few steps. Mind though, that if you are too sloppy, your notes might be pulled to the wrong position.

2. Personal groove templates

This again is normally a part of the quantization panel. It involves thinking a little bit outside the box rhythmically. We all know and use swing and/or shuffle as this is implemented in every sequencer, and is a nice way of adding a humanized touch to your music. This technique is an extended version of that.

You start by adding a midi track, then draw an event of a bars length and fill in 16th notes like this:

Now, instead of just applying swing automatically, you manually push every 2. and 4. notes forward until you find a groove that sounds interesting. Here I have separated the 2. and 4. notes for easier access. This will not affect the groove template in any way:

The more difference there is between the amount you push the 2. and 4. note respectively, the more diverse the rhythm feeling will be. When you've settled on a nice placement, it's the time to make a groove template. There are different ways of doing this depending on which DAW you are using, so have a look in your sequencers manual for detailed instructions on how to create a groove template. Once the groove template has been created, you can apply it just like you'd normally apply quantizing.

This method just asks for experimentation. You could for example try to push the 2. note and pull the 4. note, this gives some interesting results if you find the right balance. You could also extend the pattern, so that you modulate the 6. and 8. note for even more humanized goodness. Some DAWs incorporate volume information into the groove templates as well, and this will greatly add to the humanized feel!

3. Extract grooves from drum loops.

This method is basically the same as method number two, but instead of building your own rhythms, you'll use the rhythmic feel of a pre-existing loop. Heard a song by your favourite artist that just makes your feet move like nothing else? With groove extraction, you can easily transfer that rhythmic feel to your own music.

First you have to extract a 1 or 2 bar loop from the donor track. The easiest way to do this is usually to import the track into your DAW, and then manually cut out the section that you want. Next step is to detect the transients in that loop, this is normally done in the wave editor in your DAW. Once complete, you can now turn the loop into a groove template, just like we did with the midi part in the previous section.

Everything you need to know about the specific procedure in your DAW is in the "Groove templates" section of your manual

For even more complex rhythms you can experiment with applying different groove templates to different tracks. This way every hit won't be in sync, and will lead to even more lovely randomness. A bonus effect of having each track quantized slightly different can be added loudness, as you will lessen the effects of peak building (The side effects of having more percussive sounds hitting at the same time can be a rise in the overall peak level).

Ok, once you've got the rhythm section boiling, you are ready to introduce some more variation into your sound.

The real world is noisy, random and moving. All of this pleases our brains and keeps us focused and interested. Static information does not. The brain is exceptional at tuning out inputs that are constant. Ever caught yourself suddenly noticing a high pitched sound from your old TV? It was probably there the whole time, but special neurons called "novelty detector neurons" makes sure to suppress this information until the sound changes again. This helps us focus on the important elements, namely the changing ones. The brain is constantly alert, so why not exploit this information to create interesting soundscapes?

I love to go on field trips with my handheld recorder, if you look for variation in sound, there really isn't anything that beats the outside. Take a trip through the city, go deep in the forest, to the harbour, factories, a school yard. The possibilities are endless... Spend some time to build up a nice home cooked library of ambience's, city noises, people chattering and so on. Other very useful sources include vinyl crackles and noise (perfect for that vintage sound).

There are several ways to incorporate your field recordings. You can of course just pull the whole recording onto a track and mix it in with the other sounds. This can work very well, but if you want to have it playing along to the rhythm, the side chain gate is the tool to look for.

A side-chained gate lets you have one sound trigger another, so you can apply the rhythmic feel of for example a shaker to a recording of a seagull (if you dig that kind of stuff). I find this especially shines on hihats, where a gated vinyl noise or ambience sample adds a lot of movement to the sound. To get them both to gel together nicely, the ambience/noise track can be filtered to match the hihats. Often a juicy amount of high pass is needed. This technique can of course be applied to all types of sounds. Snares, bass drums, synths, vocals, you name it.

I like to mix percussion sounds as well. Many of the loops in "Loop tools & Grooves" make use of several sounds stacked on top of each other to create movement. I'll usually have one base sound that plays through the whole sequence, but underneath that I'll have another track playing which cycles through four or more variations of the same type of sound. This works very well with claps and snares. Hihats can benefit from it too, but with hats I usually use fewer variations, maybe just one or two. The key is to mix the two tracks together so that they blend nicely. The static track is usually the dominant one, with the moving track tucked nicely underneath it.

These are just some of the different techniques you can put to use in your projects. Don't be afraid to experiment and remember to observe nature, taking note of how natural sounds are actually created will inspire you to find your own ways of replicating them in your own little lab.

Written by Morten Berthelsen for Wave Alchemy

Download 35 loops from our forthcoming Loop Tools & Grooves library here. Full product is to be released on 26/10/2012




Drum Tools 02




Complete Drums 2


Tape Snares & Layers


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