In a recent Weekend Workshop, we looked at how to turn a discarded song into inspiring and unusual ‘instruments’ using a sampler capable of slicing audio.
In this Weekend Workshop, we’ll be expanding on some of these ideas but the approach will be quite different. Instead of using a song to create individual sounds, we’re going to go in the opposite direction and use one sample to create all our instruments and use them to build a track. This is a fantastic way to expand your sound design abilities, and it’s also a heck of a lot of fun.
The bundle comprises an AT-2050 multi-pattern condenser mic, an Audient iD4 audio interface and a pair of Audio-Technica M40x headphones.
What you’ll need:
- A DAW with a built-in sampler capable of looping and slicing audio
- A sample, either from one of your own productions, a royalty-free sample pack, or from a commercial release (we’ll discuss the legalities of using copyright-protected sampled material below)
- A MIDI keyboard or other controller for triggering notes.
1. Selecting the sample
Ideally, our sample should have pitched musical content. It would be pretty hard to make a melody from a white noise sample without some pretty adventurous processing. We’re going to see what we can do with the minimum of tools – just a sampler and our DAW’s stock effects – so let’s go with something that gives us some room to maneuver.
We’ve chosen a C major piano sample, Crispy Cakes Piano 01, taken from a loop pack available on free online DAW, BandLab. It’s four bars long, meaning there should be plenty of material to pull from. We start by loading it into our DAW and setting a tempo of 117 BPM. Although the sample is 82 BPM, we’d like to try something a little faster, and given our tools at hand (particularly the slicing function in our sampler) we don’t have to feel constrained by the source tempo.
2. Outlining the tools
Our chief partner in sound design crime will be the Quick Sampler, new for the 10.5 update of Logic Pro X. Don’t worry if you’re not a Logic user, as your DAW is likely to have a similar sampler in its set of stock instruments.
Quick Sampler is, as its name suggests, a fast way to work with samples. Unlike the more robust Sampler (which replaced the long-in-the-tooth EXS24), Quick Sampler is ideal for working with single samples or one shots. Don’t let the name fool you into thinking this isn’t a powerful tool though, as it has a lot of horsepower at the ready. It can also slice samples, which will come in handy later, as we’ll see.
3. Making a basic drum kit
We’d like to try and make a moody electronic piece. Usually, electronic music starts with drums – particularly the kick drum – so let’s tackle that first. We load up Quick Sampler and drag our piano sample into the big, empty rectangle in the middle. We’re given two options, Original or Optimized, but we go with the former (as we will throughout) because we want to control all the parameters ourselves.
We need to find a kick-like point in the sample to work with, and settle on the first transient. We set the end point to an appropriate length, and adjust the fade-out position as well.
The key to drum synthesis is envelope and pitch. We turn to the ADSR envelope under the Amp section, pull the sustain all the way down to zero, and adjust the decay until our piano is sounding a little more kicky. We crank down the course tuning to -24 semitones and add a pitch envelope to emulate the sound of a drum being struck. The filter can help with this too, so we adjust cutoff, resonance, and drive, and increase envelope depth to enhance our transient and give it a little click. Lastly, we add a bit crusher to the channel and dial in a little drive to enhance the sound. It doesn’t have to be perfect – the whole point of this exercise is to strengthen our sound design muscles.
For our snare, we follow broadly the same pattern as the kick. We choose the large note at around sample bar 9, and set the envelope to zero sustain and an appropriate decay, and do the same trick with the pitch envelope, this time leaving the root pitch as is but adding a long decay on the pitch envelope. We don’t need as much low-frequency information so we go with a high-pass filter, using the envelope again to accentuate the transient.
It’s still not very percussive, so we turn on Flex, which engages the pitch stretching algorithm. This gives it a raspy quality. We’ve come a long way from our original piano sound.
The hi-hat is a challenge. Hi-hats are metallic and inharmonic yet our sample is all harmonic material. What to do? We choose a small slice from the same region as the snare and settle on reverse playback.
We dial up the coarse tuning to +24 semitones and again pull the sustain out of the Amp envelope. We want a short burst of sound. Then, we use the high-pass filter to get rid of most low-frequency information. We program a hat line but it’s a little static so we can also employ LFO 1 to add a bit of movement to the cutoff frequency. See how that is achieved in the bottom left of the interface. You’ll never mistake it for an acoustic hat but it does sound a bit like an old 1970s drum machine.
Here are the drums when programmed together.
4. Making a bass
Now we’re back in harmonic territory, we can choose the first note in the second melodic motif as our bass note. Turn the coarse tuning down to -24 semitones, or whatever makes sense with your sample to get into the low-frequency rangey, and adjust the loop fade out and Amp envelope to get something approximating a bass sound.
The amount of sustain and release you use will depend on your taste and what you can get away with when using your sample.
For this example, there were too many highs, so we use the low-pass filter to shave them off. We add a little resonance and drive to give it some life, as well as a touch of glide to accent the note and set it apart from the kick. To emphasize the low-end, we add a bass head from Logic’s Bass Amp Designer. If your DAW doesn’t have one, there are a number of free guitar amp plug-ins on the market. You could also achieve a similar bass boost with some judicial EQing.
5. The lead
Our sample is a melodic piano line so why not mine this to create our lead? We load in the sample and choose Slice mode. Quick Sampler automatically assigns slice points based on transients. We slide our start point to the second note in the second section and play some random notes, as the keys on the keyboard don’t necessarily conform to the notes being played. No pitching is required here because the piano is already is broadly the right pitch range for a lead.
We record it, and then add a tiny bit of Glide to give it a more synth-like quality. The notes are a little clicky so we increase the attack on the Amp envelope.
If you want to get away from the sample’s original melody, you can select a single note in your sample using the Classic mode, and play up and down the keyboard.
6. The pad
We’re almost done. Let’s make a pad now to fill things out. The key to a good pad is lots of sustain, so we choose the middle portion of the sample. In Classic mode, we set our loop points to catch the middle and set loop mode to ‘Alternate’ so, once the sample has been triggered, it boomerangs back and forth in the sustained portion of the sample.
The sound starts a bit abruptly, so we increase the attack time in the Amp envelope and stretch out the sustain. It could be even more relaxed, so we engage Flex Time and set the playback speed to 1/4, really slowing it down. Add a little slow LFO to the filter cutoff frequency and increase the filter resonance just a bit to give it some movement. A little delay fleshes it out. We’ve effectively turned our piano into a pedal steel guitar pad. Nice.
7. Final processing
When you’re happy with what you’ve done, add EQ, compression, and reverb where appropriate. For this example, we don’t need so much stereo information on a lot of the sounds, particularly the percussion and bass, so reducing them to mono might be a good idea before bouncing down.
While our final track might not bother the dance charts any time soon, some of the individual sounds, particularly the pad, work well. When you make a sound you really like, it’s worth rendering them out for future use. You already know the key so it’ll be easy to slot into a future song.
8. Working with samples
While starting with a sample from a commercial release likely isn’t going to be a problem if it’s just for personal use, we don’t recommend it if you plan to share or sell your creation. Thankfully, there are plenty of resources available for royalty-free samples, including BandLab and Splice, and even the US Library of Congress.
Happy sample hunting!
Share the results of this workshop in the new MusicTech Creator Community Facebook Group for a chance to win a fantastic Audio-Technica prize bundle worth £375. We’d love to hear what you come up with.
Don’t forget to check out our past Weekend Workshops as well, and look out for more in the coming weeks.