What if you were tasked with making a full multitrack song using only one instrument; where would you begin? A brief understanding of sound-design concepts could get you on your way to exploring new creative horizons for your music.
By Josh Bonanno
Do you ever spend more time searching for the perfect sample or synth patch preset than actually creating? Digging through endless folders of sample libraries for the right loop or kick drum sound, along with drop down menus full of presets for the perfect piano tone is enough to hinder any creative juices. What if you forced yourself to use only a limited number of sounds, maybe even just a single plugin, to create a whole track? Could you do it?
The thought of forcing yourself to write an entire song from a single virtual instrument, sample or loop probably does not sound possible, and even if it was, it may not sound like a whole lot of fun. Sometimes though, forcing yourself into a corner creatively is the exact way to gain new insight and search for creative ways to get out of that corner.
Sound Design Power
Sound design is the process of doing just that, designing and shaping your own sounds. Taking one audio file and then molding it, shaping it, maybe even destroying it in order to arrive at a sound that fits the desired outcome. Sound design is heavily based in film and sound for picture, where the recorded sound of one thing is transformed into the sound of something else happening on screen. Creating interesting, powerful and captivating sounds is left to the imagination and manipulation of the sounds you have at your disposal.
With sound design, you are in control of how your samples sound and your imagination is truly the only limit.
A Full Song with One Instrument
With that in mind, take a listen to the audio example I’ve created below. I discovered that a simple grand piano (Waves Grand Rhapsody) and all of its nuances could become almost any instrument I could dream of.
The quick thump of the sustain pedal being released is a great basis for a kick drum sound. Committing the MIDI to audio first, then pitch shifting the audio down an octave or two using SoundShifter or UltraPitch makes it sound a bit more like a kick drum and less like a sustain pedal. Adding in some additional low end using Renaissance Bass, and then EQing some of the unwanted boxiness out of the low mids should get you pretty close to something that reminds you sonically of a kick.
A higher-pitched percussion element that might serve as a snare, clap or rim shot could be made from the hammer noise created from the hammers resting on the strings. Again, pitch shifting the audio sample up or down to fit the key and feel of the song is a great first step to getting your sound to suit any situation.
Creating some additional upper harmonics using something like the NLS channel, or some distortion from guitar stomps or a tape machine can create some more interest and sizzle, much like the metal snares do on the underside of a snare drum. If your sound doesn't have quite yet the impact or attack you want, compressing with a medium attack and quicker release should be just enough to shape the initial hit of the transient and make it pop.
Creating large synth pads and airy layers to fill out your production can be as easy as adding reverb and turning the dry signal way down. The “Very Large Cathedral” preset at almost 100% wet on R-Verb is a great place to start. Adding a modulation effect like a chorus from MondoMod or flanger on top of those long reverb tails also creates a bit more interest and movement to the sound.
Bass sounds can also be created easily by using the lower octaves of the piano to play your part and then distorting and compressing to create a sound that feels unique and different from a standard piano.
It’s important to note that starting with a harmonic instrument for the basis of all your sound design makes the creation of chord progressions and melodies a bit easier. If you choose to start your song from a one-shot sample or hit it’s still possible to create pitched melodies and instruments, but will require more work and would be made easier with the use of a sampler.
As you can see, the possibilities are endless and there are truly no rules with sound design. As you explore the sonic capabilities of distorting, chopping and manipulating a sound, you're forcing your brain to continue to think creatively and discover totally new ways of working. So, can you do it? Can you make a whole song out of a single instrument or loop?
Tell us in the comments below what you think!
Want more ideas on staying creative in the studio? See how you can use your gear for unintended tasks.
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