Granular Synthesis In Absynth

Absynth is a sophisticated synthesiser. While it is powerful, it can also be quite esoteric, as its layout is not as immediately tweakable as its contemporaries. It is a true software synthesiser in that it isn’t inspired directly from hardware synthesisers. So we need to tread beyond the obvious in order to unlock its power.

This tutorial is about how we can use Absynth to control samples by using its granular synthesis engine. You will need a copy of Absynth and a suitable MIDI controller with a mod wheel (or you at least be able to assign a control knob to MIDI CC1). You will also need some kind of interesting vocal sample, as we will create a weird vocal patch that you can scrub through. I recorded myself saying ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ to give me a long constant sample.

1: Setting Up The Oscillator

  • Start a new sound in Absynth: File > New Sound
  • Head to the Patch tab.
  • Select ‘Granular’ mode from the drop-down box at the top of Oscillator A.
  • Click the (none) button below the ‘Granular’ drop-down, and select a vocal sample.

If you play through the sample on the keyboard, you will notice that it conserves the timing, regardless of the pitch. Currently, the patch plays through the whole sample. We are going to set it up so that we only play a short section of the sample and use a mod wheel to choose which bit plays.

  • Set the ‘Start’ value to 100.
  • Click the ‘Mod’ tab in Oscillator A.
  • Set Dens to 6
  • Set Size to 7000
  • Set Time% to 0

This gives us a greater number of sample grains and raises the quality.

We are now playing only a small portion of the sample.

2: Setting Up The Envelope

  • Click the envelope tab at the top.

The envelopes for all three oscillators should be showing. We need to add envelopes to handle the sample grain.

  • Click ‘+New’
  • Select the ‘Oscil A Sample Start’ parameter.

You should now see the Sample Start envelope. If you can’t, you can select it in the left hand panel.

  • Drag the ‘A’ attack breakpoint to the top left.
  • Select and delete the ‘D’ decay breakpoint by clicking it whilst holding down the command key (control key on Windows).

You should have something like this:

Granular_SampleStart

3: Setting Up The Controllers

  • Select the first of the two breakpoints (titled ‘a’)
  • Activate the ‘Control’ panel on the right by clicking in its corner
  • Assign The ‘Time Macro’ to CC1.
  • Assign The ‘Amp Macro’ to CC1 also.
  • Set the ‘Amp Scale’ to -100.

Now if you move the Mod Wheel on your MIDI controller, you should see the effect in the envelope window.

  • Select the release breakpoint titled ‘R’ in the envelope graph.
  • Assign CC1 to both the ‘Time Macro’ and to the ‘Amp Scale’.

We can now use the Mod Wheel to control where the sample starts. And you have an incredibly strange sample that you can drag back and forward in time!

Downloads

Here is the Absynth Patch: Supercalfifragilisticexpialidocious.nab
Here is the sample: Supercalfifragilisticexpialidocious.wav

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Great Advert Music

Levi Jeans

In the 1987, the Levi Strauss company made a fine art out of feeding its target market combinations of emotive music and striking visuals in a series of TV adverts for its jeans. Marvin Gaye’s ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’ track featured a Fonzie-esque Nick Kamen stripping down to his underwear in a 1960’s launderette in one such advert.

Another advert dating to 1988 featured ‘Stand By Me’ by Ben E King and was done in a very similar style.

These adverts became powerful marketing vehicles on three fronts. Firstly, Nick Kamen became a household name. Then ‘Stand By Me’ scored highly in the charts, reaching number one in the English and Irish charts. Plus the profile of Levi jeans was greatly boosted. And so Levi went on to continue this strategy of mixing aspects of popular culture and surfing the zeitgeist in its quest to market its products.

Into the 1990’s, tracks from the adverts were starting to have a major chart impact, as can by seen by the use of Shaggy’s ‘Mr Boombastic’ in another advert. The single scored number one position in several international charts.

By 1995, the tradition of Levi’s adverts had even reached out to the techno generation. While the visuals still hark to an era of vintage America, the dark ambient techno of Biosphere’s ‘Novelty Waves’ created a great contrast.

Sony

Sony, having the advantage of being both a record company and a technology company is able to engage its artists to advertise its products with great effect. One great advert that they took advantage of this position with was for the Sony Bravia TV in 2005. The Swedish singer-songwriter, Jose Gonzalez’s lush intimate and simple sound, demonstrated in the song, ‘Heartbeats’, was used to promote the television technology by creating a happy emotional carefree ambience to partner the visuals.

The equally stunning visuals were directed by Nicolai Fuglsig. A great partnership between sound and vision, which was the core concept of the advert. The Bravia tv’s certainly made a big impact by using the video to suggest that the tv’s played a beautiful game with the world of colour. But also to score big out of this was Gonzalez, whose international exposure through the advert greatly helped to promote his debut album, ‘Veneer’.

VISA

FIFA’s World Cup is a massive corporate affair and marketing agencies all over the world must go into overdrive when the World Cup season kicks off. One cheeky track that I discovered during the World Cup was Ugly Duckling’s ‘Little Samba’ track used in VISA’s advert prior to the World Cup. The advert featured Usain Bolt (as so many big adverts seem to!), and for me, really caputred the Brazilian spirit of the football carnival

‘Little Samba’ incidentally is quite a vintage track at this stage, dating back to 2001. Perfect for the job, though.

Yves Saint Laurent

One very clever advert that I spotted came out in the run up to Christmas 2015. Fragrance companies heavily advertise their products in this period, with a swathe of pretentious monochrome statements. I really liked what Yves Saint Laurent did with their ‘Black Opium’ fragrance. Yves Saint Laurent have some of the world’s top models on their books, having worked with Kate Moss and the supermodel of the moment, Cara Delevingne. Their advert for ‘Black Opium’ featured Edie Campbell, who creates a great character in this incredibly moody advert.

The song used was ‘Jungle’ by Australian singer-songwriter, Emma Louise. It’s a powerful number, and it works very well in the context of the advert. After discovering the song, I was delighted to find that the official artist’s release video for the single was also worth a watch…

Summary

The side-marketing of music through tv adverts creates a great vehicle for artists to be able to get exposure for their music. It is possibly incredibly hard to get on the books of companies that use music in this way, but the impact of advert music evidently works well. And websites such as www.tvadmusic.co.uk indulge people’s interest in this avenue of media.

Review: Tape Runs Out – Friends

Tape Runs Out are Cambridge’s latest contribution to the wonderful down-tempo world of shoegaze music. I got the chance to review their debut single, so listen up!

Tape-Runs-Out

‘Friends’ kicks off with a light jangly 90’s dream-pop guitar riff. It’s often a great thing when music references the past. While the musicians that create the music are showing their common fondness for a previous era in music, they are also triggering a feeling of familiarity and nostalgia for the listener. But in this case, where we expect to hear a light female voice after the intro, akin to a singer like Harriet Wheeler from ‘The Sundays’, we are instead given the dulcet tones of Liam Goodrum-Bell. His vocals have tonal qualities similar to Tom Smith of Editors, but rather than pursuing the urgency and drama of The Editors sound, Goodrum-Bell’s vocals are more insular and contemplative. Ellie Winter provides extra layers to the vocals, in a style reminiscent of Shoreditch’s The Microdance. It’s an effective device. ‘Friends’ is a very simple track, capturing a certain care-free mood, from which it makes no great effort to deviate. At just over 2 minutes long, it doesn’t seek to complicate itself with a middle-eight, while an instrumental break is a brief diversion prior to a half-verse conclusion which ends the song quite abruptly. As a fellow instrumentalist, I often find myself connecting more with melodies and instrumental relationships, rather than the lyrics contained within. Perhaps this was why the dream-pop sound was always my friend. Bands such as Cocteau Twins served up songs with almost unrecognizable poetry and gushing with a cool, care-free ambience. (Just try to write down the lyrics of this song if you don’t believe me!) That sentiment continues with Friends.

The b-side track is called ‘Flowers’ and it opens with a rather surreal naturally-textured sample, and an electric piano introduces us to an intimate environment. The bass guitar is far more chunkier than its a-side partner, but what the track shares with the a-side is the once-again ambiguous and indistinct vocals. The track has great atmosphere and perhaps hints at the band’s suitability for cinematic music. In some ways, I found that I preferred ‘Flowers’ to the title track. Its structure was slightly more sophisticated and the band’s intelligence as song-constructors, with its multiple layers, came through rather strongly. It was rather reminiscent of early noughties Radiohead, but with the delicate presence of Goodrum-Bell’s vocals present instead of Yorke’s eery falsetto-driven melodies. ‘Flowers’ also satisfies with its wonderful atmospheric guitars, which add something special to the building textural tension of the track.

Sounds Like….

Sparklehorse meets opiated post-rock

Find Out More

Tape Runs Out do their web thing here
And listen to them here

Spectre Sound

My First Guitar

I grew up in a small town in West Yorkshire called Bingley. It’s a town that is little known outside of the area, other than for it’s nomenclature which is associated with a building society. As an adolescent, discovering a fresh ambition to become a musician, Spectre Sound became my weekend haunt (if you pardon the pun!). It was quite a friendly informal shop and the staff were more than happy to let all punters spend as much time as they wanted getting their rock hungry paws over their wares. I also got introduced to my guitar teacher, a Kip Whitehead through the staff at Spectre.

charvette

Sitting on the main street in Bingley, a musty hallway beyond the front door sloped downwards into the depth of the building. Walls on either side were lined with gig posters and photocopied musician ads, with the patent tear-off tabs. Break-neck steps at the end of this corridor brought you into the basement level, which was where the main guitar show-room was located. In the winter, the guitar room got pretty cold, and the staff had one of those nasty 1980’s electric bar heaters belting out a patchy wave of warmth into the room. One afternoon, my Dad took me down to the guitar department and we selected a combination of a white Charvette super strat guitar together with a Peavey Backstage 110 practice amp.

Guitar Crushes

In reminiscence of the scene in Wayne’s World, in which Wayne falls in love with a guitar, I developed a couple of crushes on my visits to Spectre Sound.

One guitar was a purple double-necked strat copy, which was on sale for around £900. I can’t even remember the brand, so this crush was clearly tainted by naive bad taste. In recent years, I wouldn’t even dream of owning an electric 12-string, never mind a double neck. I am also incredibly loyal to the big brands. With guitars, that experience counts for a lot! Having said that, my second guitar crush was along similar lines. It was a Rickenbacker 12-string. Still, at least I was starting to understand about brands and heritage. In retrospect, I am happy that I didn’t end up going for that, as it was upwards of £1000, which in the 80’s was a massive amount for a guitar. And the characteristic jingly-jangly Rickenbacker sound doesn’t suit all projects.

Spectre Sound became a regular place for me to hang out in on Saturday. I picked up an array of stomp-box pedals, and then one year, I splashed out on a Tascam four-track. That old four-track led to me enrolling on a music production course in 1996. I was finding the process of putting music together as exciting as playing the instruments themselves.

tascam-porta-mini-studio-07

Guitar Number Two

Some time after starting university, I happened to drop into the store and cast eyes upon a slick black Ibanez 540R. At £450, I was pretty impressed, so I finally took the plunge. That guitar had a Floyd Rose tremolo, which allowed for some pretty crazy bridge-bending action. Plus the action was so low, it was great for shredding. That guitar served me well for a great deal of time, and it’s quality was enough to demote my crappy white Charvette to a rarely used spare. The Ibanez got me through my music production course, and it was my instrument in the indie rock band, Noisegate.

Ibanez540R

Hard Times

The financial melt-down of 2008 and the resultant recession caused an array of musical instrument stores to completely tank. Given that just a few years before, the success of the computer games, ‘Rock Band’ and ‘Guitar Hero’ had opened up Fender and Gibson to a whole new generation, but that market peaked out and disappeared. Unfortunately, Spectre Sound became a casualty of the recession some time after 2009. I walked into the store one time for old time’s sake, only to find a sparse array of unwanted guitars on display in a corner of the room. The store was clearly winding down its business. Within a few months, my home town guitar shop was no more.

Spectre Sound

Live-Looping Setups

I have been wanting to get into live-looping for a considerable amount of time. Over three years ago, I started looking into what sort of setup I might need to enable me to achieve this goal. There are thousands of ways to skin this cat. I certainly found myself heading down a few wrong turns along the way.

Floor-based Loopers

I started out building up my looping setup around a Boss RC-300 loop station. The RC-300 is an incredibly powerful looper, with 3 independent looping tracks available on pedal switches, and an expression pedal for phasing in effects and transitions.

Roland RC-300-2

Being a guitarist by background, I felt sure that this was the right choice. To cover drums, I was using a Roland SPD-30, and I ended up eventually opting for a TC Helicon Voicelive Touch to use as a vocal effect. Well the inputs on the RC-300 did not allow me to plug in audio from my MacBook, the drum machine and a hardware synth too, so I opted to get a small mixer to handle the sound sources (Edirol M10DX). By the time I had this setup going, I had wires all over the place and a 10-way power adapter completely jammed with power supplies. I could achieve looping with this rather fiddly setup, but it didn’t feel very instinctive, with far too many different units to concentrate on. And it didn’t help having to use my feet to control the floor based RC-300.
Other floor-based loopers are available, such as the Digitech Jam Man or the KT Tunstall endorsed Akai Headrush.

Vocal Loopers

My second phase of loopery revolved around expanding the possibilities of the Voicelive Touch. Not only is it a brilliant vocal effects unit featuring a powerful harmonizer, autotune and all the other expected gubbins, but it also features its own looper mode.

TC Helicon Voicelive Touch

After getting hold of the TC Helicon floor switch, and the MP-75 microphone, designed to work with the unit, I thought that simplicity might be the answer. I found that setup too minimal, and over reliant on my modest abilities to produce beat-boxed drum lines. Some of the most talented loopers around today such as Dub FX and Beardyman come from a beat-boxing background, but my attempts at cracking out kicking beats from my face produced an array of saliva rather than a wall of hard-hitting rhythms. Version two of the Voicelive touch is now available, and I must say it’s far and away the best vocal effects unit out there for creative singers. It’s fantastic that it clips onto a microphone stand too.

Software Loopers

Phase 3 of my looping quest led me to the Ableton Push. I had been using Ableton Live for a couple of years with my APC-40 controller, but the new Push hardware allowed for much more creative control over Live. It could not only trigger clips in Live, but it could also be used as an instrument in its own right. Powerful for sure, and a lot of fun to use. Getting the actual looper instruments into a Live session that was workable proved to be quite fiddly. One problem I had was that when a foot-switch was hooked up it could only be allocated to one track, so unless I bought a massive MIDI foot-switch controller, such as a Roland FC-300, I wasn’t going to be able to control multiple tracks. Push is great for building tracks and song-writing. In fact as an instrument, I found it so playable that I started getting into learning how to play melody lines. However, that just resulted in me realising that I would be better off learning how to play piano, so I went down that road instead. The Push still wasn’t what I needed for my live-looping needs.

ableton-push

Custom Software Setups

Artists such as Tim Exile and Beardyman were clearly two characters in the music business who have been trying to crack this conundrum for years. Exile had been working with Native Instruments in Berlin using the Reaktor software system. He has produced what he calls his ‘performance machine’, and it works wonderfully.

But with the thin hours left to me by my day-job, I realised that I wouldn’t have the time to use Reaktor to build the ultimate bespoke looping set up. Beardyman went one step further by working with a programming team to build his looping software (Beardytron 5000) from the ground up in C++.

Very impressive, but unrealistic for my situation. Scaling down my expectations, I finally stumbled upon the ideal looping setup to suit my needs.

Table-top Loopers

The Boss RC-505 was released in autumn 2013. It’s essentially a table-top based five track looper. It was designed for the beat-box community who were starting to use the other loop stations, such as the RC-50 and the RC-300 at table level.

rc-505

It not only provides two more tracks than those units, but it also has two different stages for effects. Input effects allow for the incoming sound source to be processed for the recording, while the output effects can be dropped onto the recorded loops. There are also basic global effects allowing you to apply compression and reverb for that final touch. Input-wise, it features left and right jack inputs as well as a stereo mini-jack auxiliary input. There is also an XLR input and it’s possible to stream audio from a computer via the USB socket, which I don’t think other loopers are capable of. With my Shure WH-20 dynamic headset mic plugged into the XLR, I have a great way of inputting vocals. My Roland SH-01 Gaia synthesizer is the perfect sound source to holler down the stereo jacks. Needing drums was a priority too. Because of the awkwardness of the SPD-30 (it’s just too fiddly having to pick up a pair of drum-sticks), I thought I might go for an app to give me drums. I tried using Drum Pads 24 on my Galaxy Note 3 into the auxiliary input, but while the sounds were ok, it wasn’t possible to provide your own samples, plus the latency of the drum hits made it nearly unplayable. Luckily, Akai had just released a new hardware sample player which was perfect for this; the Akai MPX-16. So that’s synth, vocals and drums covered without needing a mixer. I may not have the key-mashing abilities of Tim Exile or Beardyman, but I am starting to find that the results I am getting are great. I can very quickly put together rich soundscapes and tight sounding song sections.

Looping Setup

The only other drawback is that there is no guitar input with this setup. But that could potentially be fixed by introducing a mixer, so that the synth shares the jack inputs with other sound sources. Alternatively, Guitar Rig could be used via the USB port. Truth be told, the synth can cover many bases, so I am happy to be guitar-less with this setup. And it is to great advantage that this rig works without the need to hook up a laptop. My system is great for me, as it involves only three instruments. They work together well, and price-wise it’s not even been that expensive to put together:

  • Boss RC-505 – £350
  • Akai MPX-16 – £130
  • Roland SH-01 – £479 (mine was £300 second-hand)
  • Shure WH-20 – £99

Other Options

There is no single solution for live-looping. It all comes down to the skills and needs of the musician. You need to work out what sort of sounds you want to loop (vocals, guitars etc). Then you need to work out how you are going to produce beats (beat-boxing, MPC, full drum kit). And finally, you need to decide how much flexibility you want with the recorded loops, and how much you want to warp things once they are in your loop system.
There are other answers to looping, such as the Elektron Octatrack (eight channel hardware sample looper!).

elekton_octarack

There are also app solutions. The Looper app is available for Android, while the iOS answer is an app called Loopy.

loopy-iphone-ipad.3

Unfortunately, I’m an iPad away from using this option, but using tablets is a great idea, so long as the latency of the signal isn’t a problem.

Piano Quest: Left Hand Patterns

So I’ve been at this piano lark for almost a month now.
I don’t seem to be getting to practice every day, but every two or three days, I manage to fit in a 60 minute session.
I remember listening to some tips given by John Williams regarding learning the guitar. He suggested that the most optimum way to learn an instrument was to practice every day for about fifteen minutes, so as to build up muscle memory. That’s not how it’s working for me, but I am definitely making progress. The basic piano scale patterns are starting to come naturally to me and I am not too far from becoming unconsciously competent.

Practice Structure

Scales

The first twenty minutes or so of my session are devoted to practicing piano scales. To warm up, I will play something like C major, A minor or D dorian (i.e. no black notes!!). Then I am starting to introduce some of the more basic scales with the odd black note, such as G major (with a sharp vii – F#), or D minor (with a flattened vi – Bb). One of the more curious scales I found was the Bb Lydian scale. The Lydian diatonic mode is quite a peculiar mode, featuring a sharp iv note as well as a flat vii. These notes give the mode a strangely ethereal quality:

b-flat-lydian-mode-on-treble-clef

b-flat-lydian-mode-on-bass-clef

This scale only features one black note, but with that note being on the root note of the scale, the fingering for the scale is altered, which threw me a bit at first.

Sight Reading

I’m continuing with Chester’s Easiest Blues, which is getting more advanced as I work my way through the book. I have finally made it to the middle of the book. I’m managing to nail a couple of the songs, but nothing’s perfect yet. The first chords are starting to come into the songs, but it’s all still quite straight forward.

Left Hand Patterns

I’m starting to realise that a major part of song-writing on a piano involves being able to build song progressions by using the left hand to drive to key notes of the progression chord, so I have been practicing some left hand patterns. Prior to looking into this further, I realised that in my lazy style of play, I defaulted to playing the following pattern:

Root-Fifth-Octave

1 5 8 5
C3 G3 C4 G3
F3 C4 F4 C4
G3 D4 G4 D4
C3 G3 C4 G3

While this pattern is a pretty decent pattern for song-building, I felt that it was important to be able to build some variation into my repertoire, which would in turn allow me to bring different characters to the songs that I write. So I looked into finding more patterns:

Walking Pattern

This pattern has a more inherently bluesy sounding feel.

1 3 5 6
C E G A
F A C D
G B D E

Shuffle Pattern

Quite a straight-foward sequence using a bit of a chord.

1,5 1,5 1,6 1,6
C,G C,G C,A C,A
F,C F,C F,D F,D
G,D G,D G,E G,E

Country Pattern

This one reminds me of the sort of pattern one would finger-pick on a guitar.

1 3,5 -5 3,5
C E,G G E,G
F A,C C A,C
G B,D D B,D

Composing

The final part of my practice tends to focus on song-writing, where I try to take what I have learned and do something with it. I have a couple of things brewing, which I will drop on yu when I can actually play them!

Piano Quest: Black Notes!

Scales

So now I am all over scales featuring no flattened or sharpened notes.

  • A Minor
  • C Major
  • D Dorian
  • G Mixolydian

I am able to cover the above scales fluently featuring:

  • Multiple octaves
  • Parallel motion
  • Contrary motion

The next stage is introducing black notes into the scales, as it’s currently far too easy.
The following keys and modes feature F#, so practicing the scales in those keys means fitting that sharp note into the sequences.

  • E Minor
    e-minor-scale-on-treble-clef
    e-minor-scale-on-bass-clef

  • G Major
    g-major-scale-on-treble-clef
    g-major-scale-on-bass-clef

  • A Dorian
    a-dorian-mode-on-treble-clef
    a-dorian-mode-on-bass-clef

  • D Mixolydian
    d-mixolydian-mode-on-treble-clef
    d-mixolydian-mode-on-bass-clef

What is good about being able to practice that single F# note on different scales is that I have to get used to fitting it in at different points along the scale according to while diatonic mode I pick. I am managing to nail parallel motion, but contrary motion with some of these new scales is tricky! This isn’t too bad for three weeks worth of progress.

Songs

Managed to do some really rough recordings of me playing. A couple of basic ideas…

This one kind of reminds me of the theme tune from Dragon’s Lair.

Kind of movie soundtrack-esque tune.

Other than starting to write some basic songs, I’m slowly making my was through Chester’s Easiest Blues. Got up to song 5, although I’m not really nailing the first four yet! The book is great as an introduction to sight-reading and has suggested fingerings, which is exactly what I need…

Jazz Or Classical?

There appear to be two major approaches when it comes to learning piano. While I am a huge fan of classical music, the more contemporary nature of jazz may lend itself to being a greater tool when it comes to song-writing. Even the grading board, ABRSM do gradings in both jazz and classical. I’m not sure which route to go down at this stage, but I will work that out!