11 special FX design tips

Field recordings are an invaluable tool in special FX design
Field recordings are an invaluable tool in special FX design (Image credit: Radius Images/Corbis)

They might not be the first things you think of, but special FX - risers, sweeps, drones, crashes etc - are an integral part of production.

They can be used to add tension, soften stiff transitions, add depth to breakdowns and make arrangements come together.

Below are 11 tips and trick designed to help you produce and perfect your own unique range of special FX.

For a complete guide to special FX, check out the August 2012 issue of Computer Music (CM 180).

Don't limit yourself

If you really want to go crazy with your FX design, make sure you use a synth with a multitude of modulation options. That way, you won't be stuck further down the line thinking, "Oh, if only I had one more spare modulation slot..."

Layer your FX

Most FX are stackable, so get into the habit of swapping different FX samples around and trying out different combinations. It's worth spending time knocking up a variety of FX so that you can try them out on the fly as you're writing your track. Just a handful of FX is enough to get by with - you'll be surprised how much mileage you can get out of them.

Watch the highs

Pay careful attention to the ultra-high frequencies in the 10-20kHz range - they can quickly turn into a brittle, unwanted mess, especially when sounds are crunched with distortion units. Add a low-pass filter at the extreme end of the spectrum to rein in those rogue frequencies.

Add key follow to risers

For riser FX, add a low-pass filter with the Key Follow set to max. This will cause the filter Cutoff to move up and down with the pitch, making the start sound subdued and pushed into the background before increasing in intensity as the pitch rises.

Make field recordings

FX can be as simple as ambient atmospheres and drones, so if you've got a portable mic, go outside and make some field recordings of various environments. You could even take things further, processing and resampling these field recordings to create some truly peculiar and unique sounds.

FX recycling

Once you've used your FX in a project, you can always reuse them by applying another generation of processing and effects. Over time you'll find that your home-made FX samples evolve into all sorts of weird and wonderful FX that you probably would never have dreamed of in the first place...

Bounce your tail

When bouncing down FX with tails (such as reverbs and delays), it's better to bounce too much rather than too little. If you bounce a few bars more than you need, you can always trim it down to fit your project. If you haven't done this and you really want to make the FX last two bars but you've only bounced one, it'll be back to the drawing board for you.

Choose 32-bit

Bit depth matters when bouncing and resampling FX, as they often contain reverb tails and other quiet elements that can really suffer when bounced repeatedly at low volumes and bit depths. Unless there's a compelling reason not to, bounce your audio down to 32-bit.

Think analytically

When attempting to recreate an FX sound you've heard elsewhere, it helps to break the sound down into its constituent parts. What is the basic shape of the sound - ie, is it changing in pitch or is it the filter cutoff being adjusted? What sort of waveforms are giving it its texture? Can you hear any LFOs, and if so, what are they modulating? If the sound evolves, which parameters are changing and how? You'll find that FX are far easier to recreate with a bit of analytical thinking.

Match the key

For tonal sounds such as risers and fallers, as well as synth hits and other auxiliary sounds, make sure that the pitches you choose fit with the other musical elements of your track. An FX isn't exempt from key clashing just because it's short or changes in pitch! Matching the key will keep your listeners' ears happy.

Bounce dry versions too

Future-proof your FX by bouncing both wet, effected versions and dry, unprocessed versions. This way, you can always change the settings in your insert FX chain at a later date. Sometimes you might want a version with more bass or a different filter sweep, and as you'd imagine, that can be a real headache to try to change further down the line.

Computer Music

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