7 ways to improve your sound design skills

Whether you're using hardware or software, when it comes to sound design, the trick is to experiment.
Whether you're using hardware or software, when it comes to sound design, the trick is to experiment.

Only the most masochistic producers painstakingly synthesize every track element from scratch. For the majority of us, life's simply too short, especially when the creative juices are flowing and the clock is ticking.

So, we turn to some form of sample pack, ROMpler or synth preset. But while pre-created sound sources are useful, it's all too easy to slip into a formulaic workflow: reach to a drums folder for your percussion hits; load up your favourite synth's bass presets for low-end duties; or search through sounds labelled FX to add that final touch of ambience to a track. This can often result in generic tracks that lack in personality.

However, any sound's tonal and dynamic characteristics can be used for another musical purpose. If a sample contains enough low frequencies, then why can't it be turned into a bass part? When does a staccato synth hook become a percussion loop? When is a pitched-down vocal actually a drone?

"Any sound's tonal and dynamic characteristics can be used for another musical purpose."

Nowadays, with the advanced sound-manipulating devices available to us, it's easier than ever to creatively shape, mangle and sculpt sounds outside of the predefined categorisations we're accustomed to. Or, to put it another way, we can all be sound designers to some degree - here are seven ways that you improve your skills right away.

For a complete guide to creative sound design check out Future Music issue 281, which is on sale now.

1. Play with pitch

Try pitching everything up or down! It's the easiest and fastest way to take sounds away from their original context, generate new harmonics and mangle up a signal beyond all recognition.

2. Be disorderly

Re-order effect chains for creative gains - plugins and DAWs are making processing more hands-on than ever. A distortion plugin will affect a reverbed signal; a pitch-shifter will influence a compressor; and a vocoder will definitely influence the effect of a reverb.

3. Break the rules

If you're trying to transform source sounds to the extreme, throw the usual production rules out of the window. Compress the living daylights out of something to generate obvious pumping artifacts. Strap a vocal processor across your drum mix, or assign a bass enhancer to your synth buss. Boost a bass end by +20dB to amplify some low rumble contained within a signal. Use extreme resonance settings when filtering or EQing. Push feedback dials up to 11. Distort the hell out of anything and everything. If it sounds good, then it is good!

Try rearranging effects in the plugin chain, too. Just watch your gain staging, as it's easy to get carried away and clip your DAW's master fader or a plugin's internal circuitry.

4. Get in tune

As the harmonics within a sound determine its pitch, you can analyse any given signal and work out its key, making it easy to tune a specific sound within a melodic composition and create something that fits the track in a musical sense. Melodyne is a popular vocal tuning solution, but it can also analyse and correct the key of any sound.

Alternatively, use a frequency analyser plugin to determine the frequency of prominent harmonics. You can then use pitch shifting techniques to get things tuned. Voxengo's free SPAN or MeldaProduction's MAnalyzer even display a harmonic's musical pitch when you hover over it.

5. Drive things hard

Saturation and distortion are indispensable if you want to accentuate specific harmonics or create aggression within a sound. Whether applying the analogue circuits of an analogue signal path, or engaging a software solution, you've likely added bite to a clean sound before. Now is the time to push the Drive parameter to extreme values.

Many plugins now feature a Dry/wet mix control, allowing you to blend your unprocessed signal with the crunched-up processed signal for more control over the blend of your mix. If your favourite plugin doesn't have this, use aux sends and returns to mix things up.

6. Use reverb and delay creatively

When manipulating a sound's characteristics for another purpose, you'll often want to add width and space using reverb and delay effects. Both have the ability to place your original sounds in a certain environment or space, no matter where they've been sourced from. A recording of street noise can often form rising or falling sweeps with some simple pitch manipulation and spatial effects.

Investigate the more unrealistic and wacky reverb and delay plugins. Eventide's Blackhole, SoundToys' Echoboy and 112dB's Redline Reverb put special emphasis on creative application and experimentation.

7. Be brave with your boosts

EQs and filters give you the ability to boost or cut rogue frequencies that a particular plugin or process may have generated. They'll also help when you're trying to layer separate channels together, removing frequency conflicts or muddy areas.

Many engineers swear by the 'don't boost, just cut' rule when EQing sounds in the digital realm. If you're mangling source sounds in the creative way, ignore this technique and feel free to boost away to your heart's content. Use a characterful analogue-style EQ plugin to perform more musical boosts, or even a tasty outboard EQ if you have one to hand.

Future Music

Future Music is the number one magazine for today's producers. Packed with technique and technology we'll help you make great new music. All-access artist interviews, in-depth gear reviews, essential production tutorials and much more. Every marvellous monthly edition features reliable reviews of the latest and greatest hardware and software technology and techniques, unparalleled advice, in-depth interviews, sensational free samples and so much more to improve the experience and outcome of your music-making.