Sound Design As Mind Design

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One of my music production routines is to build a sound from scratch in a VST synthesizer and then make music with it immediately. I do this most days and now that I think about it, the routine is like a training session, the goal of which is to learn how to produce music from the ground up—not waiting for inspiration but actively cultivating opportunities for it to flourish. One interesting side effect of sound designing is that the process gets me into a more focused head space.

When I begin I have no idea about what I’ll do. The problem is that I don’t yet have anything to bounce ideas off of. This is where the routine comes in handy to get things going: you’re not going anywhere until you try something—anything. With that, I start. 

The default sawtooth waveform in my software sounds harsh to me, so I browse through other waveforms, settling on a more rounded-shaped one. I change the sound envelope parameters (ADSR) of the sound, lengthening its attack and decay. Then I begin automating one parameter into another, for example assigning an LFO (low frequency oscillator) to the Waveform Position control, so that the sound scrolls through different locations of itself. I assign another LFO to a Filter, which makes the sound’s timbre seem to open and close slightly. I turn to the Noise control, and assign another LFO to it. There are dozens of noise types to choose from, so I compare a few of them while simultaneously adjusting their pitch and velocity levels. So many choices. Can I just have some noise, please?

In addition to the ADSR, LFO, Filter, and Noise parameters, the software also has an Effects section where I can add distortion, more filtering, EQ, compression, delay, and reverb in varying amounts to my sound. I can also modulate these effects with those LFOs I’ve already assigned elsewhere, so I return to them and try out some more routings. I assign the LFO that is controlling the Waveform Position to simultaneously play with the delay amount (I picture a puppet on strings, bobbing up and down).   

After a while I start hearing bits of pulsation and movement in the sound. I have each of the LFOs set to their own tempo (unsynced from the “master clock” of the DAW because that sounds predictable), which means that there’s a lot of micro-timing discrepancies happening inside the sounds. Some of my routings are interacting in strange and unpredictable ways that make the sound interesting because I can’t predict how it’s going to behave from one moment to the next. 

But there’s still something annoying about the sound. Is the filter set too wide—is that why it sounds too bright? I darken the sound a bit, but now I’m missing those layers of pulsation, so I open the filter back up halfway. I try swapping out one of the waveforms, then try moving to a new position within one of them, not quite sure if I’m hearing enough of a difference to make a difference. I keep tinkering, trying to get the sound closer to…a sound that I would like to play with. I have the sense that I’m failing at this, but at least I’ll have something to show for it. (Save your presets.)

So far, all of this might seem technical, but the fact is that I’m going on intuition, with only a general idea of the architecture of my software. (Prince: “I don’t want to have a preconception about what a piece of gear should or shouldn’t do. I just start using it. I start pushing buttons, and I discover the sounds that I can make with it.”) I’m trying things out while realizing that the number of paths I’m not pursuing vastly outnumber the paths I’m exploring. I’m using my ears, not my limited theoretical knowledge of sound design principles—are there any?—to navigate through the software.

Then, suddenly, an opening: the whole time I’ve been adjusting the sound-in-progress, my hands have been on the keyboard, playing, and it’s only now that I notice this musical frame for my sound design. There’s a high B-flat and D in the right hand, and a G in the left. While trying to get a timbre just right, I’ve been circling around a chord or two.

A bigger opening: the process of designing a sound and playing a few notes on the keyboard has put me into a headspace very different from the one I was in when I began. It’s not the “perfect” sound and a G minor chord isn’t much, but now I have a level of attention more useful than my imperfect know-how. Now I hear things in what I have in front of me, and that’s something to go on.  

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