Messing Around With A Mic

Recently, I posted a new Grain Science demo track to SoundCloud. It’s just a series of experiments, but quite a few people found it interesting because it demonstrates a side to Grain Science that maybe not everyone is aware of: the ability to bring to life the awesome synth instruments that are lurking in the everyday sounds all around you:

All the sounds you hear in this demo are created from four short recordings: a glass being struck, a coin being spun and dropped, a short whistling sample, and a tiny bit of beatboxing.

I haven’t really emphasised this side of things too much so far (in the built-in instruments, for example), partly because I’m not really an expert in correct microphone placing, and partly because the iPad’s built-in mic can be a little noisy. For some sounds, this works out fine — the “Not Bad For A Human” instrument takes advantage of that noise, to give a vintage texture to the sound, sort of the aural equivalent of an Instagram photo filter. But for many instruments, a cleaner recording is required.

As it happens, a package arrived in the post recently with a shiny new IK Multimedia iRig Mic. I decided to take it for a little test drive, and by now you’ll have heard the results. Unless you didn’t click on the audio player above. Go click! Clicky! Much cleaner — and this is despite less-than-ideal conditions.

Now, Grain Science provides a bunch of “traditional” waveforms and synthesis techniques (sine, square, sawtooth, PWM and so on), and for many electronic musicians this is their “comfort zone” — a happy place of warm bright noise. It’s all good (I loves me some squelchy 303, a fat supersaw pad or a gently glowing analogue patch) but there’s lots more stuff out there if you push the boundaries a little.

Granular synthesis is often associated with freaky soundscapes, like this number from Simple Mission:

I like creepy experimental noises — in fact, I have a bunch of notes somewhere for a project based on exactly that :) — but what if you’re looking for something more traditionally musical? I’m going to talk here about some techniques in Grain Science that can really help turn found sound into music. Yes, 7 paragraphs in, I’m going to finally get to the point… :P

Cropping Waves

Many folks don’t realise that you can crop a recording in Grain Science, to pick out just part of it to use for synthesis. Crop is non-destructive, so you can make a bunch of instruments from the same recording, cropped in different ways each time. You can even crop it two different ways in the same recording, once for each Grain Unit.

To crop the audio in a grain unit, simply hold your finger on the wave view, until a bright amber line appears:

Hold the wave view

Then drag your finger to the side — the line will stretch out to form a selection area:

Drag out the selection

You can adjust the selection by dragging it around (drag the edges to lengthen or shorten it), or cancel it by tapping a non-selected part of the wave. Once you’re happy with the selection, tap Crop from the pop-up menu and everything outside the selection will be set aside, and only the selected area will be played.

Some cropping ideas:

  • The most obvious use is to strip out “dead air” at the beginning and end of a recording
  • You can also pick out elements of the sound — just the middle “sustained” part of a note, for example
  • You can use pinch/unpinch gestures to zoom in on the wave view, so you can zoom in and select very small pieces of sound to use, where it’s really not obvious where the sound originally came from
  • The selection snaps to zero crossings, so you can easily crop right down to individual cycles of the waveform if you like. In this way you can create hundreds of single-cycle waveforms from one recording.

Soft Loop

Suppose you want to make a synth pad, and you’re starting with the plain “whistle” recording from the demo. You can zoom right in and pluck out an individual wave cycle to get a bright synthetic sound, but suppose you want something where more of the original human quality of the whistle comes through. Look through the waveform for a section where the volume is fairly consistent:

An area with relatively consistent volume

Crop to this, and you’re almost there, but the problem is that it has an obvious “bump” where the sample repeats. Sometimes this is what you want, but not for a soft synth pad. This is where Soft Loop comes in: pop open the Wave menu, tap the Soft Loop button, and a new wave is made that contains only the selected portion, with the beginning and end blended together, so the sound loops without any distracting bumps.

Fine Tuning

If you need to tune your instruments — particularly if you’re recording something like the glass being struck where it’s not easy to tune the sound before recording — a useful tip is to load a simple sine wave into the other grain unit, and set them to blend together. Now it’s much easier to tweak the Fine Tuning dial on your sound until the two tones line up. You can also jog the blend dial from side to side if you’re having trouble picking them apart.

(If you do have control over the pitch of the sound you’re recording, you want to tune it to A4, 440hz. That makes things a lot simpler!)

If you’re using the same sample in a lot of different instruments, and don’t want to retune it each time, another trick is to load it into the Default Instrument, tune it, then use the Performance Recording feature to record yourself playing a single A4 note. You can load this recording back in as a sample (tap Import in the Wave menu) and now it’ll always be tuned and ready to use in a new instrument.

Other Ideas

Even something simple can make a difference to a recorded sound, like setting a slow attack time on a whistle, to soften that initial “puff”. Effects like Chorus or Flanger can add “richness” or “thickness” to a sound and start to transform it from an obvious sample into something new. And, of course, while it’s a very old technique, it can still sound great: with Sync Speed off, try dropping an octave or two to transform tiny “dings” into huge gongs. Reverb can also make for interesting effects — beyond the obvious “big space” effect, combining it with, say, arpeggiation or octave/tuning LFO can create shimmering sounds when the reflections bounce back and meet the new notes.

Hopefully that’s given you some new ideas to try out — and when your masterpiece is done, don’t forget to post it to the Grain Science SoundCloud group!