Sound Design: Source Metamorphosis


Bus to Jet

Disclaimer: You are now about to witness the Classic Chris Rant. Where I take a 15 min process and turn it into an Epic Novel.

Backround:  I recently purchased a Zoom H4N for some field recording. Prior to the purchase I was doing quite a bit of research and really wanted to buy a Sound Devices 702, or Korg MR-1000. However I felt that it would be better suited to get something a little more discreet and portable for on the fly recording. I’m not going to be dragging along a field gear bag, boom mics, etc… though I’m obsessive enough to do so I much rather have something that’s a little more "point and shoot". Prior to the H4N I was running the earlier H2 model. Which I must say was plenty good and I was able to get some really great stuff out of it. So a situation came up where my sister needed a recorder to document her lectures at Northwestern University and I decided to pass it on to her. So far I’m extremely happy with the H4n. 

On the way home from the studio I decided to put the H4N to the test and let it record my trip. I left the recording levels at their default position and unfortunately after the 12 min ride home I realized upon playback that it was way too hot for most of the recording. Specifically when I was traveling at full speed moving between 40-50mph. It wasn’t a total waste, and actually there was a particular instance where I was stopped at a red light and noticed a commuter bus getting ready to pass on my right side in the turning lane. I grabbed the H4n which was already recording and pointed it out the window. I managed to pick up a pretty nice pass by. Now at first listen it may seem pretty bland and unexciting but by pulling back for a second and really examining the recording you’ll notice that the crest of the sound has a really nice texture to it. You can really hear this full body build up of force.. air…and movement. Later that night I decided to take this sound under the microscope to see if I could manipulate it into something more exciting.

Original Sound:

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I brought the the source recording into Ableton Live and began to experiment with basic pitch and volume. Its good to note that  I tend to record everything at the highest possible sample rate the device will allow, which in the case of the H4n this is 96khz 24bit. In the end it leaves you with far more depth and body after pitch/time manipulation then if you recorded at 44khz 16 bit. 

The first thing I did with the original sound was create a nice lead in/out envelope using Live 8′s fade tool (PC Ctrl-Alt-F). I typically aim for the crest of the sound (highest peak), which is where the source sound amplitude is at its highest point and parallel with my listener position. I then fade in to the crest.. and fade out away from it.

The next step was to experiment with pitch. One thing I would like to note when using Ableton Live’s pitch shift is to set the sample event to Hi-Quality. Setting your sample quality  this way will definitely tax your cpu but the benefit is that it twll result in less artifacting and allow you to pull the pitch down with better sounding results than without.  You have many different algorithms to choose from with Live 8: Beat/Tone/Texture/Re-Pitch/Complex/Complete Pro. In this example Texture sounded the best and provided the least bit of artifacting when exploring some of the more aggressive pitch changes. Using Live’s warp algorithm set to Texture I began to pull the pitch up/down in 1 semitone increments listening for that point where you still hear the familiarity in the sound, but also that point at which the source has changed into something different.

Whether designing synthesizer patches or creating sound FX I don’t always have a set idea as to what I’d like to achieve with the process. I often find that the best results are provided by just diving in…listening..experimenting.. and following your natural response to sound.  Getting back to the sound of the bus, moving the pitch up seemed to make the sound less powerful. Though it sounds interesting, i felt  that it took away from what I thought was the most exciting part: the body of force in the center of the sound.  Pitching up really thinned it out and made it sound slightly tinny. I didn’t want that at all… I decided to move down. -1..-2..-3…-4…It started to sound really good. I felt that there was now a real emphasis on the center peak. It gave it this nice low-mid push, and it started to add more force to the sound. As if it was pushing more air…with a lot more weight. I didn’t want to stop there. I moved down to -5..-6..-7..-8. At about 8 semitones down from the original sound I felt that it was  exactly at the point where the sound was still recognizable BUT has also really emphasized its strengths. The great thing about Ableton Live’s warp algorithms is that they are extremely good, especially with high quality on. You can really bring a sound down quite a bit without losing too much and causing it to become brittle and fall apart. 

Although I was extremely happy with the pitch results, the sound now had a nasty build up in the low end which muddied up the center mids. Time for some subtractive eq.  For this task I decided to use Ableton’s own EQ-8. I feel that for a stock plugin it sounds good and is more than capable on most if not all eq tasks both simple and surgical. Engaging Band 1 I applied a simple lo-cut filter and began sweeping to the right until i found a suitable spot where I could still hear the power behind the sound but it was now far more controlled and no longer ruining the mids. This was at approximately 210hz.

After clearing out all of the troublesome frequencies it started to sound really good. There was now a really clear picture as to the direction I wanted to take with the sound. By pitching the original source down 8 semitones and cleaning it up with EQ the bus had now completely transformed into something new. The force… the weight… the velocity at which the sound now seemed to be traveling resembled more of a Jet passing by. This was really cool, and at this stage all I really wanted to do was sweeten the sound up.

I created an effect chain with the following plugins: EQ-8 (From Before), Sound Toys Phase Mistress, Uhbik Uhe Runciter Filter, Abletons Frequency Shifter, and Lastly Abletons Reverb. This is the result.

 Final Sound:

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4 Responses to “Sound Design: Source Metamorphosis”
  1. 10.01.2009

    Great post, Chris! I love reading through other peoples’ sound design process, and this is one of the best examples I’ve seen. I hope you’ll continue to post these little experiments in the future :)

    • Chris_Kowalski

      Thanks Nick! Needed a break so decided to go nuts and write an article after being super stoked with the H4N. I plan to do quite a few more. Things are a little tight time wise right now but should clear up soon.. I have some cool things planned in the future. Some exercises in Sound Design, Philosophy of Sound, Field Recording, etc. I’m also looking to get some contributions from others as well. I want to do something along the lines of a ‘Sound a Day’. Basically post a sound every day.. recorded..synthesized..manipulated. Could be fun.


  2. Justin

    Yes, excellent post, Chris! I second exactly what Nick said…. I like that graphic at the top too! I was perplexed by it until I read the article…. :)

  3. 10.04.2009

    “sound a day” sounds fantastic, really looking forward to it

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