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Sound Design Series #1: SAMPLERS VS. SYNTHS

SAMPLERS VS. SYNTHS

Digging sound production for more than 15 years now, having spent half of it working with hardware synths (from Virtual Analog to True Analog), somewhere in 2013 I sold them all out keeping only Alesis Micron in the studio (used as a MIDI keyboard) and channeling my workflow 100% ITB (In The Box = inside of the DAW that’s Ableton Live in my case).

Guess that some bits of my experience and reasoning behind this decision could be of practical use for fellow music producers helping to cut some corners, hence I’d like to share some of my reflections, without claiming the ultimate truth).

BACK IN THE DAYS

I think lots of producers of my age once entered the period we could call “Hardware Rush” – I did. At a certain point it looked absolutely clear to me then that the only thing that stands in between me and huuuuge international success of my 100% hardware live set “a-la Daft Punk/Prodigy” was the gear, and the more I purchase the sooner I’ll get damn rich and famous (I was in my teens at that time – don’t blame me that hard).

Money never topped the list though – I just dreamed of playing live and running all that machinery virtuoso. It didn’t look impossible to me then – I got 7 years of classic piano behind graduating with excellent marks, with acoustic guitar added on top, so composing upscale melodic / chorded sequences never been a problem.

Another thing to mention that been influencing my decision-making – Synth Manuals – were the only source of information available to me at that time, and even learning them almost by heart, I could not find the answers to the dozens of questions popping up…

TECH & STUDIO PRACTICES

Guess the majority of you know that multiple synthesis technologies exist these days, but practice makes perfect so, the major synthesis types are: SUBTRACTIVE / ADDITIVE / FM / RM / QM / WAVETABLE / GRANULAR / VECTOR / PHYSICAL MODELLING with oscillators being either VA (virtual analog = analog modeling) or true analog and so are the filters (or hybrid VA/analog).

At the very heart of a synth engine sit OSCILLATORS, that could be interpreted as GUITAR STRINGS, and tuned independently (or modulate each others tunings in sophisticated ways e.g. in FM synthesis), demonstrating versatile sonic characteristics depending on the waveform they generate (here you may imagine strings made of different materials e.g. nylon/bronze/nickel). Evolvement of sound in time is usually controlled by 4-stage Attack Decay Sustain Release ENVELOPE (Volume Envelope), with possible separate envelopes controlling FILTER and MODULATION MATRIX. As guitars may be 6- or 12-string, Synths may have different quantity of oscillators on board/per voice where 3 oscillators/per voice considered to be standard and could be accompanied by a SUB OSCs (VIRUS synths), noise generators, etc. being monophonic or polyphonic.

KORG EMX-1

I’ve started my synth journey with KORG EMX-1 synth-groovebox (Multi Modeling Synthesis Engine) in 2007 with ALESIS MICRON added in a year (VA subtractive + one the most complex FM engines on the market at that time) and DSI TETRA (the best sounding synth I ever heard for real) stepping in somewhere in 2011 (tweaked NORDS, VIRUSES, MOOG’s MINITAUR, created patches for a rock band playing JUNO 60 etc). I’ve been digging the theory further in parallel, comparing the textures generated in both worlds with sound design tech in favorite tracks.Being liquid/intelligent DnB fan since 2000 you can imagine the complexity of the task, especially with respect to baselines’ sound design…

With TETRA on board the skills I’ve collected started to convert into the textures needed 90-95%, BUT WHEN IT CAME TO RECORDING/REPLAYING AUTOMATION… the whole greatness of TETRA was gone… Even if I purchased 2 editors from 3rd party vendors (!) and spent days learning and experimenting the editors were so bugging and glitching daily – I was going bonkers.

Luckily, first genre-specific (DnB) Hi-Q samples popped up within my reach + getting a far better understanding of mixing after the course, I realized that synth texture is only a part of the equation!

As synth texture should be:

  • EVOLVING & MOVING in multiple dimensions, being designed accordingly
  • RECORDED correctly
  • PROCESSED/MIXED properly (stereo field, delays/reverbs, sidechains, gates, LFOs, etc.)

Somewhere at that point I’ve finally achieved the first results in Simpler racked with properly selected and set up FX, so… decision to sell Tetra and go 100% ITB visited me shortly (while DSI samples, especially the ones originating from TETRA staying amongst my all-time favs with no hassle ))

OUTRO

Ableton Simpler

With dramatic improvements introduced into Live in version 9, and especially in 9.5 with completely redesigned SIMPLER with greatly modeled 4 analog filters on board, I’m doing 75% of my sound design tasks in SIMPLER now, looking no further, unless when working with multilayers.

Don’t get me wrong, I do NOT claim hardware synths negatively, not at all. Some of them are ABSOLUTELY fantastic tools. But workflow and ergonomics in some cases may make you stuck heavily so beware.

If you are asking yourself what to concentrate on first, I would advise starting with SIMPLER. Search for the best samples (24bit, 44.1K will do for the start) you can find, learn the relevant sections of Live Manual in-and-out and you will be getting VERY impressive results shortly.

As this article is just the first part of a “Sound Design Series”, keep in touch with ProducerSpot to read next parts. The easiest way is to subscribe to the newsletter.

“WALK. AND YE SHALL REACH.”

About Author

Andrey Romanenko – Multi-Genre Sound Producer, Game Audio Sound Designer, Tech Writer (Strangelines.com, Abletunes.com, ProducerSpot.com), part-time FOH engineer, part-time Ableton tutor. Runs Ableton.in.UA