sketchbook: faking guitars

As someone that plays keyboards I’ve been mostly resigned to the fact that I can’t put guitars in any of my tracks, but after some playing with guitar samples available at the Flame Studios website, I’m cautiously optimistic. Flame Studios has high-quality recordings of various guitars (like the Fender Telecaster and Gibson Les Paul) in GigaStudio format, and when used appropriately, they sound great. Their website has been down for most of the last few years, but I’m hoping that it’s now back for good.

Most of the recordings are straight from the guitar’s line-out, which I think is ideal: if you want a clean sound, you can use it as-is, or you can run it through your choice of amp simulation to get a more typical guitar sound (something I’ve always been curious about but never had a chance to try). I was testing the samples using the Linuxsampler LV2 plugin in an Ardour 3 MIDI track, so I decided to try Guitarix, which as of version 0.25 includes some pre-built combinations of tube amp, tonestack, and cabinet as LV2 plugins.

The new Guitarix LV2 plugins, alongside some old favourites

The new Guitarix LV2 plugins, alongside some old favourites

So far, I’ve been quite impressed with Guitarix. I haven’t had much experience with amp simulations, but even so, with appropriate twiddling of knobs I’ve been able to get some crunchy distorted sounds, and some cleaner sounds that add a lot of character without over-the-top distortion. There are other options — Rakarrack has some amp/cabinet simulation features (though it focuses more on effects), and the C* Audio Plugin Suite provides amp/cabinet simulations as LADSPA plugins — but the simplicity and quality of the Guitarix LV2 plugins won me over.

The sound itself is just one piece of the puzzle — the other is to play things in a believable way. Keyboards can do a lot of things that guitars can’t, so you have to limit yourself playing parts that at least sound like they would be possible on a guitar. Arpeggios with wide gaps between notes are an easy cheat, but if you want to play chords, a list of guitar chords mapped out on the keyboard, like this one, is very helpful.

Of course, the reverse is true, too — guitars can do a lot of things that keyboards can’t. Many of the Flame Studios guitars include extra samples of finger slides and other guitar sounds beyond just the notes, which you can sprinkle in to a part to add some realism. Subtle MIDI pitch bends can help add some expression, too, though they really stand out if they’re done poorly. You’re not going to be able to capture the subtlety and nuance of a real guitar, but with a bit of care, I think you can definitely create basic guitar parts that sound convincing enough to work in a mix.

On to the sketch! Using the Telecaster line-in sample set recorded from the bridge pick-up, I came up with a simple little arpeggio-ish riff thing, and then tried running it through various Guitarix settings. In the sketch you hear three versions of this riff: the first is completely clean, the second uses the Guitarix GxAmplifier-IV plugin with fairly heavy drive settings and a CAPS Plate reverb, and the third uses the GxAmplifier-II plugin with much cleaner settings, along with a Calf Vintage Delay, dRowAudio Flanger, and the CAPS Plate reverb again.

mp3 | vorbis | 1:07

sketchbook: aspect and sequent

I got two great new studio toys for Xmas: Loomer Aspect and Sequent. This sketch is a quick demo I made while getting a bit of a feel for them both. Loomer’s plugins are all available as native Linux VSTs (as well as Windows and OS X), so they work well within Ardour 3.

Aspect is an analog-style soft synth with hugely flexible modulation options — it’s very easy to route its modulation sources, including three envelopes and three LFOs, to a wide variety of parameters, which gives you a lot of creative power. My favourite feature so far is its unison control, which lets you use up to five voices for each note. The coolest part of this is that the unison depth is a modulation source, so you can, say, route the unison depth to the pan control to spread those voices out across the sound stage, or route it to oscillator pitch to create massive detuned sounds.

It’s not as flexible as my Waldorf Blofeld, but Aspect is far more flexible than TAL NoiseMaker while remaining quite approachable to program. My RPM album really taught me the benefit of having synth plugins to use; now I’ll be able to do a lot more in-the-box, saving time and effort.

Sequent is an entirely different beast, and it’s not the easiest thing to explain — the simplest description is that it’s a multi-effects module that lets you sequence the parameters for each effect. It can create rhythmic delays, pans, and distortions, but perhaps its most versatile effect is the looper, which lets you slice, reverse, and loop the incoming audio to produce all manner of glitchy, stuttery effects. You can sequence everything precisely, or use any degree of randomness that you like, and it’s even MIDI-controllable, which opens possibilities for live use.

Now, for the sketch. It’s based on an Aspect pad that uses a clock-synced LFO routed to the filter cutoff, giving it a rhythmic rise and fall (I tried this using MIDI clock sync on the Blofeld on an RPM track, but it didn’t quite work). On top of that, I’ve added some simple percussion, again using Aspect — the kick is one of the included presets, but the hat and snareish-thing are my own patches.

While the kick keeps time, the hat and snare are sent through Sequent to glitch them up. I used a Sequent preset for this, which operates mostly randomly — if I was using it for real I think I’d want to either remove the randomness, or record a bunch of random loops to audio and hand-pick the best ones.

As you’d expect, I recorded this in Ardour 3 — it’s shaping up very nicely right now, so I’m hoping we won’t have much longer to wait before the final 3.0 release.

mp3 | vorbis | 26 seconds

sketchbook: musopen musings

Musopen is a fascinating project — it hosts public domain recordings of, and sheet music for, a large number of classical pieces. Many of the most famous classical works have long been in the public domain, but while the compositions themselves may be free to use, recordings of those works are still subject to copyright. Musopen, then, hosts recordings of those works that have also been released in to the public domain, mainly from student and college orchestras.

Nearly two years ago, Musopen’s founder had an ambitious idea: use funds from a Kickstarter project to commission classical recordings from a top-quality orchestra, which would then be released in to the public domain. The campaign was a great success, and the resulting recordings are now complete. The final mixes aren’t ready yet, but I’m more excited to see that the raw multitrack recordings are available!

The sessions are in ProTools format, but the recordings themselves are WAVs that can be imported in to Ardour or any other DAW quite easily. With some 560GB of high-quality orchestral stems to work with, there’s tremendous scope to incorporate these recordings in to other works, or process and edit them to create entirely new works. This is an incredible gift to the recording community, and I have a feeling we’ll be hearing elements of these recordings for decades to come.

In that spirit, I spent some time over the weekend playing with one of the pieces in Ardour. I took one of the shorter (and more frantic) pieces — Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro — and extracted a few short elements, stretching them out to create a short ambient electronic (the genre I affectionately call “artwank”) track. Beyond Ardour’s time-stretching and pitch-shifting tools, I used Argotlunar and Cumulus, which are both granular synths, to add a bit more textural variety.

mp3 | vorbis | 2:04

sooperlooper rhodes remix

If you enjoyed yesterday’s sketch, you really should check out this great remix by ioflow. He took my original loops and rearranged them in Renoise, mixing things up to great effect with some micro-edits (the little reversed bits sound awesome) and some low-key, distorted beats. Unfortunately I forgot to save the final set of loops, so he had to make do without the melody part, but it definitely hasn’t hurt things.

I very nearly neglected to post yesterday’s sketch, since the timing was rough and the whole thing was musically very simple. Needless to say, I’m glad I did post it now — chalk this up as a win for online collaboration and Creative Commons!

sketchbook: sooperlooping the rhodes

I’m starting the new year the right way this year — with a sketch! It’s just a rough, simple, improvised jam, captured using SooperLooper, but I love the mood that the sound of the Rhodes imparts, especially as more note sustain over the top of each other and intermingle. I put the Rhodes sound through a rotary speaker emulation (Calf’s, in this case), and the melody part went my VM1 delay pedal, but it’s otherwise free of processing. It doesn’t really need much, anyway — those high notes sustaining that are left at the end are just magic.

SooperLooper is great for capturing new track ideas, especially for the kind of music I make, which is often driven by repeating patterns. In the past I’ve started with a drum beat and recorded loops on top of that, but this time I went freestyle. The nanoKONTROL is great for controlling it — I was able to add a bunch of empty loops, and map a separate fader and record button to each of them, making it easy to both record your loops and control their playback afterward. Once I had some appropriate loops I just played them all at the same time, using the faders to control their relative volumes while recording the output straight in to JACK Timemachine.

I don’t know if this sketch will go any further than this, but with some glitchy drums, some additional synth parts, and a bit more complexity (like, more than two chords), I think it could work as a track.

mp3 | vorbis | 2:51

sketchbook: hand-arranged glitchy drums

I love that glitchy modern percussion sound that you hear in a lot of electronic music these days (BT comes to mind, but there are plenty of examples), but I’ve never had much luck creating those sorts of sounds myself. I did give one track, tiny droplets, a bit of a glitchy feel by distorting the crap out of some Hydrogen drums (a 909 kit, no less), but that wasn’t quite the sound I was looking for.

The solution had been staring me in the face, but it almost seemed too simple to work, or too cumbersome to be practical: instead of using some kind of drum instrument, just load drum samples in to Ardour directly, and copy and paste the individual drum hits in to place. It sounds like fiddly work, but it’s really not that bad — with Ardour set up to snap regions to its grid, and with the grid set appropriately, it was really quite easy to lay down a simple kick/snare beat, and it was just as easy to copy and paste that beat out over multiple bars.

From there, glitching it up takes a bit more effort, but with such fine control over things you have a lot of scope for creative effects. I tried two main techniques — trimming down individual hits and repeating them very quickly (which required more copying and pasting), and reversing individual hits (using the “Reverse” option from the region’s right-click menu) so that they played backwards, often combined with some fast repetition.

Individual drum hits, sliced and glitched up in Ardour

For the hats, I didn’t want to lay down the individual beats in Ardour, so I created a hat loop in Hydrogen and imported that. In most bars I just let it play as-is, but in some I add some variety by splitting the loop in to beat-length chunks and then manipulating those chunks. I shuffled the chunks around a bit, reversed some of them, repeated some of them, and also shrunk some of them to half their original length (using the Stretch/Shrink Regions tool) and repeated them.

There are tools that can help with this kind of beat-slicing if you don’t want to do it by hand, including Smasher, which works offline but has a lot of different effects on offer, and Tranches, which can slice beats under live MIDI control, but I’ve had trouble fitting these in to my workflow. There’s also Sequent, a commercial plug-in and stand-alone tool, but it’s not super-cheap (though for what it does, I think the price is entirely reasonable). I’m really happy with the results I achieved entirely within Ardour, though, and now that I know how to get these sounds, I think I’ll be making them a lot more often.

mp3 | vorbis | 0:57

sketchbook: nanoloop for android

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged much — the last few months have been quite a busy time for me, as I’ve been transitioning jobs. Things are returning to normal now, though, as I settle in to my new full-time role at a sysadmin/developer at Bandcamp, which is a totally awesome job with totally awesome people. That’s all beside the point, though, because I’m really here to talk about nanoloop, a great little sequencer that’s just been released for Android.
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sketchbook: bouncy game music

Here’s another quick piece done quickly for a purpose: my friend Switchbreak spent the weekend developing a short Flash game for the So Many Rooms game jam, where each developer had 36 hours to produce a game that challenges the player to get from a starting door to an ending door, using whatever obstacles or gameplay mechanics they like. Switchbreak’s game is full of bouncing balls, so when he asked me to produce a quick tune for him, I made sure that it was appropriately bouncy.

This was whipped up on Sunday night mostly in Qtractor, with Hydrogen for the drums, and my Blofeld for all the other sounds. I’d normally record everything in to Ardour and mix it there, but I stayed in Qtractor for this one, and it did a fine job; I had no trouble replicating my usual trick of running the drums on to separate tracks so that I can apply individual effects to each, for instance. The result is a bit trite, but it’s fun, it loops pretty smoothly, and I think it suits the game well.

mp3 | vorbis | flac | 1:18

sketchbook: tunestorm 04

There was another Tunestorm challenge earlier this month, and in the finest tradition of such things, I threw together an entry at the last minute. The challenge this time was to make a piece using a sample taken from a spinning hard drive, which sounded just like a sine wave that slowly dropped in pitch.

You could use other sounds, too, but I chose not to — I loaded a chunk of the original sound in to a sampler (Specimen), ran it through some distortion effects, then through PHASEX, where I tweaked away on the filter in real-time using my Korg nanoKONTROL, and finally through some spatial effects. The result was some throbbing, unsettling ambient art-wankery that I call “pulse”.

mp3 | vorbis | flac | 2:50

sketchbook: ghetto convolution reverb

Convolution reverb is a hell of a trick — it lets you record the reverb of a real-world environment (or a hardware reverb unit) and apply that reverb to a signal, with amazingly realistic results. Normally, those reverbs are recorded very carefully using high quality equipment, but I wanted to see what I could manage with something more modest: my phone.
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