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

spooky october project: candy grapple

Things have been quiet here of late, but I’ve actually been quite busy! I’ve just finished the sound design for Candy Grapple, the latest game from my good friend Switchbreak. It’s based on one of his Ludum Dare games, Waterfall Rescue, but it’s been fleshed out in to a full game, with much more complete gameplay, many more levels, and a spooky Halloween theme. It’s out now for Android, and there’s an iOS version on the way, too.

Switchbreak asked me to make some suitably spooky-cheesy music for it, and I happily agreed; once I started working on that, I realised he’d also need sound effects, so I offered to create those, too. Read on for details!

Background music

The bulk of my time went in to the in-game background music. Halloween music was new territory for me, but my mind went straight to The Simpsons Halloween specials, and the harpsichord and theremin closing credits. I thought about other “spooky” instruments and came up with the organ, and while it’s not spooky as such, the tuba seemed suitably ridiculous for the kooky carnival sound I was after.

I didn’t want to over-use the theremin, so I stuck with organ for the melody for the most part, and saved the theremin for the bridge, where the harpsichord and tuba drop away in favour of some organ triplets and piano bass notes.

A standard drum kit didn’t seem like a good fit (with that bouncy tuba part, it was in danger of becoming a polka), so I stuck with more random, wacky bits of percussion, like castanets and a vibraslap. I did use some cymbal rolls and crashes in the bridge, though.

Now, for the instruments: I used Pianoteq for the harpsichord and piano, as you’d probably expect; the percussion sounds were from the Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra, played using the LinuxSampler plugin; and the theremin was a simple patch on the Blofeld.

Pianoteq doesn’t just simulate pianos — it also handles other melodic percussion, like harpsichords

The tuba and organ, surprisingly, come from the Fluid GM soundfont. I’m not usually a fan of instruments from GM sets, and I did try a few alternatives, but the Fluid sounds were very well-behaved and sat well in the mix, so I didn’t let myself get hung up on where they came from.

Faking the theremin was fairly straightforward — it’s just a single sine-wave oscillator, but with some portamento to slur the pitch changes and an LFO routed to the oscillator pitch to add vibrato, both of which make that sine wave sound suitably theremin-ish.
I used TAL NoiseMaker at first, but switched to the Blofeld so I could use the modwheel to alter the amount of vibrato (the Blofeld’s modulation matrix makes this sort of thing easy); in hindsight, it would’ve been just as easy to stick with NoiseMaker and alter the vibrato by automating the LFO depth.

The mix came together fairly quickly. There’s a bunch of reverb (I had trouble getting the IR plugin working, so I used TAP Reverberator instead), a little EQ on the tuba and organ to brighten them a bit, and some compression on the piano to add sustain, but that’s about it as far as effects go. The only tricky part was making sure the transition in to the bridge wasn’t too abrupt, but all that really required was some careful balancing of levels.

It was, of course, all recorded and mixed in Ardour 3 — it has an annoying MIDI monitoring bug right now, but I’m hoping that’ll be fixed soon.

Intro music

I wanted to add some music to the title screen, too, so I come up with a little organ fanfare-ish thing and recorded it in to Ardour. The organ is the setBfree plugin, a Hammond B3 emulation based on an old app called Beatrix.

Beatrix had taken on near-legendary status in Linux audio circles, partly due to its great sound, and partly due to being near-impossible to run. It lacked JACK support and had various other issues, and its strict licencing forbid forking it or distributing patched versions.

Somehow, though, the setBfree devs managed to negotiate a suitable licence, and have added JACK support, LV2 plugin support, and a basic GUI. The GUI is a separate app that talks to the synth engine (whether it’s the JACK app or the LV2 plugin) via MIDI; it lets you configure the organ stops manually, or load presets.

setBfree’s GUI is a stand-alone app that talks to the synth via MIDI

The thunder sound was my own recording — I have a habit of setting up my Zoom H1 and letting it record during thunderstorms, and that’s finally come in handy!

Sound effects

Sound effects are hard; I’ve had a little experience with this, working on another game for Switchbreak which is still in development, but it’s all still fairly new to me. I used synths for some — Pianoteq came in handy once again here, for its tubular and church bells — but the rest were recorded sounds, mostly of me using things to hit other things. For the flapping bat wings, for instance, I slapped rubber gloves together, and idea I saw on this list of sound effects techniques.

I’m pretty happy with the fact that there are two vocal samples in there, too — the ghost and the witch are both me. The witch’s cackle just took some pitch shifting and a bunch of reverb.

Trailer video

Video editing in progress, using Kdenlive

As the game neared completion we realised it’d need a trailer, so I volunteered to make one, using Kdenlive. I used ffmpeg to record video from the Flash version of the game, then brought that in to Kdenlive, where I composited it on top of the phone image and background. It was a fairly straightforward edit, but I had some fun with it — I hadn’t played with wipes before now, for instance, so I took the opportunity to ham it up and throw some in.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 9: escape velocity

“In physics, escape velocity is the speed at which the kinetic energy plus the gravitational potential energy of an object is zero. It is the speed needed to “break free” from a gravitational field without further propulsion.”

I had no intention of putting an industrial track on this album — or of ever writing one, to be honest — but serendipity is a funny thing sometimes. While working on oberth I took some time out to play with some patches on the Blofeld, and I found a nice arpeggiated lead patch that went mad when I started playing with the filter cutoff and resonance. It became a thumping kick drum, with higher notes giving a more subdued sound, and lower notes sounding brighter, so playing arpeggios resulted in some crazy, but interesting, kick drum patterns.

With some drums recorded, I wasn’t sure what to do next, but a distorted bass (TAL NoiseMaker with TAP TubeWarmth) seemed like a good idea. I then added an arpeggio part (TAL NoiseMaker with TAP TubeWarmth again), which was initially continuous, and then tried to add some progression by adding some cutoff automation and a breakdown toward the end. However, I wasn’t pleased with the results (that’s putting it mildly, in fact!), and I came very close to scrapping it and hoping that I’d have time to come up with something better to replace it.

Eventually, it occurred to me that adopting a two-bars-on, two-bars-off pattern for the arpeggio would help a lot. That pattern fit in well with the existing bass line, and it opened up some space that I could fill with random crazyness from the Blofeld. I created a patch featuring heavy distortion (almost to the point of atonality), and then just played a few notes that fit in with the bass and arpeggio, flipping the modwheel (mapped to the filter cutoff) back and forth to go from low, rumbling gurgles through to crazy screams.

I did like the breakdown in my initial cut, but I thought it needed something extra, so I tried a trick that I used on texel — I added a Decimator plugin and used automation to bring the “bits” value right down in some places, which causes some really wild, crunchy distortion. The final touch was to add some extra drums, and I went for the easiest, most cliched option — a 909 kit — but with an Invada Tube Distortion to give it some edge.

After the overhaul, I still wasn’t completely happy with this track, but it was definitely in much better shape, and good enough to go on the album. It was fun creating such distorted sounds, but I’m not sure if I’ll be in a hurry to follow up with more industrial tracks.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 8: lagrange

“The Lagrange points are the five positions in an orbital configuration where a small object affected only by gravity can theoretically be stationary relative to two larger objects (such as a satellite with respect to the Earth and Moon).”

Though it’s a close-run competition with hohmann, I think this was the fastest of all the tracks to record — I sat down on day 11 and within a couple of hours, it was finished. This was really just an excuse to play with Argotlunar, a real-time granular processor that runs as a native VST plugin. While Loomer Cumulus works on pre-recorded samples, Argotlunar works in real-time on whatever audio you run through it, so it’s great for adding glitchy, cloudy, distorted granular effects to instruments.

In this case, I created a suitable pad sound using TAL NoiseMaker, recorded some improvised chords in to Ardour, and then tweaked Argotlunar’s settings to see what effects I could produce. Most of the time I spent working on this track was in automating Argotlunar’s settings, shifting through different ranges of settings to create different effects. I also added a Calf Vintage Delay, mainly toward the end, to give things a little more space.

Argotlunar automation

Four separate Argotlunar parameters were automated to produce different effects; the fifth automation lane here is for the Calf Vintage Delay

There’s not a lot more to say about this; it’s a simple track, but it does its job. Argotlunar was great fun to play with, and it creates some interesting sounds, but I don’t think there’s quite enough variation on it to really justify its length — it could easily be a minute shorter without losing anything. It does at least work well as a change of pace before heading in to escape velocity.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 7: oberth

“In astronautics, the Oberth effect is where the use of a rocket engine when travelling at high speed generates much more useful energy than one at low speed.”

I’d been wanting to write something in 6/8 for a while, and RPM seemed like as good a time as any to give it a go. I started this track by creating a simple triplet beat in Ardour, using the Hydrogen 909 kit, and then playing with ideas for a looping bassline using TAL NoiseMaker. Once I had a bassline, I added a simple pad part. Initially, I used presets for the bass and pad sounds, but they didn’t quite fit the sound I was after, so I soon replaced them with my own patches.

Even though I used a Hydrogen kit, I didn’t use Hydrogen to load it at first — instead, I used a new LV2 synth called DrMr, which works with Hydrogen drum kits. It’s early days for DrMr, and it’s promising, but I ended up swapping back to Hydrogen when I discovered that DrMr doesn’t yet respond properly to velocity information.

With the bass and pad in place (with some cutoff automation to spice them up), and the drums fleshed out a bit, I added the arpeggio part, using a TAL NoiseMaker preset, and then the lead, using a proggy patch on the Blofeld. After my experiences on tracks like hohmann, I wasn’t shy about using the pitch bender here, but I think it helps breathe some life in to the lead part, and makes the whole thing sound a bit like a Jean Michel Jarre track.

This was one of the last tracks I worked on; I started it on day 22, and wrapped it up at the start of my final sprint, on day 27. I wasn’t quite happy with the drums (I don’t think that 909 kit works as well here as it did on periapsis), but everything else came together pretty well. It’s not particularly outstanding, but it’s a good, solid track.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 6: direct ascent

Direct ascent was a proposed method for a mission to the Moon. In the United States, direct ascent proposed using the enormous Nova rocket to launch a spacecraft directly to the Moon, where it would land tail-first and then launch off the Moon back to Earth.”

After a few downtempo tracks, I felt like the album needed perking up around the half-way mark, so I chose this upbeat chiptune as track 6. This was the second track I started on, back on day 2, though I ended up scrapping much of that sketch and using the chord progression from its intro instead. I also kept the bass rhythm and the drum part, though I later embellished both of these a bit.

I started expanding it on day 15 by writing the intro melody, and then used a variation on that as the starting point for the main melody. I also reused the intro bass line as a second melody line in the start of the second loop through verse. There are four lead sounds that move between different roles; one lead sound for each verse, a separate lead part that’s used for the chorus, and an arpeggio part that also acts as a lead in the section just before the first verse.

As with hohmann, the percussion sounds are from the Dirty Dose sample set and LinuxSampler, while the synth sounds are made by TAL NoiseMaker, with the exception of the arpeggio part, which is Calf Monosynth. I did bend the rules a bit, though — the bass is more of a typical electro bass, with a nice punchy envelope on the filter cutoff, and one of the leads uses two oscillators and a delay plugin (Calf Vintage Delay) to add some more variety.

This is one of my favourite tracks on the album. Breaking the rules didn’t diminish the chiptuney feel at all, and with a few different sounds to play with, I was able to jump between them to keep things interesting. About the only thing I wasn’t entirely happy with was the start of the chorus — the chorus lead part has always seemed a little startling. With more time, a better mix may have fixed that, but some musical rearrangement to give the chorus a better lead-in would probably work better.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 5: specific impulse

Specific impulse (usually abbreviated Isp) is a way to describe the efficiency of rocket and jet engines. It represents the derivative of the impulse with respect to amount of propellant used, i.e., the thrust divided by the amount of propellant used per unit time.”

This is definitely the most song-ish track on the album; it could easily work with lyrics, if I’d had time to write them. I started this on day 14, when I was starting to get in to a bit of a rut, but I sat down at the keyboard and started playing around with a Rhodes sound, and eventually got a nice chord progression going. I revisited it a few times after that, but I didn’t end up fleshing it out until days 27 and 28.

Originally I’d planned to make this more of an electronic track, so once I had the chords down (using LinuxSampler and the jRhodes3 soundfont) I added the bass, using a slowly-pulsating patch (more of a slow “whum… whum…” than a clichéd dubstep “wubwubwub”) made in TAL NoiseMaker. Then, the Salamander Drumkit was released, and I was so impressed when I played with it that it inspired me to go with a more acoustic feel.

I had some segments of melody sketched out alongside the chords, but it took some time to flesh it out across the track and then add the solo in the final section. Though I mixed things up a bit by using sustained chords in some sections and more rhythmic chords in others, it was still hard to add enough progression with just the Rhodes, bass, and drums, so I added an organ part, using AZR-3, to fill out the second half of the track.

There’s the start of a good track here, I think, but I wasn’t super-happy with what I was able to do with it within the 29 days. The main problem is with the melody line — I don’t think its arrangement fits well with the rest of the track, and the playing in the solo was a bit rough. The electronic bass doesn’t sit terribly well with the rest of the track, either.

I was surprisingly happy with the drums, though, given their simplicity — all those round-robin samples in the Salamander mean that you still get some natural variation, even when you’re just repeating the same note over and over. If I can come up with some lyrics, or just some better ideas for the instrumental arrangement, it might be worth revisiting this track.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 3: free return

“A free return trajectory is one of a very small sub-class of trajectories in which the trajectory of a satellite traveling away from a primary body (for example, the Earth) is modified by the presence of a secondary body (for example, the Moon) causing the satellite to return to the primary body.”

This is perhaps my favourite track on the album, partly because it’s the closest to the direction I want to head in, with chilled-out but downbeat vibe. It was also the first track I worked on, on day 1. It started as a live SooperLooper jam, using a Rhodes sound to play some chords and melodies over some Blofeld drums.

On day 5 I picked up that jam and imported it in to Ardour, though I ended up replacing those recorded loops with MIDI versions almost immediately. I kept the chord progression from the initial jam, but replaced the Rhodes with a pad sound from the Blofeld that uses an LFO synced to the MIDI clock to pulsate up and down in time with the music (in theory, at least). The Rhodes is still there, though, but just for the lead part, using the MDA ePiano plugin.

By day 6 the arrangement was mostly in place, and I added the bass and the synth lead parts, both using TAL NoiseMaker, and several extra drum parts, using the Blofeld. I also used my Behringer VM1 delay pedal on the Rhodes sound, to give it some lo-fi feel. The “snare” in the chorus is from TAL NoiseMaker, too; I was never entirely happy with that sound, but it was the best I could do at the time. I posted it to Soundcloud on day 6, but I ended up tweaking it a bit more after that on day 7.

Even though I really liked this track, I could make a list of all of the things that are wrong with it. In fact, let’s do that:

  • The lead sound is a bit too clean and proggy, and its levels are a bit up-and-down
  • The rise and fall of the pad sound doesn’t always fall in line with the beat
  • The kick drum all-but-disappears sometimes, due to a cancellation problem in the patch that I’m yet to sort out
  • While I initially liked the sound of MDA ePiano, I found myself liking it a lot less by the end of the recording process — some of its limitations had started to shine through
  • That “snare” sound in the chorus needs a rethink, or at least a lot of work

With some work, though, I think this could be a really good track — the basics are definitely there, and none of the above is unfix-able by any means.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 2: hohmann

“In orbital mechanics, the Hohmann transfer orbit is an elliptical orbit used to transfer between two circular orbits of different altitudes, in the same plane.”

This was one of the quickest recordings on the album — I recorded it all in one night, on day 21, when I was starting to worry that I wasn’t making enough progress to finish on time. The inspiration was actually a modern game — I’d been meaning to make a track based on a Mass Effect-style “spacey” arpeggio for a while — though the actual sound was inspired more by the Metroid title theme.

The arrangement came together very quickly. I started with the bass sound, then added the arpeggio, and then worked on the melody, all using TAL NoiseMaker. There are a few rules you need to follow to create genuinely chiptune-like tracks, and while I bent some of these rules on the album’s other chiptune track, direct ascent, I stuck with them all here:

  • Don’t play more than three notes at once
  • Use only very simple synth sounds: use only one oscillator, and leave the filter wide open
  • Don’t play more than one percussion sound at once
  • Don’t use effects, such as delays (can I really record a track without at least one delay?)

Those self-imposed limitations on synthesis features forced me to use other features to make each sound unique and interesting, so I played more with envelopes and vibrato. I also used a lot of slides in the lead, both using legato in the synth patch and using the pitch bender, to add expressiveness to something that might’ve sounded quite static otherwise.

The percussion sounds are from the Dirty Dose sound set, loaded using LinuxSampler. To create the echoing effect without using a delay plugin, I used an old tracker-style method of simply repeating the note at lower and lower volumes.

While I’m happy with the overall sound of this track, and how chiptuney it sounds in particular, I think it’s one of the weakest tracks on the album; it just drags on for too long, and the lead actually starts to get a bit annoying. In hindsight, cutting off those long held notes in the lead part, and replacing them with some faked echoes, might have worked better. It was a great learning experience, though, and I certainly plan to make more chiptune tracks in future.

rpm 2012 post-mortem, track 1: periapsis

peri·apsis, noun: the apsis nearest the center of attraction : the low point in an orbit

The aim with this track was to make an ambient techno track, along the lines of Aphex Twin’s work on one of my favourite albums, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. I started this on day 8, and worked straight through on it, finishing on day 11. The pad sound on the Blofeld came first, and once I decided on the chord progression to use, I sequenced it in seq24 and added simple drum patterns, using a 909 kit in Hydrogen (but sequenced from seq24 instead of Hydrogen’s pattern editor).

seq24 was a good sketch tool, but I didn’t want to use it for the final track, so I imported the seq24 MIDI file in to Ardour 3, and to my delight it split it in to its separate patterns, adding a new track for each. I added a bass part, using TAL NoiseMaker, and started arranging things; eventually I added a lead part, too, also using TAL NoiseMaker, and added some cutoff automation on each part to add some variety.

Importing patterns from seq24 in to Ardour 3 works surprisingly well

Importing patterns from seq24 in to Ardour 3

I’d already added TAP TubeWarmth on the bass and lead parts to add some mild distortion, but the overall track still didn’t have quite the lo-fi sound I was after, so I added a TAP TubeWarmth plugin to the master track, too, along with a TAP Vibrato plugin, with quite conservative settings (a rate of about 0.8Hz, and a depth of about 0.7%), to give just a bit of the effect of a warbling tape recording. Another characteristic of tape is its limited high-frequency response; the synths already made good use of their low-pass filters, but the drums benefited from a gentle high EQ cut.

I love the sound of this track; the plugins on the master bus do give it that retro vibe, and while the 909 kit was originally meant as a placeholder, it actually suits that retro vibe quite well. I do think it’s a little bit too repetitive, though — given the time constraints, I stretched it a bit longer and put in less drum variation than I should have.