One of the most popular topics in music production is with regards to making music feel “alive” by creating movement in music. While I already covered this topic in a past article, I’ll focus today on tools you can use and some techniques you can also apply to create movement.
First, let’s classify movement into categories:
- Modulation (slow, fast)
- Automation (micro, macro)
One of the thing that makes modular synths very popular is the possibility of controlling and modulating many parameters the way you want, but the other aspect that makes it exciting is the analog aspect. You’ve probably seen and heard multiple debates about the analog vs digital thing and perhaps, what’s funny is, many feel they know what this is about but yet, can’t really figure it out.
Take, for example, something we all know well: a clock that shows time.
An analog clock is one with needles that are moved by an internal mechanism, making them move smoothly in harmony while time goes by. There’s a very, very preciseness to it where you can see the tiny moment between seconds.
The digital or numeric clock jumps from second to second, minute to minute, with the numbers increasing: there are no smooth, slowly incrementing needle that moves between numbers; they just jump.
Sound is pretty much the same in a way. Once it’s digitized, the computer analyzes the information using sample and bit rates for precision. The flow isn’t the same, but you need a really precise system and ear to spot the difference. Some people do but it’s very rare. This is why, in theory, there’s a difference between digital files and vinyl records.
One eye opener for me was that when I was shopping for modulars at the local store, I was talking with the store’s specialist who was passionate about sound. “The one thing I don’t like about samples is, the sound is frozen and dead”, he said. With modular synths, because there’s often an analog component, the sound, on a microscopic level, is never the same twice.
This is why using samples and playing with digital tools on your DAW, needs a bit of magic to bring it all to life.
By modulation, we’re referring to tools that move parameters for you, based on how you have configured them. The two main modulators you can use are:
- LFOs: As in Low Frequency Oscillators. These will emit a frequency in a given shape (ex. sine, triangular, square, etc.), and a certain speed. They can be synced to your song’s tempo or not. LFOs are often included in synths but you can also find once instances in the Max for live patches.
- Envelopes: Envelopes react to incoming signal and then will be shaped in how you want. Compressors, as we discussed recently, kinda work with an envelop principle.
There are multiple aspects of a sound you can modulate. While there are numerous tools out there to help you with that, it’s good to know that there are a few things you can do within your DAW. The main things you can modulate are:
- Amplitude (gain, volume): Leaving the level of a sound to the same position for a whole track is very static. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s means that the sound is lacking dynamics.
- Stereo position (panning): Sounds can move from left to right if you automate the panning or use a autopanner.
- Distance (far, close): This is a great thing to automate. You can make sounds go further away by high passing, filtering to higher frequencies. Combined with the volume, it really push the sound away.
- Depth (reverb): Adding reverb is a great way to add space and if you modulate, it makes things very alive.
- Sound’s length (ADSR, gating): If you listen to drummers, they’ll hit their percussion so that the length constantly changes. This can be done by modulating a sampler’s ADSR envelope.
- Filtering: A filter’s frequency and resonance changing position as the song changes offers a very ear pleasing effect.
Some effects that are modulating tools you already know are chorus, flanger, autopan, phaser, and reverb. They all play with the panning and also depth. Adding more than 2-3 instances in a song can cause issues so this is why it’s good to approach each channels individually.
My suggestion: Have one LFO and one envelope on every channel and map them to something: EQ, filter, panning, gain, etc.
Some amazing modulators that offer really good all in one options that you might really enjoy (as I do for quick fix on a boring stem):
ShaperBox by Cableguys – My go to to really bring sound to life.
Movement by Output – This one is stellar and really can make things feel messy if pushed too far but the potential is bonkers. You instantly turn anything into a living texture that is never boring.
Automation is what you draw in your DAW that allows you to make a quick-moving or long-evolving effect. You might already know this but you’d be surprised to know that it is too often, under used. How can you know this though?
I have my own set of rules and here are some:
- Each channel must at least have one long, evolving movement. I’m allergic to straight lines and will sometimes slightly shift points to have them have smallest slant. My go: amplitude, EQ or filters.
- In a drop down list of each potential parameters, I want to have at least 3 things moving.
- Each channels, must have at least 3 quick, unique, fast change.
- Include at least 3-5 recorded live tweaks. I like to take a midi controller and map certain parameters and then play with the knobs, faders. I record the movements and then I can edit them wherever I want in the song. This human touch really makes something special.
While working with automation, one thing I love is to use Max for live patches that create variations, record them as automation and then edit them. It’s like having an assistant. There are great options to chose from but my favorites would be:
By “chaos” I mean using random generators. They would fit under the umbrella of modulators but I like to put them in their own world. There are multiple uses of generators. You can take any LFO and switch them to a signal that is random to make sure there’s always a variable that changes. This is particularly useful with amplitude, filtering. It really adds life. You can also use the random module in the MIDI tools to add some life. Same with the use of humanizer on a midi channel. Both will make sure the notes are changing a little, all the time.
If we think of the earlier example of how analog gear is constantly moving, using a saturator is a good way to bend perception. We previously discussed saturators in an earlier post but we didn’t talk of a super useful tool named Channel strip which often has an analog feel included. It remains transparent but it does something to the signal that is moving it away from a sterile digital feel.
My favorite channel strips would be:
The Virtual Mix rack by Slate Digital. Raw power.
SEE ALSO : Getting feedback on your music