Moon Ha

composer / performer / researcher

Recording and Organizing Sounds to Prepare Your Sound Palette

One of our main tools for performing sounds is a sampler. In this discussion, we will explore how to record materials, edit them to produce personalized sounds, and perform with them. In the early 20th century, music and sound were recorded, and in the early 1940s, French composer Pierre Schaeffer began recording and editing object sounds to create music, a style known as Musique Concrète. In popular music, the digital sampling technique was employed by R&B musicians like Stevie Wonder in the 1970s, and in the 1980s, portable sampling machines, such as the Akai MPC series, gained popularity. What we aim to do is combine the ideas of 1940s Musique Concrète pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer with the technology of 1980s sampling machines. This method is particularly popular among electronic musicians and improvisers, exemplified by eminent Austrian improviser/composer/multi-instrumentalist Wolfgang Mitterer, who uses a computer as a sampler alongside a small MIDI controller on his grand piano.

To capture and manipulate sounds effectively, the use of dedicated software, known as Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), is essential. Several affordable options with robust functionality are available, including:

Reaper (www.reaper.fm): While not entirely free, Reaper stands out for its unlimited trial period, making it a cost-effective choice given its rich feature set. It caters to users on Windows, macOS, and Linux.

Tracktion (www.tracktion.com): Offering a comprehensive set of features within a single-screen interface, Tracktion is a fully featured DAW. It’s available for free download on Windows, macOS, and Linux, providing unlimited audio and MIDI tracks.

Ardour (ardour.org): As an open-source DAW accessible on Linux, macOS, and Windows, Ardour is not only free to download but also allows users to contribute and support the project voluntarily.

Other commercial options include Apple Logic, Avid Pro Tools, Steinberg Cubase, FL Studio, as well as, although not exactly DAWs but rather similar, Propellerhead Reason and Ableton Live.

Basic Techniques that your DAW should be able to perform, and you should become familiar with:

  • Multi-track recording and playback
  • Editing/Trimming recorded sounds
  • Exporting in various formats
  • Equalization (EQ) and filtering
  • Reversing audio and inverting phase
  • Controlling volume envelope and panning
  • Time stretching and pitch shifting

After learning the functions/techniques mentioned above, you may want to explore additional effect plugins. These plugins vary widely, with some being astronomically priced and others available for free. While plugins can help you create interesting sounds, they can also result in clichéd sounds, as anyone using them can produce similar effects. To truly distinguish your sounds, it’s essential to conduct thorough research and practice to extract unique and distinctive qualities. The following are additional plugins that are often used:

  • Spatial effectors such as reverb and delay
  • Compressor
  • Limiter
  • Noise reduction/remover
  • Time and pitch correction
  • Special plugins such as GRM Tools

Composers in academia have the privilege of accessing electronic music studios equipped with numerous outboard effectors. Outboard effectors, akin to software plugins, are more expensive to purchase and maintain. Some people believe that hardware effectors are superior in creating high-quality and less clichéd sounds, but it ultimately depends on how a composer utilizes them. Plugins can be sufficient tools with careful use and craftsmanship.

Plug-ins are not only effectors. Virtual Instruments (VSTi or AU instruments) empower you to turn your laptop into musical instruments. Generally speaking, Virtual Instruments are either samplers or synthesizers (or a combination of both). There are many types of software synthesizers that exist, such as additive, subtractive, FM, granular, wavetable, and physical modeling synthesizers. We will discuss how these synthesizers work and create a simple one in the following workshop using Max.

After editing and manipulating your recorded sounds, the next step is to incorporate them into a sampler software for live performances with other members of new_LOrk. You have several options. For instance, if you use Apple Logic, it includes the Quick Sampler as part of its bundle. Additionally, you can opt for a free sampler plugin such as Plogue’s sforzando (https://plogue.com/products/sforzando.html). Both essentially function as sample (recorded sound file) players, but each has a distinct interface with various buttons, knobs, keyboards, and other elements. These interface components provide users with the tools to modify the final sounds according to their preferences.

While Apple’s Quick Sampler is very easy to use — you can simply drop your WAV file, and work with it directly — Plogue’s sforzando requires tedious steps, such as providing correctly formatted files like SFZ, ACIDized WAV, and so on. The most common file format for sound libraries in samplers is SFZ, and this website (https://sfzformat.com/) provides everything you need to know. SFZ is not a sound file; it is a text-based file format used for defining the parameters and properties of a sound library within a software sampler. Therefore, you can create your own SFZ file for each of your recorded sounds or for a collection of your recorded sounds. With this functionality, your sampler can be quite useful and customized for your own needs.

However, still you may feel these commercial and free sampler plug-ins are designed for composers who heavily emphasize ‘beat’ music. As we previously discussed, the origin of using a sampler saw great success with R&B artist Stevie Wonder. Today, many modern hip-hop and dance music composers rely on and prioritize beat creation as a core part of their composition process. Consequently, publicly available and popular sampler plugins are primarily tailored for these specific styles of music creators, unfortunately rather than for us, a laptop orchestra. We must determine the most effective way to play our own samples and identify the necessary functions for our unique requirements.

Please answer the instructions/questions below:

  • Brainstorm the signal flow and main functions of your ideal sampler software.
  • What kind of functions would you like to have in your ideal software sampler? List any functions that you want to add.
  • Can your sampler design not be realized in an SFZ format-supporting sampler? If not, which functions are they?
  • Design the interface for your ideal sampler software, including all the functions that you wish to have.

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