Toolkit

Gran­u­lar syn­the­sis

Future Music - - CONTENTS -

To­day’s vir­tual synths can open up doors into brand new sonic ter­ri­to­ries, and while com­mon sub­trac­tive synths are great for bread-and-but­ter tones, true cre­ativ­ity lies within the more es­o­teric vir­tual in­stru­ments en­joyed by only the most ad­ven­tur­ous of sound de­sign­ers.

Con­tin­u­ing our ex­plo­ration of var­i­ous syn­the­sis types and the tools that cre­ate them, this month’s Toolkit is all about the mys­ti­cal uni­verse of gran­u­lar syn­the­sis. Although there’s a lot of com­plex the­ory, the con­cept is sim­ple: an au­dio sig­nal is bro­ken down into tiny ‘grains’, then th­ese sound frag­ments are played back and re­com­bined in var­i­ous ways. On a func­tional level, this tech­nol­ogy pow­ers the timestretch­ing and pitchshift­ing al­go­rithms found in DAWs, sam­plers and vo­cal-tun­ing pro­grams – so, play­ing back minute seg­ments of an au­dio file will ex­tend or shorten its length with­out al­ter­ing pitch.

Func­tional uses aside, this tech­nol­ogy can be used to cre­atively shat­ter apart and re­merge a sam­ple, gen­er­at­ing en­tirely new tim­bres. Use a gran­u­lar synth to play back one small ‘grain’ of an au­dio file as you al­ter the grain’s size/length, and a sin­gle re­peat­ing ‘stut­ter’ is cre­ated. Then, by in­creas­ing the num­ber of grains and play­ing them back si­mul­ta­ne­ously, you end up with a fluffy ‘grain cloud’ ef­fect. Tone can be al­tered fur­ther by slightly (or overtly) ran­domis­ing the pitch and play­head po­si­tion of the grains in re­la­tion to each other. Clicks, crunches and dis­tor­tion can oc­cur at cross­ing points be­tween grains, so gran­u­lar synths of­fer some kind of cross­fade pa­ram­e­ter, which ap­plies a small vol­ume fade to the start and end of each grain, the shape of which greatly in­flu­ences the re­sult­ing grain cloud’s tim­bre.

The end re­sult ob­vi­ously de­pends upon your source ma­te­rial, and gen­er­ally works best with au­dio sam­ples that fea­ture some kind of tim­bral change over time, ul­ti­mately cre­at­ing shim­mer­ing, evolv­ing mu­si­cal tim­bres you’d never nor­mally come up with us­ing more tra­di­tional sam­pling tech­niques. Load a vo­cal phrase into a gran­u­lar synth, for in­stance, and you can tweak the sound into a float­ing ethe­real sound­scape with a hint of the orig­i­nal voice. This il­lus­trates the power of gran­u­lar syn­the­sis as a remix­ing tool: gran­ulise all man­ner of recog­nis­able sounds into some­thing new.

Over the next few pages, we’ll in­tro­duce you to to­day’s most pow­er­ful gran­u­lar in­stru­ments, and run you through the ba­sics of their op­er­a­tion. Logic Pro X users ar­guably get the best deal of all, see­ing as for­mer Camel Au­dio synth Alchemy is in­cluded off the shelf. We’ll check that one out later on, be­fore look­ing at Au­dio Dam­age’s ace new in­stru­ment Quanta, which buries com­plex gran­u­lar syn­the­sis tech be­hind easy-to-use sub­trac­tive con­trols.

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