Free Plugin Friday 12 - Unusual Spatial Imaging

Slightly belated, but hopefully worth it!

University of York Music Technology Group - Ambisonic Tools (VST + AU)

The UoY developed this Ambisonic toolset about a decade ago, but I’ve only just stumbled on them. Essentially they allow all sorts of spatial imaging possibilities, including the elusive vertical panning technique. It’s all very complicated, so I won’t bother paraphrasing here, but do read up on the website about the scope of these plugins - audio zooms anyone?! Very much worth checking out :)!  

Tutorial Tuesday 7 - Granular Synthesis/Sampling

At its heart, granular synthesis involves the playback of small elements, or ‘grains’, from larger segments of audio. For example, you might start with a long field recording, but only select a small portion of it which can be looped to create exciting new textures and tones. There are near infinite possibilities, as you can change loop speed, playback start points and modulate the samples in real time.  

Granular synthesisers are essentially ROMplers, but as a production tool are often shied away from as they can be confusing compared to the subtractive style synthesis we’re often used to. So in this tutorial we’ll build our own sort of granular synthesiser by stacking samplers and treating those as oscillators. 

You can always take things further and to new levels of complexity by adding filters, lfos, envelopes etc. 

Step 1 - Setting up the samplers


In this tutorial, I’ll be using Ableton Live’s instrument rack and simpler (though obviously this can be implemented with any sampler, and if you’d rather not use an instrument rack you place a simpler/sampler on its own individual track, and route them to a bus). 

Step 2 - Load some samples

The next thing to do is to select some samples to create your patch. Obviously, sample selection should be based on the final timbre you want to achieve. So, for example, if you wanted to create a futuristic, mechanoid soundscape, you may select some foley recordings of machinery and hydraulics, in conjunction with some synthetic elements. 

Step 3 - Select some grains


The next step is to select a chunk of your sample, and loop it to create a tone. This can then be tuned to an accurate pitch. To do this you can loop a constant tone and then tune your sample accordingly. 

Step 4 - Repeat For Each Sampler

Build the remainder of your patch. This may take some experimentation with both sample choice and playback length. You may want to include some longer, evolving sounds as I have above. These should also be loopable. Also ensure that your samples loop seamlessly, and pick wave crossover point to avoid clicks. In Live’s simpler and sampler you have the fade control which helps smooth things out. Again, tune the sample to a specific note, or if you’re feeling adventurous you could tune in intervals like 5ths, and adjust the number of voices accordingly. Don’t worry too much about extreme tuning, the patch can sound granular and lo-fi if you want it to!

Step 5 - Finishing Up

With the instrument rack, you can pan each sampler to taste, as well as applying effects and plugins to each sampler chain. You could also get the samples to interact with each other by using the side chain inputs on some of Live’s plugins, and assign parameters to macros. 

Finally, you can apply effects to the whole patch to glue everything together, such as compression and reverb. 

Everything In Balance

I took two days away from music and screens this week, for the first time in over a month. It’s really refreshing to take a break every now and then, and not a luxury I can usually afford. My ears feel rested and ready to revisit a few mixes, hopefully from a fresh perspective.

In part this was inspired by last week’s post musing on Zen Mixing, and the idea of having everything working in equilibrium is something I subscribe to. 

On my days off I have walked (something I tend to do everyday anyway), exercised and tried to soak in the sounds outside the studio to refresh my ears (and what little sun that’s still floating around September). I’ve played guitar, bass and piano for pure fun (as opposed to tracking purposefully for a track). I’ve actually listened to music (other than reference tracks) -  a luxury usually reserved for placating the washing up. 

It’s hard to tear yourself away from work that also happens to be your ideal form of play, but ultimately it’s worthwhile and you’ll find yourself able to return to music making with a renewed vigour. 

So I think the lesson learned is to take a step back and have a reset every once in a while, consolidate and gather some inspiration! Food for thought! omnomnom. 

Free Plugin Friday 11

u-he - TyrellN6 V3 (VST 2&3, AU- 32 + 64 bit)

I know I’ve previously blogged about the N6 in a Free Plugin Friday, but I’ve found the latest version to be quite superb. The main updates are a new skin and the VST3 format, as well as some new presets from u-he’s usual suspects, in conjuntion with a megaton of bug and niggle fixes.

This is my favourite freeware synth. It’s diverse and profound, with a great modulation matrix. You can get so much mileage from just two oscillators, and though it’s based loosely on a Juno 60 it really offers so much more. 

Things I’ve learnt since version 2:

You’re rewarded with prisitine audio quality if you keep the oscillators’ volumes low, or subtle analogue style drive if you run them hot. 

The ‘stackvoice’ setting is awesome (and in V3 it can now be used with glide, and the portamento now takes into account stacked voice detuning when calculating the pitch starting position). 

You can download it from here.

Variety of Sound - ThrillseekerVBL (VST - 32bit)

Another fantastic addition to the Thrillseeker series by VoS, whose raison d’etre is to inject as much analogue style mojo as possible into digital music production. ThrillseekerVBL does not disappoint. 

VBL stands for Vintage Broadcast Limiter and is modelled on those used in 1950s radio studios - essentially a limiter used to catch any sudden audio overshoots. Unlike the limiters of today, the VBL is very musical, and nowhere near as fast. The result is a beautiful and warm analogue distortion. (Just to clarity - this isn’t your tear-out metal-guitar-pedal distortion, it’s comparatively very subtle). 

VBL is essentially a very useful levelling tool as well as a very realistic transformer and valve amplifier, with low-end harmonic distortion. 

It’s really beautiful stuff. For more info on Bootsy’s super distortion modelling have a read of this post. 


I’m taking a week off Tutorial Tuesday, as I found this video by Noisia to be really inspirational. I’ll admit I’ve been neglecting things like drum transients and checking phase when layering up samples, so it’s been a good refresher and banished a few bad habits! 

Well worth a watch!

Zen Mixing

I had a pretty busy August (I just worked out I’d mixed down and mastered 40+ tracks in the past month, and that’s not even counting personal projects). I’ve found when I have a heavy-ish workload, the best way to cope is to break everything down into bitesize chunks and set micro-deadlines, and stick to them as best I can.

One of the things I’ve learnt is that I’m more productive if I split studio time up into creative sessions and non-creative sessions, that way I’m not wasting time hunting for samples or crafting patches etc., which would interfere with the flow when I’m composing. Being creative under pressure, meeting deadlines and expectations etc., is demanding stuff, and I don’t think it’s something you can necessarily learn. Inspiration can strike at the oddest times, and despite attempting to divorce composing sessions from patch/sample making sessions, the two are creatively linked. You can riff off sound design, after all. 

The other thing I’ve learnt, a bit similar to the above, is to breakdown the whole music making process into phases - sound design, composition, mixing and mastering respectively (though technically the latter should probably be levelling, as you can’t by definition master your own tunes…). Anyway, mixdowns have become a lot easier, probably because of having dedicated sessions to choose good source samples and building from the ground up. If things are cohesive, then often there’s been no need for compression or EQ, only perhaps a simple high pass filter.

Anyway, the point of this post is that I’ve adopted the following two invaluable mantras into my studio dogma:

1. Occam’s Razor - the simplest solution to a problem is often the most likely one. 

2. Parkinson’s Law - the task at hand will expand to fill the time you allow it.

Food for thought! omnomnom. 

Free Plugin Friday 10

DiscoDSP - Nightshine (VST)


Nightshine is an emulation of the marmite-response-inducing Alesis 3630 peak compressor. The 3630 is reportedly THE best selling hardware compressor of all time, and came into being just over two decades ago. (For more info on the original check out the Alesis website here). 

The 3630 has a slightly AM radio vibe, is loud (read noisy) and absolutely pumping, for better or worse! DiscoDSP do a great job of emulating it here, for free (well, in exchange for a facebook like). Worth checking out if you’re a fan of the original, which by the way usually goes for a steal on eBay! Daft Punk are long term fans and have apparently used it as a mixbus compressor in the past, if you need some celebrity producer credentials to sway you! 

Voxengo - Span  (VST + AU, 32 + 64 bit)

Whilst you can rely on your ears and monitors for many mixing tasks, to some extent there will always be certain sonic elements that remain hidden and masked, either by your room or playback system. Voxengo’s super great freeware Span enables you to see if there’s any hidden bass on your high hats, or excessive high mids in your bassline. 

Spectral analysers are very useful tools, and whilst they’re no substitute for training your ears (and ultimately rolling with what sounds right to you), they’re an invaluable visual training aid (so you can see and hear what  a boost or cut sounds like at a specific frequency). It’s also handy to examine the spectrograph of your reference material. If you don’t have one already bundled with your DAW, then I wholeheartedly recommend Span!

Tutorial Tuesday 6 - Broadband Absorber Build (Part 2)

If you missed last week’s part one, you can catch up on it here. 


I finished up the build a few days ago, so here are the last few steps :)

3.  Upholstery Part 2


The next step is to cut your front panel fabric and staple it to the frame, so you have something to lay the rockwool on to. I attached it on the inner part of the frame, leaving room for stapling along the back edge for the back cover. It’s essential that you get this front fabric as tight as possible (for aesthetics, acoustics and to ensure that the rockwool won’t/can’t sag over time) and it’s a lot easier if you have a friend to help you.

Next trim off any excess! 


4. Cut the fabric for the back cover. 


I suggest doing this now so you don’t have to be exposed to the rockwool for longer than necessary! You can trim off any excess at the end. Again, I’m using a layer of gauze first to ensure no nasty rockwool fibres will escape. (That said, after some research I’ve found rockwool’s not a carcinogen - it’s still a respiratory irritant however, so best get the cover nice and tight!)

5. Lay the rockwool


Firstly, make sure you have a mask (Bane impressions recommended throughout the next few steps, though by no means obligatory), wear long sleeves and gloves. I’d suggest airing the rockwool if at all possible, as it’s got a pungent stink, though if this isn’t an option available to you (and your fabric’s taught) you’ll find no nasty odours escape when the frames are finished.   


If you’ve measured and cut everything correctly you’ll hopefully find that everything fits very snug. I had to chop one rockwool panel in half for my design, but it’s easy enough to cut with a stanley knife or similar. I used a saw because it was close to hand. 


Mmm snug. 

6. Upholstery part 3

The next step you’ll want to do quite quickly to minimise rockwool exposure. Simply staple down the fabric you precut earlier. All excess can be trimmed off at the end, just ensure you get it as tight as possible.


I recommend starting with a corner of the one of the longer sides and working your way along, stretching as you go. I did the longer sides first and then the shorter sides at the end. Here’s a pic of my staple spacing…I used rather a lot.


7. Finishing Up

Trim off any excess and install the new absorbers!

They’ve improved the sound of this room exponentially, so very much worth the time effort and money! If you’ve got any DIY sensibilities I’d thoroughly recommend building your own too. A lot cheaper than buying the pre-fab stuff, and they can be utterly personalised to your own requirements of space, budget etc. etc.

I’ll definitely be building some more in the future! 

Free Plugin Friday 9 - FireBird and Distortion

Tone2 - FireBird (VST 32+64bit)

A previously commercial product, with an RRP of $79, Firebird has now been uncaged and released as freeware. It’s been around for 7 years, so it’s kind of a vintage bit of kit in its own right, but it still holds up as a very good synth, and has received acclaim from many respectful music publications. 

It’s a very versatile synth, and features all of the bells and whistles you’d associate with a modern VA instrument. 

Most impressive perhaps is its Harmonic Content Morphing synthesis, which is more easily explained by reading the website than here!

A solid addition to anyone’s synth article. Pick it up!

TSE Audio - TSE R47 (VST + AU, 32+64bit)

I’m only focussing on TSE’s RAT Pedal emulation here, but the whole host of plugins offered are well worth downloading. Recently the score’s I’m working on have called for lots of synths/drums to be ran through distortion pedals, so I’m always on the lookout for new sound manglers.

I owned a RAT a few years ago, and sadly a friend fried it and I (read they) never got around to replacing the loveable rodent. 

TSE’s replacement is the next best thing, and whilst I enjoy running my synths through hardware distortion units it’s nice to have non-destructive editing options!

Highly recommended for guitarists and synthists looking to inject more grit into their productions.  

Mover, shaker, giver, taker, music maker. Bad rhymer.

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