Music Theory Broken Down

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Music Theory Broken Down

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  • First oscillators...If our ear picks up a certain frequency it is a sine wave (the note produced by a pitch fork) of that frequency that it picks up. The larger the amplitude of the sine wave, the louder the perceived frequency.In the oscillator section of a synthesiser, there are 2 main types of choices. Pitched notes and noise.White noise is effectively equal amplitudes all sine waves of all frequencies at once (a crap definition but I dont want to go into maths).Pitched notes are a repetitive wave oscillating at certain frequency. This is the frequency of the lowest sine wave playing (the 1st harmonic). On top of this we have a sine wave of twice the frequency (the 2nd harmonic), triple the frequency (the 3rd harmonic) and so on.The amplitudes of the harmonics vary on the type of wave...Sine wave - obviously just the 1st harmonicSawtooth wave - the amplitude of the nth harmonic is 1/n. This is the fullest sounding wave. Square wave - as with the sawtooth but with only odd harmonics (this makes it sound hollow). Some synths allow you to change the pulse width, making sorter pulses.Triangle wave - the amplitude of the nth harmonic is 1/(n^2). Hence the first harmonics are more dominant making it sound more like the sine wave.

    Most synths have multiple oscillators that can be mixed together. In doing this there are 2 main controls for each oscillator...De-tune - This detunes the pitch of a specific oscillator. Its measure in semitones and cents. A semitone is like moving up a fret on the guitar and a cent is 1/100th of a semitone. Volume - This is pretty obvious.Unison (or whatever the same thing is) - Starts the waves at the same time - Use this for clear sounds.Heres a couple of examples:Sometimes for sawtooth basses Ill add another saw (in union) of half the volume at +12 semitones (up an octave).For sawtooth leads ill generally have 3 oscillators with 2 of them de-tuned low and high by approximately the same amount of cents (around 30). This gives them a warmer sound.

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Next thing - filters and equalisers.These both work by boosting and cutting certain frequencies.Low pass filters allow frequencies lower than the cutoff to pass (i.e. cut all frequencies higher than the cutoff - the higher the number of poles, the more they are cut). The more resonance then the more the frequency is boosted around the cutoff point.High pass filters do the opposite.Band pass filters allow a narrow band of frequencies to pass.A parametric equaliser boosts or cuts (gain control) around a frequency of your choice. The Q control is the width of the boost or cut in the frequency spectrum.A few tips...These are important for mixing. Each instrument should have its own region of the frequency spectrum to sit in. If 2 instruments playing simultaneously occupy the same range of frequencies then they will sound messy. People use parametric equalisers to do precisely this - boost the areas where you want it to sit in, cut where you dont. I work from the bass up (and hats down) and make sure I have a high pass filter if its interfering with the layer below it (or visa versa). I.e - rather than making a sound and thinking - thats cool - lets add it in and then creating a riff for it, I create the riff and make the sound around what Ive already got. Hence, I dont tend to use eq so much as of yet.

  • Getting more of the lower frequencies of the sound gives a smoother texture, whereas more of the higher frequencies sounds scratchy. The lower the note, the more this scratch turns into a tear. Often, sections of my leads will be placed around C0 (very bass) with a high pass filter, creating that ripping lead sound. Raising the low pass filter on a bass will add some of this rip, making it sound more grimey.---------------------------------------------------------

    Next, envelopes and LFOs...These both vary the controls automatically. A perfect synth will have the capability of every control in it being varied by these (I want reaktor!!!). I.e. they can control volume, filter cutoff etc.LFO stands for low frequency oscillator and it will vary the control depending on the current level of its signal. You can control frequency and phase (when the sine wave starts), oscillator type (waveform) and how much it varies the control.The standard (and simplest) envelope is the ADSR envelopes. It varies the control like this:From when the note starts, it takes the time of the attack to reach its peak. Then, it takes the time of the decay to reach the sustain point. After the note has ended it takes the time of the release to drop back. Clearly you must have an envelope for volume.So say we wanna create a lead which rips down through our track. Make its frequency very low. Then put a high pass filter on it. Make your envelope heavily affect the cutoff, then set zero attack, long decay and low sustain. The lower frequencies will now gradually drop in.Also, sometimes (especially with a low sine wave - if youre making a kick), oscillators make a pop sound when coming in and out. To rectify this add a little attack and release on the volume envelope (not to much attack if you wanna make a kick sound though because you wanna keep a bit of pop).And for percussive sounds, a short decay with little sustain.Some pecussive sounds and basses want an envelope on frequency with short decay and even shorter attack if any. This makes them bounce.----------------------------------------------------------------Reverb and pan...Stereo systems cant imitate a three dimensional stage - Thats a load of crap (especially if your on acid!).OK - so they cant make sounds come from behind you (without reflecting off a wall) but imagine a room...Those sounds upfront will have less reverb whilst those far back will.For left-right posistion clearly use pan (set it to an envelope for leads which sweep across the soundstage).Dont use reverb on the bass - that wants to be up front.Dont use much on hats and snares - between 1 and 2 seconds I normally use.For big lead riffs use lots - 7 seconds or more makes it sound really impressive.Oh and reverb should really be the last effect in the series.----------------------------------------------------------------

    Compression...This automatically decreases the volume of the signal depending on the volume of either itself or another signal called the sidechain. (From now on Ill refer to the signal causing the compression as the sidechain even if there isnt one).When the compressor has kicked in, the amount of the signal above the threshold is reduced by the ratio (i.e. say your threshold is 7db, and the ratio is 3:1. A 10db signal will then be 8db.)The attack is the time taken for the compressor to kick in and the release is the time taken for the signal to be released from the copressor.The knee is how smoothly the compressor kicks in - soft knee is smoother than hard knee.

  • Compressing basses will give them punch. Compressing white noise will give a snare sound (with high ratio and low threshold). Compressing your track (high threshold, low ratio) will bring out quieter bits - this is part of mastering.Sidechain a kick to a compressor on a bass or reverb on anything to bring it out.--------------------------------------------------------------------------Chorus...This is basically many copies of a note playing at slightly different pitches creating a warmer/fatter sound. There are 2 ways this is done...A chorus effect makes copies of the signal and increases and decreases delay on them - this stretchs and squashes the sound, changing the pitch up and down (rate can be controlled). It then mixes them together creating the effect.On polyphonic synths, if one note is being played on the synth at one time (most times this is true), you can set it to monophonic. You can then set the number of voices to the synth creating a chorus effect (1 voice for no chorus). Set it to unison which starts the oscillators at the same time for a fatter sound.The 2 methods sound different since the pitches of the different voices are fixed on the later. The 1st is more pad sounding, the second is fatter.I wouldnt use this on basses, but for fat lead sounds and pads (havent as of yet though - only just realised to turn my synth to monophonic.------------------------------------------------------------------------------Phaser and Flanger...This both work by taking the signal, putting different frequencies out of phase differently and mixing it back into the signal. The signals interfere with each other, creating dips and reinforcements in the frequency spectrum.Flangers send the signal out of phase by giving a delay, phasers with an all pass filter.The number of filters in the phaser (order) is twice the number of dips in the spectrum.They are controlled by LFOs. For instance, for the flanger, this controls the amount of delay in the interfering signal.A mix control gives the intensity (50:50 the most - most interference that way).As you said flangers make jet-plane noises (also makes those rip sounds sound more like a strumming distorted electric guitar) whilst phasers can make anything from creepy psy-sounds to really character-full basses (depending on how you use the rest of the synth/effects).-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------Frequency shifters shift the frequency of the harmonics by a fixed amounts sending them out of sync. Use and LFO on that and the amplitude simultaneously, get it at the right frequency and it will sound like your lead is talking to you.-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Ive tried to include some of the different ways to make certain specific sounds. The best way is to play about with it and find them. But anyway - Ill give you a list of how I make some important percussive sounds (most leads basses I cant describe with words that well (at least what they sound like - there are endless possibilities).These are just starting points for these sounds. Theres no perfect kick for instance. Fiddle with all the controls to find the sound you want in your mix. Also, for example, theres no clear cut boundary between a kick and a bass - often Ill make things in between.

    Kick:Sine Wave (but adding slight amount of others will give some texture).Slight attack and release on amp envelope to avoid too much pop. Fast decay and low sustain for a percussive sound.Put an envelope, increasing pitch with zero attack, short decay and no sustain.

  • Put a low pass filter, parametric eq and compressor on it and play with the controls.Although the pitch isnt that clear, (and isnt changed in rock/jazz etc.), Making it the note of the key your in makes the mix (of low pitch - around C0-C1 region) sound more together (dont vary it throughout like I did the other day - on second thoughts it gives it less drive).Layer it with a snare (see below) if you want some snare-sound with it.

    Percussive, metallic bass (dominant in mix - stereotypical psytrance bass): Just found this out by accident in the last loop I made (a psy-breaks loop - sounds awesome!)Saw wave, (possibly with another up an octave).Short attack and release (just to avoid any pop) and full sustain on amp envelope.Low pass filter (for bass) and high pass filter (but not to high - just shave off the very low harmonics).Phaser with no LFO attached (or with zero rate on LFO). Play with the phase and the mix for the right sound.Compressor gives it the Percussive sound. Soft knee is nicer sounding I think. Play with the other controls for best sound (as with everything).Youll probably come up with loads of other bass sounds whilst trying to make this. Play with filter envelopes (whilst having less or no compression) and youll come up with loads.

    Snare:White noise.Zero attack on amp envelope. Play with the decay and sustain after youve put the compressor on.Compressor on with high ratio and low threshold.Filter for your sound.

    Hat:White noise or white noise with a bit some triangle wave (in this case use high pitch).No attack, short decay and low-no sustain on amp envelope.High pass filter up quite high.Play with the above controls (and apply low pass filters sometimes) to make all manner of percussive sounds like clicks, ride cymbals etc.--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Last but not least...Playing the same layer throughout on a riff sounds unexpressive. For different notes use different layers (if they occupy the same frequency spectrum they sound like the same instrument).