Friday, December 13, 2013

Dungeons, Dragons, and Soundscapes: Sci-Fi Sound Effects

Welcome back! Last week, we took a look at how to create a basic background for a forest scene by layering sound effects, using strictly free material. This week, our theme here at the Flying Pincushion is Firefly, so we're going to cover sci-fi-style sound effects. This time, however, we will be focusing on what you can do when you have professional-style resources to tap into. This is the stuff I work with every time I create sound effects or music, whether for my own use or for a client, and it'll give you something to shoot for. But don't despair if you don't have a ton of money to throw at this stuff, because I'm going to give you some resources to do this stuff for free, too.

Last week, I had you grab Audacity. This is your bread and butter program for free audio sculpting. I also directed you to, where you can find just about any basic sound you're looking for. If you want to design your sound effects yourself and for free, see last week's article for a step by step guide – the content there is for a forest atmosphere, but the techniques don't change at all for any kind of other sound. Follow the steps there, replacing the sounds I used with sounds of your choice, and you'll get an idea of how to layer effects.

However, this week we're focusing on using professional tools to come up with some really high quality sounds for your science fiction needs. So here's a list of what I will be using to do this, along with the standard prices of each (you can frequently find deals and sales).

  • Avid Pro Tools 11 ($699)
  • Native Instruments Massive ($199)
  • A MIDI controller keyboard of some kind, not expensive at all (and optional)

Pro Tools is the industry standard for audio production (except movies, Steinberg Nuendo takes that one). NI Massive is the synth for electronic music, especially dubstep. It can do just about anything except make you a coffee, and that's only because it's not hooked up to your coffee machine. There are a massive (ahaha) amount of tutorials available for it, because it is an incredibly complex powerful tool. I'll spare you all that, though, because it delves deeply into some very complicated electronics and music theory. By the way, any of the things I'm doing here in Pro Tools can be done in pretty much any professional DAW such as Cubase as well.

Alright, so here's the step by step of what I'm doing to create this sound:

Step 1: Open Pro Tools and Setup a New Session
Once you start up Pro Tools it'll ask what you want to do with it. Click Create Blank Session, and set the Bit Depth to 24 and the Sample Rate to 48 kHz. I/O Settings, you can leave at Last Used, they won't have an effect on what we're doing here. Make sure you've checked the Interleaved box, too, and set the audio file type to .WAV. (See screenshot)

Step 2: Get the Instrument Ready
Now that we have our shiny new session open, we need the tracks. Cmd/Ctrl+Shift+N will open the New Tracks menu. You want to create 1 Stereo Instrument Track. Once that is ready, on the top menu click Window > Mix to open up the mixing board window. At the moment, it only has one track. On the top of the track, you have Insert slots. Click one, and click Plug-in > Instrument > Massive to load the synthesizer onto the track. Now, plug your midi controller keyboard into your USB port. Press some keys to make sure there's sound coming into the track (the meter will show you the level). (See screenshot)

Step 3: Picking Your Sound
Those not using a keyboard, go to Step 4 and do that first, then come back here. Use Play to hear the sound Massive is making.

Massive comes with a ton of presets, and frequently you can find what you want for just about anything by poking around in the preset menu, and sometimes fiddling with the controls on the bottom right. Let's open the preset menu in the plugin (see screenshot) and choose the 4AD preset. I don't really like that base tone, but the layers of chirping and beeping seem pretty cool, so check out the Oscillators on the left of the plugin. Osc 3 is the one giving us the sound we want, so just click names of Osc 1 and Osc 2 to disable them.

Step 4: Recording the Sound
The instructions for this one differ depending on whether you're using a keyboard or not.
Keyboard: There's a white dot on the track, both on the left panel in the Edit window and right below the Panorama controls. Click that button and it will begin blinking red – this is the Record Ready button, which tells the program which tracks should start recording when you have Record mode enabled. Now that we've done that, we want to record the sound. To do this, enable Record mode by clicking the red dot button in the transport area (next to play and stop). Then get ready to hold down one note on your keyboard. I like how the sound plays a little lower, so I'm going to use a C note two octaves down, but you can use whatever you want. Just make sure you know which note you're using (even if it's just remembering which key). Now, it's just a matter of hitting the Play button (or spacebar) and holding down the note for as long as you want it playing, then hitting the spacebar again.
No Keyboard: For you folks not using a keyboard, on the top menu bar click Window > MIDI Editor to open the....MIDI Editor! Then find the note you want on the keyboard on the left. Use the Zoom tool (top left of the window, next to the blue highlighted area) till you can see individual spaces well enough, and double click on one in the bar aligned with the note you want, to generate a MIDI note. On the bottom of the window, there are a few other sections, one of which is labelled Velocity. In that section, directly beneath the note you just created, is a little diamond with a line under it. Click and drag that diamond all the way up to maximize the velocity (how hard you 'hit' the note). Now click and drag the right end of the note you just made, and drag it out until it's as long as you want it to be.

Step 5: Layering the Sound (optional)
If you like the sound you just created, and don't want anything else on top, skip this step.
Otherwise, follow steps 1 to 4 again, but pick a different preset and play around with it. A quick way to open a second track is to right click on the name of the first track (Inst 1 in this case), and click Duplicate. Then you have an exact duplicate of the first one. Click the second track's insert of Massive, and change that one's preset to how you want it, and just hit play to hear them both layered together. I picked the Ascending preset. Now open up the Mix window again (Window > Mix) and move the volume faders around until the sounds are layered how you want them. I left Ascending at 0 dB, and moved the 4AD sound to about -6 dB. For added fun, copy and paste both the clips in the Edit window again, then double click the second Ascending clip, grab the Midi note, and pull it down by one key.

Step 6: Save the Sound
Once you're happy with the sound you've created, go to the edit window, click anywhere in the tracks, and hit Select All (Edit > Select All or Cmd/Ctrl+A), then click File > Bounce To > Disk. Leave the Bounce Source alone, File Type 'WAV', Format 'Interleaved', Bit Depth '24', Sample Rate '48 kHz', Conversion Options 'Convert After Bounce' (see screenshot). Then hit Bounce, and pick the location and name you want to save your file to. Let Pro Tools run, and once it's finished bouncing, voila! Your new sound is ready.
Dungeons, Dragons and Soundscapes won't be appearing next week, but will return the week thereafter.

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