The use of samples is common practice in modern music production. However, a common challenge many producers face is preventing these samples from sounding too repetitive or monotonous. To address this, I've explored several effective techniques that can inject life and variety into your samples, ensuring your tracks stand out with a unique and realistic sonic character.
Here are 5 techniques you can use to add sonic variety to the sound of your selected samples:
- Time Compression And Expansion
- Pitch Shifting For Subtle Changes
- Automating Transient Shaping
- Modulation Effects For Movement
- Gain Adjustments For Dynamic Variation
In this article, I'll be covering each of these techniques in greater detail to help add more sonic variation to your samples and thus enhance your music production capabilities.
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Time Compression And Expansion
One of the simplest yet most effective ways to add variety to your samples is through time compression and expansion (TCE). Personally, it's one that I use all the time (and I use samples in nearly every song I produce for my solo project).
By stretching or compressing your samples in the arrangement view, you can subtly alter their length and texture. This technique is particularly effective with rhythmic elements like hi-hats, where slight variations in timbre can create a more dynamic and organic feel.
Your digital audio workstation should have some sort of tool to allow you to stretch the audio files within the arrangement view.
When used subtly, many TCE algorithms will maintain the initial transients of the audio signal fairly well while still offering slight nuances in the timbre.
The transient information of a signal refers to the initial attack of the audio/sound that makes up the majority of that sounds timbre. Transients are particularly strong on percussion instruments, though they're present in nearly all other instruments to some degree.
If we consider the following screenshot, we can see original kick drum sample in blue, a time-expanded version in red and a time-compressed version in yellow.
There are certainly differences beyond just the varied length of the three files. The actual audio waveforms are changed.
However, if we look closely at the beginnings (the transients), we can see that the variation are less than those toward the end of the samples. This illustrates the point I made earlier: the transients remain mostly intact, so the overall tone of the samples is quite consistent. However, there's sufficient variation introduced to emulate the effect of the sample being played with slight differences each time.
Digital time compression and expansion effectively work by resampling the audio. The samples that make up the original audio are “expanded” or “compressed” to adjust the length of the file, and then the file is effectively resampled at the project's sample rate.
Typical TCE algorithms do this with the intention of maintain the pitch of the sound. This is different than speeding up or slowing down audio, particularly in the analog realm, which results in a chaining of pitch.
We must be careful when utilizing TCE because artifacts will be introduced, particularly when expanding. In many algorithms, they won't be overly noticeable unless we go too far with the processing, but it's something we should definitely keep our ear on.
Pitch Shifting For Subtle Changes
Pitch shifting is another tool in your arsenal for adding sonic variety to samples. Instead of drastic pitch changes, focus on subtle shifts using fine pitch adjustments. This can mimic the natural variations in a live performance, adding depth and interest to your samples.
In many cases, we can make tiny transpositions to the audio file/sample itself (by cents rather than semitones) without altering the quality of the sound too much. Other times, any pitch alteration at the signal level will cause nasty artifacts and we'll have to use another method. As always, I recommend using your ears!
In terms of inserted processing, there are a few options to bring about pitch shifting in our samples.
Vibrato is one option. It's a modulation effect that varies the perceived pitch of an audio signal up and down over time according to a low-frequency oscillator (LFO). The use of very slight vibrato, especially at longer LFO rates, can give us natural-sounding results that add just the right amount of sonic variation.
Pitch-shifting effects can also work, and we can automate them over time. Once again, subtlety is key. We don't want to add too many artifacts or draw attention to the actual pitch-shifting effect. Rather, we just want to add a small amount of variety to the samples.
Automating Transient Shaping
Utilizing a transient shaper plugin, you can automate the attack and sustain parameters to adjust the attack and decay of your samples. This dynamic approach can transform a static sample into something that evolves and interacts more naturally with your track.
I find this technique to be especially useful when dealing with repeating samples — elements like hi-hats and snares. It's also super-useful for adding variety to entire loops that repeat over and over again.
Modulation Effects For Movement
Incorporating modulation effects like tremolo or flangers can add a layer of movement to your samples. Used subtly, these effects can enhance the texture and spatial qualities of your samples without overshadowing their original character.
I'm a big fan of LFO-speed amplitude modulation, like tremolo, to add subtle pumping to my samples. I find this helps to add rhythm to the samples in addition to sonic variety.
Gain Adjustments For Dynamic Variation
Simple gain adjustments on individual samples can create a more dynamic and engaging sound. By altering the loudness of certain hits, especially in rhythmic patterns, you can achieve a more varied and interesting results.
This is akin to altering the MIDI Velocity in samplers.
When working with samples in a sampler, varying the velocity of each hit can significantly impact the sound. Using the ‘humanize' function in your DAW, you can randomly adjust the velocities within a limited range to add a touch of unpredictability and realism. This method is especially useful for making programmed drums sound more like a live performance.
Call To Action
Produce a song where you rely on only a few samples to make up the bulk of the arrangement. Take each of the these techniques and apply them to production and try to give life and variation to the song without incurring uncanny effects or excessive artifacts.
Consider which techniques worked best for you and add them to your arsenal of production techniques!
How do you make a sample unique? Strategies for making a sample unique include alter its pitch and/or formants, timing (compression or expansion), and dynamics. Additionally, we may apply a wide variety of effects to alter the waveform, and layer it with other sounds for a distinct character.
How can I make my own samples? To create your own samples, take an existing audio file or record sounds using a microphone or digital instrument, edit and process them in a DAW to your liking, and save them in as a usable format in an organized manner.
Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section below! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!
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