Phase Switching

Sonar Notes

Published in SOS January 2012
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Technique : Sonar Notes

Have some phase‑switching fun in Sonar X1!

Craig Anderton

Long‑time readers probably know that, whenever possible, I try to make this column applicable to programs other than Sonar. Granted, many of these techniques are easier or more convenient to implement in Sonar, and reference Sonar features and effects, but if you use another DAW, don't turn the page yet. As long as you have a way to flip a track's phase, you'll probably be able to translate these techniques to whatever DAW you use.

Phase switches are like the Rodney Dangerfield of consoles; they don't get no respect. A lot of people seem to think of a console's phase switch solely as "that thing to flip when some idiot wired the XLR cable out of phase”. But being able to flip phase can give some really intriguing special effects, and Sonar makes the process easy: not only does every console channel have a phase-flip switch, but so does the VC64 Channel Strip (which is particularly relevant, as it allows for parallel processing).

The general way to set up a track for phase‑switching fun is to copy the audio from one track to another track to create a parallel signal flow, then change the phase on one track. It's a little more complicated with buses, as buses don't have a phase switch, but there's a simple workaround we'll get into later. Meanwhile, let's look at some applications.

First, something I like to call 'Extreme Classic Phaser'. Cakewalk's Classic Phaser plug‑in does indeed give classic phaser effects, but let's do a few things to make the sound more extreme:

  • Insert the Classic Phaser on an audio track and edit it for your phasing sound of choice.
  • Copy the audio from your primary track to create a second, parallel track of audio. You don't want the Classic Phaser in this track, so if you clone the track, delete the effect, or at least bypass it.
  • In the Console view, click on the phase button in the audio‑only track.
  • You can user the fader of the audio‑only track to change the level of the dry signal.Here we're looking at phase‑switching applications using the Extreme Phaser. Note that the Classic Phaser is inserted on Track 1, while Track 2 has been flipped out of phase. The Classic Phaser and phase switch are circled. The Track 2 level fader sets the precise amount of phase cancellation.Here we're looking at phase‑switching applications using the Extreme Phaser. Note that the Classic Phaser is inserted on Track 1, while Track 2 has been flipped out of phase. The Classic Phaser and phase switch are circled. The Track 2 level fader sets the precise amount of phase cancellation.

As you change the dry level, you'll find a point where the dry signal cancels with any 'remaining' dry signal in the Classic Phaser effect, leaving only those parts of the effect that are different from the dry signal. Not only does the phasing effect become more intense, the stereo imaging gets wider as well. Use the audio‑only track's fader to set the desired amount of cancellation.

Dynamic Saturation

Here's a really unusual phase‑flipping application. I like using saturation from time to time, but find that with percussive audio, like drums, the 'flattening' of the waveform and general muddiness can reduce dynamics dramatically. You can always try the 'mix in some straight signal' technique, as you would with parallel compression, but then you start to compromise the saturated character.

The following technique uses phase cancellation to help retain dynamics. This works because saturation affects the highest‑level signals the most, which, of course, are the percussive peaks. The lower‑level saturated signals are much more like the dry sound, so combining the saturated signal with the phase‑flipped dry signal tends to cancel the lower‑level signal while leaving the percussive peaks intact. Here's the procedure. To get a feel for how it works, first load a drum loop or other drum part:The Main Audio channel incorporates the Tube Saturator, set for Type 1, in the Pro Channel; a slight bass boost compensates for any thinness that can result from the cancellation process. Channel 2 has its phase flipped.The Main Audio channel incorporates the Tube Saturator, set for Type 1, in the Pro Channel; a slight bass boost compensates for any thinness that can result from the cancellation process. Channel 2 has its phase flipped.

  • As with the Extreme Phaser application, clone the audio from your primary track to create a secondary, identical track.
  • Insert the saturation effect in your primary track. I generally use the Pro Channel's Tube Distortion for this application because (depending on the source audio) being able to choose between the Type I and Type II saturation options can make a big difference to overall effectiveness. However, I've also tried this technique with the Softube Saturation knob that's part of Sonar X1e, and it works too.
  • Start playback and adjust the Tube saturation controls for the desired saturation character. Don't be concerned if you want to pile on the distortion. We'll tighten it up.
  • Now turn up the secondary channel's fader. As the level gets closer to matching the first audio channel's level, the individual drums will become more distinct. Note how the channel meter indicates a more dynamic signal.

The greater the cancellation, the more the level will tend to drop. As it takes some tweaking to get just the right balance of phase‑flipped to processed audio, it's helpful to group the level controls for the two audio tracks, so that they track each other if you want to change the level. Right‑click on the level control for each track, assign each one to the same group, and now you can adjust the level without changing the distortion effect.

You might want to increase the bass a bit to compensate for any thinness that results from the partial cancellation; distortion affects the high‑frequency content more, so low frequencies will have more tendency to cancel.

In The Ether

The vocal track is being sent to two reverb buses. Note that the Reverb 1 bus has Channel Tools inserted in the FX Bin to provide phase changes; unlike audio channels, buses don't have a dedicated phase‑flip button.The vocal track is being sent to two reverb buses. Note that the Reverb 1 bus has Channel Tools inserted in the FX Bin to provide phase changes; unlike audio channels, buses don't have a dedicated phase‑flip button.

And now the pièce de resistance: a reverb sound you haven't heard before, except possibly in your imagination. This phase‑flipping effect works best with algorithmic reverbs, like the Sonitus:fx Reverb. The result is an ethereal reverb sound that's particularly useful with vocals, but works with other instruments as well.

We'll use send buses for the reverb, so we don't need to copy the audio to another track, as with the other techniques that flip channel phase. But we do need two buses. Enter Sonar's Send Assistant:

  • Right‑click on the track where you want to add reverb, and select Insert Send / Insert Send Assistant.
  • Specify a New Bus, with Master as the Bus Output. Name the Bus 'Reverb 1'.
  • For Choose Effect, select the Sonitus:fx Reverb and also click on Show Effects Property Page.
  • Click on OK to create the bus.
  • Now create a second bus in a similar way to how you created the previous bus, but don't choose an effect, and give the bus a different name (for example, 'Reverb 2').
  • Start playback and adjust the reverb for a sound you like. For voice, a good preset is Aux: Vocal Hall 1. If you create your own preset, remember to turn Dry down all the way, as this is a send effect.
  • Make two edits before proceeding: choose Stereo instead of Mono (if needed) for the output, to create a bigger sound, and change the Decay Time to one second.
  • Once you have the right reverb sound set up, control‑drag the reverb into the other send bus's FX bin so that the same reverb is in both tracks.
  • Now we need to flip the phase on one of the buses. Although buses don't include phase‑flip switches, there's an easy solution: insert the Channel Tools plug‑in into one of the buses.
  • With Channel Tools, turn Input Mode and Delay to Off, then enable the Left and Right phase‑flip buttons. The reverb effect should now cancel.
  • On one of the reverbs, increase the decay time; try 1.8 to 2.0 seconds. This cancels the reverb's initial decay, leaving only the ethereal tail at the end.

For comparison, turn off Channel Tools; you'll hear a huge difference. But note that, as with other effects that are based on phase‑flipping, the level of the combined sound might be a little low. Grouping the bus output controls lets you raise or lower them together if needed.

Why Stop There?

We've covered three phase‑flipping applications in previous columns: using phase flips to create vintage wah‑wah sounds, telephone/megaphone voices and the kind of over‑compressed, 'sucking' drum sounds used as a special effect in a lot of music from the psychedelic '60s. There are probably more cool sounds just waiting to be discovered, so give the phase switch some respect and you just might come up with something no one else has heard before.  .


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