DP Audio Production Tricks

Digital Performer Notes & Techniques

Published in SOS June 2008
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Technique : Digital Performer Notes

DP offers an excellent environment for working with the little pieces of 'ear candy', such as filtered drops, beat-mangled breaks and reversed audio phrases, that can make such an impact in pop and electronica production. We look at some of the techniques involved.

Robin Bigwood

Filtered 'drops' are easy to set up and ever-popular. Here, Multimode Filter's Frequency parameter is being automated.
Filtered 'drops' are easy to set up and ever-popular. Here, Multimode Filter's Frequency parameter is being automated.

There are many ways to create the pleasing little isolated and infrequent audio treatments that can keep a track sounding fresh and interesting for the listener. In fact, the more you experiment, the more off-the-wall techniques you can come up with. But several basic approaches stand out as being both effective and easy enough to work with: using plug-ins in real time; applying plug-ins off-line; and combining specific MIDI and audio techniques. All of them require that your audio is being handled internally by DP, so any external sound sources will either already have been recorded into audio tracks, or will be coming into DP via an audio or aux track, prior to being recorded.

Real-time Treatments

One straightforward approach is to use audio plug-ins on individual tracks, aux track submixes, or indeed a master fader, and to automate their bypass status (and maybe their parameters too) to make them active for a short period of time. A common example is the 'thin-sounding intro' — using EQ, you roll off bass and treble at the beginning of your song, but bypass the EQ when the first verse or chorus begins, to deliver extra impact. Here's how you'd do it (see top screens, opposite page).

1. Instantiate an EQ (perhaps a Masterworks EQ) in an insert slot on a master fader.

2. Set up the EQ so that it has high-pass and low-pass bands enabled, and roll off your frequency extremes to taste, while listening to the intro of your song.

3. In the Sequence editor, insert an automation event to enable the plug-in at the start of the sequence. Do this by clicking on the Track Settings button next to the master fader track's name, choosing Insert, then the name of your EQ, and then Bypass. This 'loads' the pencil tool with a bypass event, and you choose whether to write a 'bypassed' or 'enabled' event by clicking in the upper or lower part of the track lane. DP informs you which in the Track Info bar (DP4 and DP5) or the Cursor Info palette (DP6).

4. The resulting automation data is shown in its own track layer as a line with breakpoints. If it's dotted, automation is not enabled, and you'd need to switch it on for the track by clicking on the Track Settings pop-up once more, choosing Automation, and clicking Play.

5. Finally, we need to write the EQ bypass event, to restore the normal sound of the mix when the first verse or chorus is reached. Locate to the appropriate point in the track and place the mouse pointer on the automation line. It turns into a pointing hand cursor and a click now will write the new breakpoint. Drag this breakpoint upwards so that it becomes a 'bypassed' event, and you're there.

Dynamic audio treatments can be set up by writing a few plug-in automation events in the Sequence editor.
Dynamic audio treatments can be set up by writing a few plug-in automation events in the Sequence editor.

Playing the sequence should now result in the EQ plug-in automatically being bypassed and enabled in the appropriate places. You could, of course, go on to write more of the same kind of data, to bring back the bandwidth-limited effect later on in your mix. Also consider trying other plug-ins that suit being suddenly bypassed or enabled. Digital degraders such as MOTU's own Quan Jr or the freeware MDA Degrade are excellent for brief, end-of-measure drum breaks, for example, and another favourite is the 'knackered LP' effect that can be easily achieved with iZotope's Vinyl plug-in (also freeware, and in MAS format too). Short sections of very heavy reverb also work well — the sudden disappearance of the tail as you bypass the effect can be startlingly effective. Don't forget DP5's Pattern Gate either: by enabling most of its steps but setting the envelope to a fast decay, you can create some very effective 'stutter' effects.

For more subtle and 'evolving' treatments, it's better to automate plug-in parameters rather than just their bypass status. The classic (and rather well-worn) example is the closing and re-opening low-pass filter sweep so beloved of euphoric techno and its pop spin-offs. For this you use a similar approach to that described above, but automate a filter plug-in's cutoff parameter with an automation data ramp. Here's how you'd automate a low-pass Multimode Filter to close from 20,000Hz to 200Hz, before re-opening:

1. Enable Multimode Filter on a master fader track and make sure it's set to low-pass mode, with wet/dry mix at 100 percent wet, and resonance to suit. Disable its on-board modulation by setting the range parameter to zero.

2. In the Sequence editor, locate to where the filter sweep should begin. In the master fader's track lane, click the Track Settings pop-up, choose Insert / Multimode Filter / Center Freq and click in the track to write the automation event. Don't worry too much about the exact frequency value of the event you're writing, because...

3. Precise automation values (and locations) can be entered numerically. With the breakpoint still selected, click on its value as displayed in the Event Info bar (DP4 and DP5) or Event Information palette (DP6) and type in the starting value of 20,000 (Hz), then hit return.

4. Now locate to where the filter should be fully closed. Click on the automation data line to write a new breakpoint and, as you did in the last step, enter the precise value of 200Hz numerically.

5. At the point where the filter should be fully opened once more, click to create another new breakpoint. For this one, enter a value of 20,000 again. The breakpoints are connected by smooth ramps, causing the filter to close and re-open smoothly (see screen at the start of this article).

For greater flexibility when entering and editing automation graphically, you can draw upon DP's huge data-editing power, using the Reshape Flavor pop-up in the Tools palette to shape your automation line into all kinds of parabolas, cyclical waveforms, or even random madness. See the DP column from June 2005, on the SOS web site, for more suggestions.

Also, as I mentioned above, you don't always have to work with a master fader. You could just as easily apply automated plug-ins to individual tracks or instruments, or submixed instrument 'stems'. For example, you could try routing every single track in your mix except vocals to an aux track. Automating a filter sweep on the aux track would then isolate the vocals and leave them starkly audible even when everything else was murky and muted. For that matter, you could have automated plug-ins working on individual tracks, stem mixes and master faders all in the same sequence, to really play around with the sense of scale and coherence of the mix. The sky (or, at least, the grunt of your processor) is most definitely the limit.

Soundbite Triggering With Nanosampler
You don't actually need MachFive or any other expensive add-on sampler to do the 'vinyl brake' effect described overleaf — DP5's bundled Nanosampler will do just as well. But for some bizarre reason Nanosampler can't handle split stereo files, so if you try to drag a stereo soundbite into its waveform window in DP5 you'll only get one of the channels loaded. Rather daft that DP's own sampler can't handle its native audio format, but there we are! This will probably be a thing of the past if you're using DP6 and working natively with its AIFF or BWAV (Broadcast WAV) interleaved audio formats, but for a workaround in DP5, select the soundbite you want to load into Nanosampler in the Soundbites window and export as an interleaved stereo file. Drag and drop this file from the Finder into Nanosampler. It will load in stereo, ready to use.
Going Off-line

For some effects it's essential, or helpful, to not work in real time, and to apply plug-ins as an 'off-line' process to a soundbite or selection within an audio track. For example, this is the only way to work with true reversed (backwards) audio. It's also useful for experimentation with plug-ins that operate somewhat randomly; you can just repeat the process until you get something you like, and then you've got it for good.

The quintessential off-line process is reversed audio, which simply can't be achieved in any other way. It can be a particularly sweet little piece of ear candy, and is easy to do. In this example, the last few beats of a drum fill are reversed.

Applying the Reverse plug-in to a 'freezed' section of a drum track.
Applying the Reverse plug-in to a 'freezed' section of a drum track.

With the drum track 'freezed' or bounced on to an audio track, select a region of it that corresponds to the last couple of beats of a fill before a new section. You could do this by dragging over the region with the I-beam tool, or with the crosshair pointer that appears when your mouse pointer hovers over the bottom quarter of a track lane. From the Audio menu, choose Audio Plug-ins and then Reverse. Click Apply in the little window that appears. Easy as that!

Obviously, the musical success of longer rhythmic and melodic phrases, when reversed, can be a bit uncertain unless they're carefully planned. So one way of retaining something of their original structure is to subdivide them into multiple soundbites, then reverse all those soundbites en masse. Taking the same drum fill from a moment ago, here's the alternative approach. First, select the scissors tool and manually cut around each visible beat. Or, if your audio has been beat-analysed, enable the beat grid (by selecting the blue tickbox at the top-right of the Sequence editor in DP5, or in the Snap Information palette in DP6) and simply drag over the soundbite with the scissors tool, to automatically make a series of precise, beat-based cuts.

Next, select all the resulting beat-long soundbites and apply the Reverse plug-in, as before. DP cleverly just reverses each individual soundbite, rather than reversing their order, and you get your drum fill as it was programmed, but with all the hits played backwards.

Another plug-in I love working with off-line is the Replicant beat mangler, by AudioDamage. It re-sequences audio according to various user-definable processes, but always with a degree of randomness. Using it off-line is a way of ensuring you produce something to your liking! As with Reverse, I just choose Replicant from my Audio Plug-Ins submenu, but then repeatedly apply it until I get an effect I really like.

Devious Means

If you're up for more of a challenge, you could try some effects that are achieved with a multi-step process involving both MIDI and audio. One is the 'vinyl brake' — as if a turntable's drive motor was turned off while it was playing your song. DP has no straightforward way to directly apply the drastic varispeed that is required. But it can be done in another way, using a sampler instrument such as MOTU's MachFive 2. You load the sampler with the section of audio you want to 'brake', trigger the sample via MIDI at the correct moment, and then use pitch-bend to drop the sample pitch:

1. Bounce your song to a new audio track, so that it's in your sequence as one long soundbite. Then instantiate your sampler on a new Instrument track, and create a MIDI track that drives it alongside.

2. Locate the point where you want to place the vinyl brake effect, and use the scissors tool to cut either side of it, to create a new soundbite.

3. Drag the soundbite into MachFive's keygroup editor, placing it with a root key of, say, C3. Set the MachFive part's Bend range to something suitably large, such as 36 semitones.

4. Now, in the MIDI track, use the pencil tool to write a new note event, with a pitch of C3, at exactly the location where the soundbite you created a moment ago begins. Make its duration as long as the soundbite, too.

5. Use the I-beam tool to drag a selection over the last two-thirds of the MIDI note, then from the Region menu choose Create Continuous Data.

6. In this dialogue box, select Pitch-bend, and enter values of 0 and -8192 (the minimum value) in the 'Change smoothly from' boxes. Set Minimum value and Minimum time changes to a value of 1, and finally hit Apply. This writes a lot of very smoothly graduated, downward pitch-bend events.

7. Finally, delete or mute the soundbite that you created in step 2. This is now replaced with its MIDI-triggered (and pitch-bent) counterpart. If the effect isn't quite right, try a different bend range, write the pitch-bend data later or earlier, or experiment with the curvature value in the Create Continuous Data dialogue.

Another combined MIDI/audio technique you might like to try is a little obscure, but subtly effective. It's another reversed audio effect, but it can give results that are smoother and not achievable in any other way. Here's a quick description of what it is and how it works. I'm applying it to a little piano break, but it sounds great on drums and almost any other MIDI source too.

First, make a precise selection of the MIDI events in the piano-track phrase to be treated. It can help if this begins and ends precisely on a beat. Now, from the Region menu, choose Retrograde. This reverses the order of the notes, so that they read the same backwards as they did forwards. Bounce or freeze this same region to a new audio track, and reverse the resulting soundbite. Finally, delete or mute the original MIDI events.

This process restores the correct order of events, but each individual event is heard backwards. It's a lot smoother and more reliable than bouncing first and then reversing every individual soundbite, and also works well for more sustained sounds. Sometimes you may need to tweak the soundbite's location to restore exact timing, but it's well worth the effort.

Respecting The Edit Grid
Using the edit grids can really assist you with various selections and edits. Their toggle switches are shown here in DP5 (top) and DP6. The DP6 screen grab is from a pre-release version, though, so might be a little different in the final release.
Using the edit grids can really assist you with various selections and edits. Their toggle switches are shown here in DP5 (top) and DP6. The DP6 screen grab is from a pre-release version, though, so might be a little different in the final release.
Using the edit grids can really assist you with various selections and edits. Their toggle switches are shown here in DP5 (top) and DP6. The DP6 screen grab is from a pre-release version, though, so might be a little different in the final release.
Many of the techniques described this month involve writing data or making selections in Sequence editor tracks. If it ever appears that you can't select or write where you want to, check to see whether the edit or beat grids are enabled. If they are, DP will only let you make selections to and from grid divisions, and you won't be able to write data between them either. But grids can also be your friends. When they're enabled, precise beat-based selections and placements are much easier to achieve, and dragging over a soundbite with the scissors tool, for example, will automatically make a series of beat-based cuts that could take a long time to do manually.
The edit-grid toggle buttons can be found in the top right-hand corner of the Sequence editor and Graphic editor in DP4 and DP5, and in DP6 they're located in the Snap Information palette. You can temporarily toggle their status by holding down the Apple key during editing actions.
Freak Out!

As many studio people have observed in the past, some of the very best effects can come from wild experimentation with signal routing and processing, or even unintended accidents, as you tweak settings in real time. If you like to work in this way, it's crucial to make sure that you're recording your experiments, as those mind-blowing sounds generated by delays, freezable reverbs and granular synthesis plug-ins are all too often gone in a flash.

One straightforward approach is to use a completely separate application to record your DP noodlings. Rogue Amoeba's Audio Hijack Pro is great for this, and any gems that it captures can easily be re-imported into DP, though they will probably require some editing and then 'spotting' into position.

If you've got a recent MOTU audio interface, there's another option: in the CueMix Console application there's a File menu option called 'Mix1 Return Includes Computer Output'. With this selected, you can choose 'Mix 1 1-2' as an input to a stereo audio track in DP, to record both the external signals coming into your interface and the output of DP and other applications. There is a potential for feedback, so for safety keep the audio track that is recording the 'interface mix' muted while it does so.

Tools Of The Trade

Virtually any plug-in can be useful in some way for the real-time and off-line treatments suggested this month. But in addition to those I've already mentioned, there are others that stand out as particularly powerful, interesting and colourful.

You can achieve super-saturated, pumping dynamics treatments with both the MOTU MasterWorks Compressor and the Limiter. The seemingly simple Chorus, Autopan and Tremolo can produce weird vibratos, shimmering stereo and rhythmic gate-like pulsations that all work great when used sparingly. Try the Echo and Delay plug-ins for gloriously weird tonal treatments when using short delay times and medium to high levels of feedback, especially if you automate the delay times.

Turning to third-party developers, you're spoilt for choice of unusual, 'out there' processors. The freeware MDSP LiveCut is another beat slicer capable of phenomenal effects, and worth the effort despite its inoperative bypass and weird off-line behaviour. Some of my favourite hard-to-categorise textural tools include the deceptively simple Audiodamage Vapor, Cycling 74's Hipno suite, dfx's Transverb (another freeware gem), PSP's Nitro and PSP84, and Audioease's RiverRun. For distortion and speaker effects, try out MDA's freeware Combo, iZotope Trash, or Audioease's amazing Speakerphone. Finally, for just plain weird, there's DP's own Ring Modulator and other frequency-based effects such as the freeware MadShifta (from http://bram.smartelectronix.com) and Ohmforce's Hematohm. 

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