Shift Yourself

Ableton Live Tips & Technique

Published in SOS November 2012
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Technique : Ableton Live Notes

We see why there's much more to Live's Frequency Shifter effect than meets the eye...

Len Sasso

If you've dismissed Live's Frequency Shifter as a one-trick pony (insert, play, wince and delete), you might want to have another listen. Frequency Shifter is capable of many subtle effects, such as rotary speaker simulation, phasing and drum enhancement, as well as the more typical other-worldly sounds. This month, we'll look at examples from both categories.

What Shifts?

1: The Operator's default settings are modified to create a sine-wave generator by deactivating oscillators B, C and D and selecting the parallel algorithm. (You can create a simple additive synth similar to a drawbar organ by activating the other oscillators and changing their tunings and levels to suit.) For this example, a Frequency Shifter is inserted after Operator with its frequency set to 110Hz to match A1 (the A in the second octave below Middle C). Manipulate the Frequency Shifter's Dry/Wet knob to hear the incoming sine wave (full left), the frequency-shifted sine wave (full right) or both (centred).1: The Operator's default settings are modified to create a sine-wave generator by deactivating oscillators B, C and D and selecting the parallel algorithm. (You can create a simple additive synth similar to a drawbar organ by activating the other oscillators and changing their tunings and levels to suit.) For this example, a Frequency Shifter is inserted after Operator with its frequency set to 110Hz to match A1 (the A in the second octave below Middle C). Manipulate the Frequency Shifter's Dry/Wet knob to hear the incoming sine wave (full left), the frequency-shifted sine wave (full right) or both (centred).

A good way to get a handle on what frequency shifting is all about is to apply it to a sine wave. To do this, insert an Operator instrument device on an empty track and edit the default settings, as shown in screen 1. Insert a Frequency Shifter after Operator and set its Frequency knob to 110Hz. Now play the 'A' notes from A1 (110Hz) to A5 (1760Hz), using the Dry/Wet knob to audition the dry, wet and mixed signal. For each note, Frequency Shifter creates a sine wave 110Hz higher than the incoming note's sine-wave frequency. This produces pitches respectively an octave (2:1), perfect fifth (3:2), major third (5:4), minor third (9:8) and major second (17:16) above the incoming notes. Bear in mind that, aside from the octaves, these intervals don't precisely match the notes in the equal-tempered scale.

Needless to say, the notes and the 110Hz frequency setting were chosen to produce these results — play other notes and you won't usually get harmonic intervals. Also, you only get harmonic relationships with sine-wave inputs; complex-waveform inputs result in multiple, harmonically unrelated, additional sine waves. In short, frequency shifters usually produce clangorous sounds. But before we get into the more-clangorous uses, there are some subtle applications (see screen 2 for ideas).

The Shifter De-clanged

2: These four Frequency Shifter panels show setups for rotating speaker, phaser, drum processor and bass enhancement effects.2: These four Frequency Shifter panels show setups for rotating speaker, phaser, drum processor and bass enhancement effects.

You can use Frequency Shifter's Spread control and Wide button for something akin to a rotating-speaker effect. To do this, adapt the setup from screen 1 to turn Operator into a simple drawbar organ by activating oscillators B, C and D, setting their Coarse knobs to 1, 2 and 3 and setting oscillator B's Fine knob to 500. Use their Level knobs to produce an organ sound you like. Now set Frequency Shifter's controls as follows:

  • Dry/Wet mix: 50 percent.
  • Frequency knob: 0Hz.
  • Wide button: on (the Fine knob is renamed Spread).
  • Spread knob: mapped to MIDI Mod Wheel with a range of 0 to 6.5 Hz.

The Spread knob gives a finer frequency range (plus or minus 500Hz) and the Wide button inverts the shift frequency for the right channel (right shifts down, while left shifts up). The low-frequency shifts (0 to 6.5 Hz) produce alternating cancellations in the left and right channels. The Mod Wheel both brings in and speeds up the rotation effect.

A small adjustment to the rotating-speaker setup gives you a phase-shifter-like effect. Reduce the Spread to 1Hz and add a sine-wave LFO with Amount around 1Hz and Rate at 0.5Hz. Also audition this effect with Wide turned off, both with and without the LFO.

When you're using synthesized drums or sampled drums without round-robin samples, you can employ a Frequency Shifter to produce slightly varying drum timbres. Start with a 100 percent Wet mix, ensure that Wide is turned off, and set both Frequency and Fine knobs to 0Hz. Now use the sample-and-hold LFO Shape (bottom of the drop-down menu) with an Amount of 50Hz and Width of 100 percent. Set the LFO to tempo-sync'ed mode (note-icon button) with a 16th-note rate. Each 16th note will now get a slight random frequency shift.

3: In this speech-processing setup, the frequency-shifted voice is delayed in the bottom chain while the dry speech passes through the top chain. The processed speech sounds as though it's coming from a bad PA system and is echoing through a stadium.3: In this speech-processing setup, the frequency-shifted voice is delayed in the bottom chain while the dry speech passes through the top chain. The processed speech sounds as though it's coming from a bad PA system and is echoing through a stadium.When your bass sound is a little too tame and not cutting through the mix, try adding a Frequency Shifter in Ring mode with frequency around 50Hz. Use a mostly dry mix (say, 20 percent), turn on the Drive button and adjust the Drive level to rough things up a little. Ring mode differs from Shift mode, in that it creates new sine waves on either side of incoming ones. These are called sidebands, and frequency shifting is often called single-sideband ring modulation.

In The Extreme

Speech processing is one area where more clangorous applications of frequency shifting shine. The effects range from deep, down-shifted, sci-fi voices to pinched, modulated, short-wave-like effects. For these, use a full-wet frequency shift in the range from -1 to 1kHz. I like to map MIDI notes C2 to C4 to the Frequency knob with that range, in which case C3 sets the shift to 0Hz, and each half-step changes the shift by 83.3Hz. For more action, try some LFO. To add even more variety, use Wide mode and map a different two-octave note range to the Spread knob. You can create a kind of stadium-speakers effect by following Frequency Shifter with a full-wet Simple Delay. Set one channel to a short delay (say, 100ms) and the other channel to a longer delay time, and then adjust feedback to taste. Then group Frequency Shifter and Simple Delay in one chain of an Audio Effect Rack and create an empty chain for the dry speech (see screen 3).

4: The sequenced bass line (top) is processed by Beat Repeat followed by Frequency Shifter. Automation silences Beat Repeat until the last bass note, which is repeated with a pitch decay. Frequency Shifter's Fine knob is also automated to contour the shifts of the repeats.4: The sequenced bass line (top) is processed by Beat Repeat followed by Frequency Shifter. Automation silences Beat Repeat until the last bass note, which is repeated with a pitch decay. Frequency Shifter's Fine knob is also automated to contour the shifts of the repeats.Noise and sound effects are excellent sources for creating risers, whooshes and pulsing effects using Frequency Shifter's LFO. (Operator is an easy source of noise: change oscillator A's waveform to White Noise in the screen 1 setup and contour the noise with Operator's Filter panel if desired.)

Frequency Shifter's LFO Amount is set in Hertz to reflect the maximum deviation from the combined Frequency and Fine settings. You can set the LFO rate in Hertz or in meter divisions synced to Live's tempo, and you get six LFO wave shapes to work with: sine, pulse, triangle, ramp up, ramp down and sample-and-hold. In Hertz mode, you can offset the waveform phase in the right and left channel, or you can increase the speed of the right-channel LFO by as much as 50 percent. In tempo-sync'ed mode, you can offset the waveform phases as well as shifting their start point.

Long-tailed percussion is another good place to start in creating sound effects:

  • Try 100Hz ring modulation, no LFO and a moderate Wet/Dry mix on a splash cymbal.
  • Process a roll on a mallet instrument with a couple of Frequency Shifters in series. Use a quarter-note sample-and-hold LFO for the first and a slow, unsync'ed pulse-wave LFO for the second. Start with neutral Frequency and Fine settings, and with LFO amounts below 100Hz.
  • On an ambient kick-drum, try a ramp-down, half-note LFO with a 10Hz shift in Wide mode.

One way to tone down extreme Frequency Shifter settings is to precede or follow Frequency Shifter with one of Live's filter- or time-based effects. I like to set these up on pre-send Return Tracks, which lets me apply them to more than one track and to control the dry amounts with the track faders. Two of my favourite effects for this are Auto Filter and Beat Repeat. I usually put the effects before Frequency Shifter, so that only the processed signal gets shifted, but also try inserting them after. Auto Filter's modulation options are key to the most interesting effects. For example, try feeding its envelope-follower's side-chain input from a kick-drum track, so that the kicks move the filter cutoff and, with it, the frequencies that get shifted.

With Beat Repeat, use Gate mode so that only the repeats get shifted, and use Beat Repeat's band-pass filter to limit the frequencies being repeated. You can also use Beat Repeat's Pitch and Pitch Decay controls to add contour.

Automation is a final thing to keep in mind: although it can be tedious to set up, you can often tame the more clangorous elements with automation envelopes applied to the Frequency or Fine knobs (see screen 4).    .


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