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Creating Custom Sample Textures

Tips & Tricks By Paul White
Published September 1996

Have you ever wished you could create strange, ethereal textures like the ones you hear on the best sample CDs? Paul White shows that it's not as difficult as it might seem.

Many of the sounds on sample CDs or CD‑ROMs such as Spectrasonics' Distorted Reality, or Ian Boddy's ambient sample collection, are so complex and evolving that you wonder how on earth they were created. The people who produce these CDs all have their own tricks and trade secrets, but the truth is that with relatively little equipment, plus a lot of patience, you too can create custom samples that nobody else will have.

The type of samples I'll be concentrating on in this article are the textural type which tend to be used as beds, breaks or intros rather than for playing chords or obviously musical parts. This makes keymapping easy, because in most cases, a single sample is mapped onto the whole keyboard — even though you'll probably only ever use it over an octave or so. If you need the ability to hold down a sustained pad, you'll need to loop the sounds, but with textural pads, a longish crossfade loop will generally do the trick.

The Ingredients

  • SYNTHS: The equipment lists on texture‑type sample CDs invariably feature a large number of synthesizers, but by combining the sounds from even a modest range of instruments, you can create quite startling sound textures of your own. Analogue synths are useful because of the ease with which sounds can be manipulated manually, but in the context of creating custom samples, a guitarist's wah pedal stuck on the end of a GM module can come pretty close. My personal favourite synth for creating weirdness is the Emu Morpheus, but the Kawai K1 is also capable of producing curious textures and atmospheric rhythms. The bottom line is that it doesn't matter too much what you have as a starting point — it's how you use and process it that really matters.
  • EFFECTS: Custom samples tend to rely heavily on effects, so a multi‑effects unit of some sort is essential. At the budget end, I like the original Alesis Quadraverb/Quadraverb Plus because it includes ring modulation (see box 'How Ring Modulation Works' for an explanation) and resonant chord programs. The now‑discontinued Boss SE50 and SE70 are two units which are also useful, as they both have a vocoder function, which can be an immensely powerful tool for welding two sounds together to create a new one. Cheap effects such as guitar pedals (particularly distortion boxes) are also useful allies in the battle against mundanity.

Going upmarket somewhat, those with access to a Lexicon PCM70 or PCM80 will find their high‑quality resonant programs useful, and there are numerous other Lexicon treatments that lend themselves to sample creation.

  • NATURAL SOUNDS: As a rule, samples from synthetic sources have a certain electronic sameness to them, so I like to add in natural sounds. Unpitched or vaguely‑pitched sounds such as bamboo chimes and rainsticks take on quite a different feel when you add effects, while heavily‑treated electric guitar can often produce a more organic result than a synthesizer. Everyday sounds such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners and power tools take on quite a different timbre when played back at different speeds — and don't forget the human voice.


Perhaps the easiest way to build up a sound texture is to record the parts onto tape, in layers, just as you would for a conventional multitrack recording. The choice of whether to add effects to the sounds as you go or to add all the effects in the mix is up to you; obviously, adding the effects last gives the greatest flexibility, but if you want to add different effects to each track, you may have to lay some effects to tape as you record. For sounds that need to be started in sync, it helps to trigger all your MIDI sources from a sequencer.

It's probably best to aim to get a minute or two of material onto your multitrack — that way you can pick the best bits to make up your loop. If you need to change the pitch of a natural sound by more than the varispeed range of your recorder, simply sample the sound into your sampler, play it back at the new pitch and record it back to tape. Similarly, if you want to reverse one of the sounds and you're not working with analogue multitracks (in which case you could simply turn the tape over), you could sample it, do a reverse sample operation and then record it back to tape.

If you're using a synth pad as the basis for your layer, the choice of pad will depend on whether you're creating a one‑shot sample, or whether you want something you can loop. With memory costs falling and modern samplers offering very long recording times, creating a 30‑second, stereo one‑shot sample is quite feasible, but if you want something you can loop indefinitely, keep in mind what will happen at the loop points. For example, if you include a slow downward filter sweep, it'll need to sweep back up again to the same timbre as it started at if the loop point is to be successful.

Everyday sounds such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners and power tools take on quite a different timbre when played back at different speeds.

One way of giving a shifting, evolving character to a sound is to layer two or more pad patches and then vary their levels so that they all take turns in being loudest. You could simply do this by moving the faders on your console, but it's more flexible to drive the synths from a sequencer and use Controller 7 (volume) information to modulate the levels. For example, if you have three pads going at once, you could create a triangular level modulation (like a very slow tremolo), using the graphic interface provided by most modern sequencers, or you could enter controller values manually. The same controller data could then be copied to the other two tracks, but with different delays, so that the mix between the three layers is constantly changing. The same techniques can be used to build panning into stereo samples.

By using sounds that have some timbral similarities, such as string pads and choirs, or voices and woodwind, you can create slow morph‑like effects, where the sound mutates from being predominantly string to predominantly choir, and then back. On top of this, you might get a real singer to sing a simple phrase or sustained note. Pseudo‑ethnic 'nonsense' languages are currently quite popular. Because you're aiming for a stand‑alone texture pad that you can play from one key, you can opt to either make everything play the same note, or you can create a chord. In the latter case, it's an idea to create both major and minor versions, which will give you more flexibility in the types of musical structure where you can use the sample.

You can often give a pad a more haunting sound by including bamboo chimes, muted bells, or other gentle percussion in the background, and even if these sound a bit routine when you first record them, you'll be surprised what changes you can make with effects. Used in the background, and soaked in reverb where appropriate, such sounds can really lift a sample out of the ordinary. Similarly, natural environmental sounds such as wind, rain, sea, running water, insect noises, birdsong, and so on, can all help create a mood.


As I said earlier, the electric guitar is a great source of sound. If you have a small practice amp, you could get your guitar to feed back on one note and then record that as part of your layer. Adding a little gentle, slow vibrato can help make the sound more human, and using lots of overdrive and/or compression should ensure that just about any guitar will feed back. Use your fingers to damp any strings not feeding back to make sure they don't join in; the third string is always a good bet for feedback effects. You might also like to experiment with chopping up the drone sounds using a gate triggered from a drum machine or similar rhythmic external source.

If you have an E‑bow (an electromagnetic bow that creates indefinite sustain on single notes), you'll find making controlled feedback drones far more predictable; by changing the tone controls on the guitar, amp or recording preamp, you can get a whole range of sounds, from soft flute‑like notes (or whale sounds using the vibrato arm), to harmonically rich, eastern‑sounding effects. Filter sweeps can be recreated using a simple wah pedal, though an old analogue synth with an external audio input, such as the Sequential Circuits Pro One is rather more versatile. Alternatively, a modern, stand‑alone MIDI‑controlled filter (such as those from Peavey, Waldorf, or Mutronics) offers creative potential plus the repeatability provided by MIDI control.

Effects & EQ

Having recorded your material, what can you do with it? The simplest effect is EQ — taking the top end off a digital pad can leave it far smoother and more musically useful. Guitar preamps with speaker simulators are also good for smoothing out sounds, and if you want to be more radical, you can process your recorded sounds through a fuzz box and then use EQ to shape whatever comes out!

In one of my own experiments, I layered eight different E‑bow sustained notes playing root, octaves and fifths, used a guitar preamp with a speaker simulator to smooth off the rough edges, and then added an effect from my Quadraverb, which combined chorus, stereo delay and a long reverb. The eerie chordal drone that resulted was surprisingly rich and dynamic — unlike synth chords, you can hear the various guitar notes drifting in phase — and because the level is nominally constant, it's also quite easy to achieve a seamless crossfade loop.

Samples from synthetic sources have a certain electronic sameness to them, so I like to add in natural sounds.

Where sounds are less even in level, a healthy dose of compression before sampling makes looping easier, and if there are just one or two elements in your layering scheme that are causing trouble, try compressing just these rather than the whole sample.

Shock Treatments

  • REVERB & ECHO: Long, grainy reverbs and dancing stereo echoes are often very effective in giving a sound an unearthly feel, and to really create a sense of distance, you can leave out the original sound altogether and just use the effects output. However, there's more to effects than reverb, chorus and delay. Only a few budget effects units include ring modulation; the Sony HRMP5, the Korg AX30G and the Alesis Quadraverb are some of those that do have it, and though the operation on the latter is fairly limited, it can still produce some unusual sci‑fi effects.
  • RESONATOR EFFECTS: The other Quadraverb effect I really like is the Resonator program, which comprises five delay lines, each with a very short delay time and variable feedback. With the feedback turned up to 99, the resonators ring whenever a percussive sound is played in, and the pitch of the ringing depends on the delay time set up. Now comes the interesting bit: the pitch of the resonators may be controlled via a MIDI keyboard so that, for example, a drum part would set the resonators ringing to sound like a chord of up to five notes. Subjectively, the result has much in common with the vocoder, another of my favourite toys. Any sound with a percussive element can be given a completely new character, and even harmonically rich pad sounds produce good results, with some notes being subdued and others rising mysteriously out of the background whenever they coincide with the resonator pitches. Drum or percussion loops also make good source material and you can play any MIDI note or chord you like to control the resonators — providing it doesn't have more notes than your effects unit has resonators. The Lexicon PCM70 and 80 also have Resonator programs.
  • VOCODERS: A vocoder can also be used to give one instrument the character of another. The usual example is modulating a keyboard pad using the human voice, but you can just as easily modulate drums using a harmonically‑rich keyboard pad or modulate one continuous sound with a completely different sound. A vocoder uses the frequency spectrum of one sound (the Modulator input) to filter the other (the Carrier input), so using a modulation source that changes over time produces the best results.
  • FLANGING: This is yet another common effect that works well in samples, because you can use it on selected layers of the sample to create movement. For example, over your basic evolving sound, you could add something like heavily delayed or reverbed wind chimes, shakers or oddball percussion, then flange the result to create movement. Long, bright reverbs work well with flangers, as there are plenty of harmonics to pick out.

Hard Disk Editing

Most professional sample authors use hard disk editing systems because they provide a convenient way of editing the basic sample before piping it into the sampler — a multitrack system with level automation offers the most flexibility in moving and mixing the various elements within a sound. However, even with a stereo audio editor, you can start with a two‑minute texture, decide which 30 seconds is best, select your loop points and even reverse the entire sound if you want to. Finally, the sample level can be given some overall EQ, if required, and then normalised to make the best use of the sampler's dynamic range. Similar facilities are available using 'Audio + MIDI' sequencers, though it's obviously best to use a system which saves the file in a format that can be transferred into your sampler digitally, either via MIDI (which is painfully slow), or via SCSI.

If you don't have access to a hard disk system, you can load the sample into your sampler via the analogue audio inputs — you won't lose much in the way of sound quality. It's usually best to mix samples onto DAT and then have a separate session for loading and editing the finished samples. Once in the sampler, you can decide what sort of attack to give the sample, apply dynamic filtering if your sampler has the capability, and optimise those loop points. Again, the pro would use a software sample editor to make the job easier, but providing you have a little patience, you can do all that needs to be done from the sampler's front panel.

Sounds Inspirational

As you can imagine, there are endless things to try, but layering natural with unnatural sounds, and then using effects to modify the basic character of the sound, is a good way to go. You don't need banks of synths or racks of effects — all that's required is a few basic bits of gear, a sampler, and plenty of imagination. Just remember not to include any copyright material in your own samples if you're looking for a commercial release. Instead, keep your ears open for unusual sounds — the gurgling from the back of the freezer, the creak of an iron gate, or the boom of a metal garage door. Even top film designers rely on everyday objects for their inspiration — the laser guns for Star Wars came from hitting a steel pylon support cable, not from a synth, while that famous TARDIS take‑off noise, familiar to all Doctor Who fans, started life as a key being run down a piano string! (If you call Assistant Editor Matt Bell, he'll probably be able to tell you whether it was a Yale or a Chubb key, and probably what the serial number was too!).

Circle Lines: How Ring Modulation Works

A ring modulator, so called because it was originally produced using a circuit composed of a ring of diodes, is a device that processes two input signals to produce a new signal corresponding to the sum and difference of the input frequencies. If you put in two sine waves, then you'd simply get two new pitches out, but if you used harmonically rich waveforms, you'd get a whole new spectrum of harmonics not related to the original input in any musical way. The classic example here is ring‑modulating the human voice with a 50 or 60Hz sine wave — the result is a Dalek. The Alesis Quadraverb has a built‑in sine wave oscillator which can be varied up to 300Hz, but unlike most ring modulators, there's independent control over the level of the sum signal and the difference signal. What you get out of a ring modulator is largely a matter of experiment, but percussion and bell sounds can be altered in drastic ways to create new noises that bear no resemblance at all to the original.