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Vari Well, Then

Sonar Tips & Techniques By Craig Anderton
Published June 2014

Recreating tape‑speed effects in Sonar X3.

Sonar doesn't have a variable speed control that affects an entire project — but with a few tricks, it can still do most of the common varispeed effects. We'll cover several options, but first let's define our terms.

The varispeed control on tape machines changed the pitch of a recording, but it also changed its duration: if you sped the tape up, the pitch became higher, the tempo faster, and the duration shorter. When you slowed the tape down, the pitch became lower, the tempo slower, and the duration longer. In the digital world, independent pitch and time stretching are possible, so you can, for example, raise the pitch while maintaining duration. It's difficult to do this without altering the fidelity, however, especially with significant stretching. Tape‑style stretching creates fewer artifacts and, for some applications, the pitch/time interdependence can be an advantage.

The Brighter/Darker Trick

Unlike tape varispeed, this technique ultimately preserves duration when changing pitch. In addition to changing timbre, it's also useful when you can't quite hit a high note, and works with other instruments as well — pitching acoustic guitar up gives a bright sound, while pitching power chords down can be great for metal. Here's how to do this technique in semitone increments:

  • Premix your tracks to a stereo mix by using the Tracks tab and selecting Bounce to Track(s). As this is just a scratch 'premix' track, go with the default bounce options.
  • Mute all the other tracks. The fastest method is to click the control bar's mute button, then unmute the premix.
  • Select the premix, and choose Process / Transpose. Tick the Transpose Audio box, choose ‑1 for the pitch change amount (or more for a more extreme effect), and Radius Mix for the type.
  • Click OK.
  • Play along with the premix while recording a new clip. Because duration isn't affected, you can start and stop the clip anywhere on the timeline.
  • When you're done, select the clip you just recorded and use Process / Transpose to transpose the clip up a semitone (or whatever amount you transposed down by in step 3).
  • Type A to open AudioSnap, verify that the offline Render Mode is the high‑quality Radius Mix algorithm, then bounce the transposed clip to itself to render.
  • Delete the premix and unmute the tracks.

Now your vocal (or whatever you recorded) is brightened up, with unchanged duration and in tune with your track — although the formant changes may make some EQ desirable. You can use the same process, but with the premix transposed up and the new recording transposed down, to get clips to sound darker.

Fine‑tuning Varispeed

A common technique in pop music (especially for background vocals) was slowing down the tape, recording a vocal singing along with the lower‑pitched track, then returning the speed to normal. The song would return to pitch, but the vocal would be sped up and have a brighter character due to the changed formants. Sonar can impart varispeed effects to clips with an accuracy of 1 cent over a +/‑ two‑octave range, by using the Loop Construction window:

  • Create a premix of the song as described above that starts at the beginning. Mute all other tracks.
  • Open the premix in the Loop Construction window.
  • Choose Clip, then enable stretching by clicking Stretch On/Off. Move the Threshold slider left to 0 percent so all the markers disappear.
  • The two right‑most fields adjust semitones and cents respectively to change the 'tape recorder' speed. Do not enable the Pitch button. Cents adjusts ±49 cents, which should be enough for many applications. If not, adjust semitones too. For example, if you need the pitch 70 cents sharp, set semitones to 1 and cents to ‑30.
  • After adjusting the pitch, create a track and record a new clip while monitoring the premix.
  • If you started recording anywhere other than the beginning, slip edit the new clip to the beginning, bounce the clip to itself to add this extra length, then open the clip in the Loop Construction window.
  • Repeat the third and fourth step, but this time adjust pitch the other way. For example, if the premix was set to ‑36 cents, set cents to +36.
  • Bounce the new clip to itself, and it will be at the correct pitch and tempo. You will need to trim the end as Sonar will still think this is a loop and repeat part of the beginning. Close the Loop Construction window; you can delete the premix.

This approach has other applications, such as when you want to speed up a whole mix. With tape, final mixes were often sped up to give a brisker tempo and brighter sound. Open your stereo mix in the Loop Construction window, speed up as desired, then render the clip to itself.

Another application is when overdubbing out‑of‑tune instruments. Say you've recorded a song, and it's time for the piano solo. You take your laptop and some mics over to the pianist's house — but the piano is a tiny bit sharp. With tape, you'd speed it up to match the tuning of the piano, record the piano, then return the tape's speed to normal. Although using tape would alter the timbre, with small tuning offsets this isn't significant. With Sonar you follow the same procedure described above, except you would speed up the premix and slow down the piano track.

Meet The Chipmunks

The octave‑higher 'chipmunk voice' effect was easy to do with tape, because you could usually slow down to half‑speed, sing along, then return to normal speed to transpose the vocals up an octave.

By not correcting for formant changes, using the transposition function by itself will do a pretty credible job if you simply transpose the vocal you want 'chipmunked' up an octave. But getting the 'authentic' effect of doubling the vibrato rate and tightening the phrasing takes a little more effort:

  • Create a premix of your tracks. Mute the other tracks.
  • Transpose the premix down 12 semitones with Process / Transpose. The premix will now sound fairly dreadful, but this step is necessary to achieve the octave‑down sound that happened when singing along with tape.
  • Count the number of measures in the premix. If needed, snap the clip to a measure boundary so you have an exact number of measures, then bounce the clip to itself to set the length.
  • Ctrl‑click the end of the premix, then drag it to exactly twice the length. Do this by doubling the number of measures, not just relying on the clip readout that shows the stretching percentage (for example, if there were 90 measures, you'd drag to the beginning of measure 181).
  • The clip will now be twice as long and sound nasty, so bounce the clip to itself to invoke the offline processing and improve the sound (this will take a while). The quality should be good enough for you to be able to sing along with it.
  • Record your vocal, and remember to enunciate and sing very slowly — it's going to come back twice as fast eventually.

You now have two options. One is to open the vocal clip in the Loop Construction window, as we did in the previous examples, but this time transpose it up 12 semitones (don't forget to slip‑edit the clip to the beginning and then bounce it). But if you want to 'play' the vocal, use the following procedure:

  • Split the vocal at the start. Discard whatever comes before, then choose Clips / Apply Trimming to the vocal.
  • Don't transpose the vocal up 12 semitones; instead, open up Session Drummer 3, and drag the clip onto the kick drum. Then switch to SD3's Mixer page, and change the kick drum Tune control to +12. This cuts the clip length in half and transposes it up an octave.
  • Trigger the drum when you want to bring in the vocal.

You can also use Dimension Pro or Rapture to transpose up an octave, but I'd like to thank Cakewalk forum member Scook for suggesting SD3 — it's the easiest instrument to use for this application.

Winding Down

While it's not quite possible to perform a true tape wind‑down effect (the audio won't come to a complete stop), you can do continuously variable speed effects, in real‑time and with physical control — which is great for sound design and general sonic insanity. Here's how:

  • Insert the Dimension Pro soft synth into your project.
  • Drag the clip you want to mangle into the Load Multisample field (just below the four element‑selection buttons).
  • Set the Bend Dn/Up parameters to 24 semitones for the most extreme effect.
  • Draw a MIDI note at C5 (or a different note if you want the clip to start off transposed) in Dimension Pro's piano roll view and extend the note for the clip's duration.

Your keyboard's pitch‑bend wheel will now do real‑time varispeed control over a four‑octave range (you can shift this range using the Transpose or Shift parameters as well). Invoke Lo‑Fi and other processing, and you have a sound designer's dream. Note that this technique also works in Rapture, but the pitch-bend range is limited in the both LE versions of both Rapture and Dimension Pro.  

Transpose lets you change the pitch of a clip without changing its duration.Here, an audio clip is being tuned up 36 cents in the Loop Construction window.Loading a clip into Dimension Pro and setting extreme pitch‑bend amounts provides continuously variable, real‑time varispeed effects by using your keyboard's pitch‑bend wheel.

Published June 2014

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