I've worked on and written music for plenty of Hollywood movies and TV shows, including NCIS and Arrested Development. With so many episodes, so many storylines, and fast turnarounds, it's easy to get overwhelmed. So anything that can help you get the work done faster is a plus.
Therefore, I'm a huge fan of sample and loop libraries. Many of them let you achieve great sounding results on a decent budget, and especially nowadays, your options are pretty much limitless when it comes to the sound offerings. You can find anything from the highest quality samples of the world's best acoustic instruments to the most creative sound design patches you've ever heard. (If you haven’t yet, check out Splice!)
But there's also a potential problem you may encounter. If you've ever listened to a song and thought "Hey! I've used that instrument/loop before!" you're not alone. The truth is almost everyone uses the same synths and sample libraries. Each one of them comes with hundreds (or even thousands) of amazing preset patches, but sooner or later, you're still bound to hear someone use the patch that you used in a song.
So how do you make sure that you're not sounding like everybody else? Well, the true fun begins when you really start to play outside the box and create the unexpected and new.
In this article, I'm going to show you nine simple ways in which you can easily manipulate the same preset patches and instruments that you know to create unique sounds.
Screenshot of Splice sample pack
1. Add delays to acoustic instruments
One of the simpler effects that you can apply to give motion and increase the activity of an acoustic instrument without altering its original sound is by adding a delay plugin. Using the DDLY (Dynamic Delay) plugin, you can achieve some great activity.
Take a marimba for example. This isn't necessarily an instrument that you'd see frequently used in a pop song. Yet by adding a cool stereo delay to a simple part, you can take that same instrument and give it motion. Suddenly it sounds a little more like something that may have come out of your favorite synthesizer. Take a listen.
First, you'll hear the original unaltered marimba part
Then the same part using DDLY, finally adding in the groove
2. Create long reverb tails
Another fun way of creating slightly altered sounds is by applying a reverb with a long tail. Think big. Like a 14-second tail. In most cases, this would be considered way too much, but if used sparingly, this can create a pretty fun effect. Rather than setting it up as a send effect, we'll make it an insert on the track. And to make things truly interesting, let's take out the original source audio (called the "dry signal") and only use the processed reverberated signal (called the "wet signal"). Now you're starting to create some nice haunting sounds.
First, you'll hear four long single piano notes. Not very exciting
Next, you'll hear the same four notes, but this time with a very long reverb applied. Notice how each note actually seems more interesting now
Learn more about reverb in our guide: Reflecting on Reverb: What It Is and How to Use It.
3. Pitch instruments up/down
You'd be surprised by the cool sounds you can create just by pitching an instrument way out of its natural playing range. Take a Xylophone, for example. It's mostly a mid and high note based instrument with a playing range of F3-C7. So, it cannot play very low notes.
But what if you pitched the whole instrument down a couple octaves?
Suddenly you're using samples from higher octaves that are pitched down and slightly time-stretched by the sampler's engine to make them sound a couple octaves lower. This creates a whole new sound out of that same instrument. The more you change the pitch, the more those samples will get morphed and warped. And that's not a bad thing when your goal is to exactly create something new. When pitching an instrument up or down, I like to jump by octaves and see how each jump affects the sound.
Original sound at its original pitch
Same sound pitched down by one octave (12 steps)
Same sound pitched down by two octaves (24 steps)
4. Layer effects
Now that you already have three tricks up your sleeve, how about we start combining them to create something new? Let's take a sampled Cimbasso (a brass instrument that kinda sounds like a Trombone and a Tuba had a baby). By pitch shifting it, delaying it, and throwing on a reverb, I'm able to turn this classical instrument into a low “Waaaah” that actually sounds a bit synthy despite being a fully organic sound.
Pitched down one octave
Pitched down two octaves
Pitched down two octaves with a pulsing delay
Pitched down two octaves with a pulsing delay + reverb
5. Get crazy
Similarly to the step above, it's all about layering. But don't be afraid to take it further. Apply absurd amounts of layers upon layers to get something truly otherworldly sounding. In the following example, I turn a clav into a pad. Didn't think that was possible? Let's see how I did it. Hit play below and follow, as I create the sound. With each instance, you'll hear how I've added one new effect and how it affects the overall sound. By the end, I've applied so much, that the original clav is no longer recognizable in this new pad sounding instrument.
I start off with nothing but a simple clav with a little compression and EQ
Next, I added a stereo delay with some long feedback
The third time around, I cranked up the amount of wet signal (the delayed audio)
Then, I added a long 12-second reverb with a high amount of wet signal again
If that wasn't enough, I decided to repeat the process by adding yet another stereo delay on top of all of that (with a tiny EQ shaping to fix a problem frequency that was starting to stand out a bit much). Unlike the first delay (which was set to 16th notes and dotted 8ths), this one was set to a slower repetition pattern consisting of quarter notes and quarter note triplets
Still not crazy enough though. I inserted a very slow repetition tape delay (set to 1/2 note repetitions) and a high feedback (80%)
We're pretty much there! But since I want to use this as a pad, I'm going to automate the volume to do a fade-up. However, rather than doing it right away, I'll do it after a couple seconds. That way all the delays have some time to start creating that wall of airy sounding goodness. Layer that with a cool groove, some bass, and the haunted piano note that I created earlier and you're on your way to an awesome song
6. Wreck it!
This one is great if you're trying to create a rougher sound with a nice edge to it and something that sounds more aggressive. Run your sound through amps, distortion, and bit crushers. I can't count the number of shows where I was running strings through a guitar amp to give them bite. Trash 2 is a perfect companion for this. It lets you distort, wrangle, transform, and wreck any sound to your heart’s content.
The strings you hear in the first part are just raw, beautiful strings
The second half is exactly the same thing with one instance of Trash 2 on it to completely destroy the sound and make it aggressive beyond your wildest dreams (plus groove and bass added to complete the demo).
7. Use instruments in unexpected ways
This one is a bit trickier than some of the others when working with sampled instruments. But if you're recording live instruments, use the opportunity to break free and explore the dozens of unexpected sounds that each instrument can create. There are so many creative ways of using the same acoustic instruments in non-traditional ways.
Rather than playing a violin with a bow, how about strumming it like a guitar? And how about bowing a banjo instead of strumming it? How about tapping the body of a cello to create a percussive rhythm? Or plucking the strings of a piano?
The Piano Guys' re-imagined rendition of Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 – Prelude is a great example of all the different articulations and sounds you can achieve from one instrument. So get creative and find new ways to use different instruments.
8. Time stretch
Time stretching means making something playback faster or slower than originally recorded. This technique has been used for decades to create some truly unique effects. When you speed up a piece of audio, you can make things sound higher pitched, like chipmunks. On the other hand, slowing it down significantly will make it sound warped, very low sounding, and borderline diabolical.
The best example of intense time stretching I've ever heard was in Hans Zimmer's music to the film Inception. The entire film score is based on Edith Piaf's 1960 recording of "Non, je ne regrette rien," but slowed down by -70% to achieve a truly creative new sound. Take a listen:
9. Mix and match
The true magic begins to happen when you start to mix & match and layer the various effects to create new sounds. Take a listen to the following example and note all the different processing that went into morphing and changing the sound of this instrument. What started out as a Woodblock sounds nothing like one in the end.
Pitched Down One Octave
All of the above + Stereo Delay
All of the above + Bit Crusher
All of the above + Reverb
Example of how the final version can be used with a Groove
The whole point of this is to create something new. So it's very likely that you'll have to step outside of the box that outlines your comfort zone. And don't be afraid of that. You're going to venture into a new world of creative sound design, and by doing so, you'll no longer be a mere user, you'll be a true creator. So be bold, be brave, and be fearless when it comes to experimenting. Who knows what you may create?! I, for one, am definitely excited to hear what you make.