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Synthesising Sci-Fi Vehicle SFX - Creating Tones

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This post is part of a series called Synthesising Sci-Fi Vehicle SFX.
Quick Tip: Synthesising Sci-Fi Vehicle SFX - Sound Modulation Control
This post is part of a series called Top Sound Design Tuts.
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In this tutorial, I will be using the Malstrom synthesiser in Reason to create electronic tones that can be used while designing engine sounds for vehicles in the sci-fi genre of film and other video based media. The Malstrom synth is extremely versatile and its modulators are perfect for creating post production sound effects. The following example will demonstrate the starting point and fundamental structure of sound synthesis for a sci-fi vehicle: the tone, shape and character of the engine sound.

Step 1: Using the Malstrom

The Malstrom is a graintable synthesiser that uses a combination of granular and wavetable synthesis to produce sound. The wavetable element of the synths oscillators are ideal for producing sound effects of this nature, as the variation of tone and modulation adds a sense of realism to the synthesised sound.

For designing the engine sound of this sci-fi vehicle, I will be creating two layers: bottom and top. The bottom layer will contain all of the bass energy, being the main body of the synthesised sound; the top layer will add presence and more character to the overall tone. Firstly, create a Mixer and a Malstrom in the Reason rack and draw a one bar note as shown below.

Drawing the note clip

Step 2: Oscillator Setup

In Oscillator A, select the 'Saxophone' patch from the dropdown menu and reduce the Shift parameter of the oscillator to -48. Enable Oscillator B and select the 'Tibetan Monks' Patch from the dropdown menu. Adjust this oscillators Shift amount to -16 and change the Motion control to -34. Reduce the volume of Oscillator B for balance and then use the Cent controls to slightly detune both oscillators for a thicker sound. Finally, increase both the attack and release parameters in the ADSR section to shape the envelope of the sound. Experiment with the Shift and Motion controls on each oscillator to produce your own timbre.

The oscillator settings

Step 3: Filters and Shaping

To allow further control over the synthesised sound, we route each oscillator to its own, independent filter: a process known as parallel filtering. Temporarily disable Oscillator B and route Oscillator A to Filter A via the Shaper. Using the Low Pass Filter, adjust the Frequency position to 74 to reduce the higher frequencies of the sound. This will allow more space in the mix for the top layer that will be created later. Use the Shaper if you would like to drive the signal of Oscillator A before it reaches the filter. In this case, I have used a small amount of saturation to give the tone more character.

Enable Oscillator B again and route it to Filter B, select Band Pass as the filter type and adjust the Frequency position to 20. By using the Band Pass Filter, we reduce the range of audible sound to a narrow band of frequencies. In this case, the filter is used to focus on a low frequency position to raise the overall level of bass. Increase the Resonance parameter for more effect.

The filter and shaper settings

Step 4: Modulation

After the main tone of the bottom layer is shaped and filtered, we then use the modulators to control various aspects of both oscillators and other sections of the synth. The modulators in the Malstrom synth consist of all the standard LFO wave shapes as well as many other complex LFO curves that are very suitable for designing sound effects. In this example, I'll use the standard sine and triangle wave shapes to produce a pumping sound for the synthesised engine.

Select the second LFO wave shape in Modulator A, raise the Shift parameter in this section to 14 and increase the Rate control to 86. When playing back a sustained note over time, this modulation will cause both oscillators to shift in relation to the wave shape of Modulator A at quite a fast rate. This modulation completely transforms the tone into a moving, animated sound. To increase the realism of the engine effect, we use the second modulator to add variance to the already modulated sound.

In the Modulator B section, use the initial wave shape to modulate Oscillator B only by using the modulation target switch. Adjust the rate control to 52 and the volume parameter to -16. This subtle and slow change of the level of Oscillator B will create variation in the pumping and beating sound of the synthesised engine. By increasing the Modulation to Modulator A control, this subtle modulation will also control the intensity of the effect of Modulator A over both oscillators.

The modulation settings

Step 5: Layering and Processing

With the basic modulation of the bottom layer complete, the final step in the process is to synthesise a top layer that will enhance the overall character of the sound. For creating this layered sound, I will use an additional Malstrom synth in conjunction with a Combinator device. Right-click the original Malstrom synth and select 'Combine' from the dropdown menu.

Create a Line Mixer within the Combinator and reroute the connections to insert it before the Combinator device inputs. Then route the Malstrom to the first available inputs on the Line Mixer to complete the signal path. In the Arrangement section, move the MIDI clip from the Malstrom track to the Combinator track. This will allow both synths to be triggered via the same note track. You can now delete the Malstrom note track, while retaining the device in the rack.

Create a new Malstrom synth within the Combinator and select the 'Breath Voices' patch from the dropdown menu in Oscillator A and adjust the envelope in the ADSR section to match the settings of the original synth. Route the oscillator to Filter B and apply a Negative Comb Filter over the signal, adjusting the Frequency position to 70. Increase the Resonance control to intensify the Comb Filters effect, which results in enhanced higher frequencies filling out the top layer of the mix.

Route the signal to Filter A via the Shaper and apply a small amount of low pass filtering. Use Modulator B with a rate speed of 86 to apply similar modulation effects of the original synth to this additional layer. Reduce the Motion control in this section to -15 and the Volume control to -30, completing the layered effect.

Programming of the top layer synth

You can achieve balance between both layers by slightly reducing the level of this new synth using the Line Mixer. Insert a Scream Distortion device after the Line Mixer to process both signals together dynamically, creating a compressed and cohesive sound. In this example, I've used the Tape algorithm with subtle Damage and Compression settings. Finally, create a Chorus device to be used as a send effect through the Line Mixer and apply the effect to the top layer only. This will add more space to the higher tone and will help separate the two layers.

Processing the signals with dynamic and spacial effects


This example demonstrates the techniques and processes involved for creating a sci-fi engines fundamental tone, shape and character through synthesis. However, there are endless sounds to be achieved by experimenting with the different patches and settings available on the Malstrom.

I plan to follow up on this tutorial with a series of techniques for vehicle sound design including further sound modulation control using the Combinator, recording and mixing vehicle sounds with Reasons arrangement section and mixer as well as using additional sound effects to blend synthesised tones with recorded material.