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Transforming Your Audio Into Ambient Effects

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If you have never delved into the world of sound design, the total transformation of a sound may seem a little ambitious but it's really not as difficult as you may think. Any sound design session is really just a journey made up of several steps, in this session we'll be turning a simple vocal phrase into an ambient sound scape.

Obviously the possibilities here are almost infinite, this tutorial simply demonstrates one way to go about manipulating your audio. You can try this with any sound and literally any form of processing. Hopefully this tutorial will just get you in the right mind set to produce your own sonic creations.

Step 1: Choose a Sound to Process

The truth is you can use just about any piece of audio to create a atmospheric back drop effect but I tend to find that organic sounds with fewer dynamics work best. Wind instruments, vocals and string samples are amongst the sounds that I’ve found to be most useable.

In this case I’ve chosen a vocal phrase from Apple’s ‘Voices’ loop library. When following this tutorial try using a vocal phrase from your own library or better still record your own voice!

The original vocal we’ll be using.

The untreated vocal plays back.

Step 2: Time and Pitch Alterations

I find that when you are transforming a sound a great place to start is with pitch and/or time editing. In this case I want the vocal to become a long drawn out atmosphere and one of the best ways to achieve this effect is to use time stretching.

Any DAW that's worth it’s salt will feature some form of time stretching, so you should be able to perform this step regardless of the software you are using, so don’t worry if you are using Cubase, Record or Ableton Live they all have time manipulation features.

As you may of guessed by now I am using Logic to twist my audio here and time stretching can generally be done one of two ways in Logic’s environment. You can opt of the more traditional ‘Time and Pitch Machine’ that is found in the audio editor, or go for the more elegant ‘in line’ solution.

The ‘Time and Pitch’ Machine does carry the added ability to manipulate your audio’s pitch as well as it’s duration and will also offer more editing options when working in either area but I often find the more straight forward approach of the in line editing system more attractive.

In Logic you can simply grab the vocal part hit ‘Alt’ and drag the end of the clip to your desired location. The audio will then be stretched (or compressed) to the chosen length. I like to drag it to a set length of maybe 8 or 16 bars. This usually gives you a great drawn out, trippy effect.

In this case I stretched the whole vocal to around 16 bars in length, cropped the first section and stretched it again. As you can hear our vocal is now very different.

The vocal is stretched, trimmed and faded.

The stretched and trimmed vocal in action.

Step 3: Distortion and Saturation

Next up I generally like to apply some form of distortion to my audio. I find this adds a certain edge and will often introduce interesting harmonics to proceedings. How far you go with the distortion you use is of course up to you. If the track you are working is pretty full on then you can use an actual distortion effect but in most cases I find that saturation is enough to produce the effects I need.

Here I have used Logic’s Bitcrusher plug-in to not only apply some soft saturation and clipping but I have also reduced the bit depth to 12 bit. This goes one step further and makes the sound that little bit edgier.

The Bitcrusher settings used.

The audio with some saturation applied.

Step 4: Modulation Effects and Filtering

With our sound crunched up a little let’s start to think about some actual effects processing. First up I like to apply some rich modulation based effects to the mix. Even something as subtle as a stereo chorus or flanger can make a real difference to the overall texture of your ambient effect.

Here I have used Logic’s Ensemble plug-in to add width and depth to the sound and add a certain richness that no other effects are capable of. I you prefer something a little more intense I would suggest trying a phaser or ring modulator at this point.

Logic’s Ensemble plug-in does it’s thing.

The audio with some high pass filter and chorus.

Step 5: Add Ambience with Reverb and Delay

The final tsp is to add some ambience and further depth to our sound scape. As you can hear things are already sounding pretty good but adding either reverb or delay to the sound will not only expand the the space it sits in but also smooth out any irregularities or transitions.

I decided to opt for both a bit of delay and reverb in this case and as you can hear the end of the sample is now much smoother and the whole thing has taken on a much more spacious and luxurious feel. This will really pay off when the sound comes to an end in your project.

Delay and reverb are applied.

The delay and reverb in action.

As a final touch I added some modulated low pass filtering. This adds come dynamics and removes any harshness from the sound. Although the result is a little strange harmonically it is certainly very different from our original audio. Hopefully this demonstrates how far you can come in just a few moves.

The auto-filter settings.

The final treated audio.

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