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Sounds Unusual

February 1, 2010
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Most sound libraries furnish traditional instruments and loops in various popular musical styles. Many composers and arrangers want sounds that go beyond normal expectations, however. Whether you're recording hip-hop, house, avant-garde, experimental electronic or one of any number of other genres, you may be looking for offbeat sounds that stand out from the pack. Unless you have enough time on your hands to develop your own unique timbral vocabulary, you probably rely on commercial soundware for textural fodder. Fortunately, thanks to talented sound designers who are willing to share the fruits of their labors, lots of unusual sound libraries are available to suit your needs.

By their nature, sounds that qualify as unusual can be difficult to classify and come from many sources. Some are purely electronic and may result from the efforts of a skilled synthesist with a rich imagination and a thorough understanding of different types of synthesis and effects. Others may be field recordings of found sounds, often recordings of mechanical devices or environmental ambiences that can be used in a musical context. Still others are samples of hard-to-find musical instruments that are rarely heard by most people.

Although the most popular format for loop libraries and raw samples is WAV, the most popular format for sampler content recently is Native Instruments Kontakt. Kontakt's scripting gives sampled instruments new capabilities beyond just sample playback, such as the ability to emulate performance techniques by generating MIDI data in response to how you play. Several libraries surveyed here are geared toward additional platforms, including Ueberschall Liquid Player and ReFills for Propellerhead Reason. All of them comprise 24-bit, 44.1kHz recordings of the source material — a de facto standard that offers an acceptable balance of file size and audio quality — and one supplies 16-bit files as well.

We've selected 10 of the most unusual sound libraries we could find from a broad range of soundware developers. No matter what your musical interests, we hope you'll find something here that pushes your music over the edge.

Big Fish Audio

Fish Audio Found Percussion is just what it promises: percussion loops assembled from glass bottles, Styrofoam, foil plates—just about anything found sitting around the house.

Fish Audio Found Percussion is just what it promises: percussion loops assembled from glass bottles, Styrofoam, foil plates—just about anything found sitting around the house.

Found Percussion ($99.95, DVD, WAV/REX2/Apple Loops)

Found sounds are frequently applied as an antidote for tired percussion tracks, but they're rarely used to build them from the ground up. That's what Big Fish Audio (bigfishaudio.com) had in mind with Found Percussion, a 2.5GB collection of audio parsed into construction kits ranging from 49 bpm to 190 bpm. In addition to WAV files, you get Apple Loops and REX2 files, and the latter are easily installed as a Spectrasonics Stylus RMX user library. The sounds are not broken out as individual hits, but solo loops are provided for each sound, making it fairly easy to extract the sounds and build your own percussion kits.

The 85 construction kits are labeled by tempo and sometimes-enigmatic names, but inside, the individual loops (composite examples are also included) are named for their source: hair clipper, sandal slap, rag in water, kitchen sink and so on. Methods of exciting and distressing these found objects often vary within a loop, producing a combination of sounds that work nicely together when mapped to velocity layers of a sampler. Pulling together loops from different construction kits generally requires some groove-matching, but most DAWs now offer that (see Web Clip 1).

Bitword

Wavefront ($149, DVD, ReFill)

Wavefront, from sound designer Marc Van Bork of Bitword (bitword.com), is a Propellerhead Reason ReFill of sampler-based Combinators (combined devices) derived from a massive collection of multisampled analog and digital waveforms. The source material is not standard-fare acoustic instruments and vocals, but rather pads, textures, ambient sounds and effects from both field recordings and a variety of digital and analog electronic sources.

At the heart of the ReFill are roughly 1,300 Combinator patches with a similar structure: a mix of two or three multisamples in NN-19 samplers along with both send- and insert-effects processing. Those are spread across nine categories: pad, lead, bass, blip, ambient, noise, experimental, keys and hits. All the NN-19 patches are provided in categorized folders for hot-swapping in the Combinators. Collections of 36 ethereal, pulsating NN-XT sampler patches and 191 Redrum kits emphasize bent and mangled electronic percussion, giving you a toolkit for creating myriad rhythm beds to accompany the Combinators (see Web Clip 2). The off-the-rack sounds lean toward the electronic and experimental, but you can easily craft something to serve almost any purpose.

Haunted House Records

Electronic Critters (about $22, DVD, WAV)

Sound designer Stephen Haunt has pulled together a menagerie of children's toys, mutilated their innards in unspeakable electronic ways and recorded the results as Electronic Critters from Haunted House Records (hauntedhouserecords.co.uk). You get 1,000 16- and 24-bit WAV clips, 250 of which have additional DSP. The tortured toys include Tiger Electronics Furby (wordless vocals, bloops and bleeps), Playskool Major Morgan (modulated musical tones), Texas Instruments Speak & Spell (glitchy words and letters), Chicco Musical Insects (more electronic bleeps and tiny percussion), IQ Builders My Little Talking Computer (words and tonal sequences) and VTech Talk 'N Lights Radio (letters, glitches and tonal sequences).

It's easy to get lost in the novelty potential of Electronic Critters (see Web Clip 3), but a little searching reveals a lot of musically useful material, as well as interesting Foley and sound-effects fodder. Start by auditioning the DSP clips, then try applying your own radical processing to any of the clips — extreme time-stretching and pitch-shifting, granulation and resonator effects work well in this context. The collection includes 10 MP3 songs to illustrate its musical potential.

Impact Soundworks

Impact: Steel ($59, download, Kontakt/HALion/Giga)

What sounds would you expect from sampling a metal spring? If you guessed boing, you wouldn't be wrong, especially if you anticipated the resonant rattle afterward. Add the sounds of hitting and playing rolls on a pair of metal cylinders, striking a small metal cone, and scraping and beating on a big metal frame, and you'd have the five main patches in Impact: Steel, from the same team that created Sitar Nation: Impact Soundworks (impactsoundworks.com). The 384MB library is available only as a download, formatted either for Tascam GigaStudio or for Kontakt and Steinberg HALion.

All the sounds in this collection could probably be classified as found sounds, but Impact's imaginative sound designers got much more creative than simply hitting things and calling it a day (see Web Clip 4). The FX Patches, in particular, supply a veritable gold mine of clangorous sonorities, with three complete junk-metal ensembles that would give an Indonesian gamelan nightmares. The patch Bellowing Drone is both immense and spooky, and Buzzing Overtones makes a fantastic underpinning for dark metal ambience. All the programming is solid, with sufficient velocity-switching and round-robin sampling to avoid repetition, even when you trigger the same note repeatedly.

Loopmasters

Loopmasters Rise is a downloadble collection of noise effects from sound-design team Push Button Bang.

Loopmasters Rise is a downloadble collection of noise effects from sound-design team Push Button Bang.

Rise (about $30, download, WAV)

Rise, from British sound-design team Push Button Bang, starts out with noises — 540 of them. A variety of bangs, crashes, whooshes, Doppler effects, seamless loops and transitional elements are fashioned into highly processed events of various lengths, and although primarily atonal, many have a good bit of tonal content. You get raw WAV files along with patches, categorized by type, for a variety of popular samplers. The collection is available separately as an Ableton Live Pack, and that version is enhanced with 560 Live Instrument and Effects racks. Both versions are distributed by Loopmasters (loopmasters.com). The sampler patches map all sounds in a category across the keyboard, whereas the Live instruments each feature a single sound with enhanced processing and performance controls.

If you're wondering what all the noise is about, Rise was originally intended for builds, breaks and transitions to add emotional impact to dance and other rhythm-heavy genres. But that barely scratches the surface. You can also use its elements (either as-is or processed) as sound effects, as hits in electronic drum kits and to create sonic beds (see Web Clip 5).

New Atlantis Audio

Physical Therapy Volume 1: Mallet and Percussion ($19.99, download, ReFill)

Physical Therapy Volume 1: Mallet and Percussion is a ReFill for Propellerhead Reason from the sound designers at New Atlantis Audio (newatlantisaudio.com). It comprises 54 Combinators mixing physical-modeled mallet and percussion instruments, field recordings (birds, crickets and water) and evolving synthetic textures with extensive effects processing.

The library is quite flexible: You get Combinators with effects and step-sequencers crafted for each type of sound, Combinators (labeled Ensembles) that combine all three types, and individual Reason NN-19 and Redrum patches for all sound sources. Providing the source patches separately makes it a snap to remodel the Combinators with different sounds. The Combinator controls are cleverly mapped for maximum effect, and patches with an arpeggiator have a Freeze button that keeps mallet arpeggios running while letting you play the patch's pads and synths from your keyboard (see Web Clip 6).

Although the selection of field recordings is limited, the mix of those with mallets, percussion and evolving ambient textures gives Physical Therapy a tropical rainforest feel. For different atmospheres and additional leads and pads, check out New Atlantis Audio's Polar Elements ReFill ($39.98); these polar opposites are a great match.

Soniccouture

This odd-looking instrument is Le Cristal Baschet, which Soniccouture sampled in detail for the Kontakt-compatible Glass / Works collection. Like the same library''s glass armonica, this particular instrument belongs to rare-instrument specialist Thomas Bloch.

This odd-looking instrument is Le Cristal Baschet, which Soniccouture sampled in detail for the Kontakt-compatible Glass / Works collection. Like the same library''s glass armonica, this particular instrument belongs to rare-instrument specialist Thomas Bloch.

Glass/Works ($159, DVD or download, Kontakt)

Glass/Works is not a collection of found sounds — quite the contrary, it features three very hard-to-find musical instruments made of glass, collectively known as crystallophones. The one you've probably heard is the glass armonica invented by Benjamin Franklin. A series of glass bowls of increasing size are lined up on a rotating spindle turned by a footpedal, and the player rubs wet fingers on the rims to elicit a typically floating, ethereal tone. Soniccouture (soniccouture.com) gives you three variations from which to choose, each with two velocity levels and three round-robins.

Another musical instrument that's played with wet fingers is Le Cristal Baschet, a visually striking sound sculpture designed in 1952 by two French brothers with a knack for building odd instruments. Fifty-four chromatically tuned glass rods are attached to tuned metal blocks and use a large steel plate called the flame for amplification. Eleven Kontakt instruments offer a wide range of Cristal Baschet articulations ranging from percussive to sustained. You can select articulations on the fly using keyswitches, with flame parameters affecting the resonant sustain of the entire instrument (see Web Clip 7).

Avant-garde composer Harry Partch invented the third in this trio of sampled instruments in the 1950s. Cloud Chamber Bowls are made of cut sections of 12-gallon bottles (carboys) suspended from a large wooden frame. The bowls sampled for this collection were custom-made for Soniccouture. You can load either untuned or chromatically tuned versions, keyswitch between hard and soft mallets, and enable a sort of random arpeggiator called the Jammer to trigger patterns. Each note has 10 velocity levels and three round-robins. The result sounds like a cross between glass bells and slightly muffled wind chimes over a four-octave range.

Sony Creative Software

Pulse is the second collection of sounds designed by Richard Devine and Josh Kay for Sony Creative Software.

Pulse is the second collection of sounds designed by Richard Devine and Josh Kay for Sony Creative Software.

Pulse: Pure Analog Lifeforms ($39.95, CD, WAV)

Succeeding The Electronic Music Manuscript, Pulse is Richard Devine and Josh Kay's second collection of loops and samples for Sony Creative Software (sonycreativesoftware.com). Pulse supplies 545 MB of Acid-ready files in eight categories, with loops cataloged by the number of beats, the original tempo and, in a few instances, the root note. Sound sources include analog modular synths from the likes of Buchla, Cwejman, Doepfer and LiveWire Electronics, as well as a slew of soft synths, circuit-bent drum machines and field recordings, all processed with a variety of rackmount and software effects.

Working with the sounds in Pulse is a bit like getting a day pass to Devine's personal studio, with one of the world's most original sound designers supplying you with unique new timbres for your compositions. If way-out tones are what you're after, then you'll find some of the most off-the-wall sounds in the Experimental Artifacts, Micro FM Pulses and Psychic Drones folders. Other than a dozen Cloud Pads and the bass patterns in Low End Pleasure, the mostly abstract and experimental electronic sounds on this disc are like nothing you'll find elsewhere (see Web Clips 8 and 9).

Tonehammer

Mini ($79, download, Kontakt)

When it comes to crafting unusual sound libraries, Tonehammer (tonehammer.com) maintains a position at the top of the heap. Take the Mini collection, for instance: There's something about sounds with a fast attack and brief duration that adds punch and immediacy to tracks. Mini (also called Click) delivers the largest and most creatively assembled collection of high-frequency clicking sounds we've heard yet.

All the source material in Mini came from sampling objects you wouldn't normally consider musical: breaking branches, jingling coins and screws, opening and closing a Zippo lighter, knocking marbles together, counting on an abacus, snapping belts and tape measures, cracking Styrofoam, ripping paper — even eating chips and popping bubble wrap. And that's only the beginning. The two Pixel Kits are made of sounds so short that the longest is just four samples long, and in one kit, 74 samples total just more than 8 KB (see Web Clip 10). It takes a lot of very short samples to fill up the nearly 730 MB you get with Mini.

Not all of the sounds are so fleeting in nature, though. Electric Chair, for example, produces a kind of unearthly wailing that can't be described. In Kiss, the mod wheel pitch-shifts a simple smooch into something unrecognizable. Load some of the more heavily processed samples, and you have new dimensions of alternate reality that defy explanation.

Ueberschall

Ueberschall''s Score FX furnishes a distinctive compilation of sounds intended for enhancing soundtracks, but useful for any music that calls for unusual sounds.

Ueberschall''s Score FX furnishes a distinctive compilation of sounds intended for enhancing soundtracks, but useful for any music that calls for unusual sounds.

Score FX ($199.95, DVD, Liquid Player)

Score FX is one of Ueberschall's series of Liquid Instruments (distributed by Big Fish Audio, bigfishaudio.com), which allow you to graphically pitch-shift and time-stretch samples using technology developed by Celemony for Melodyne. Liquid Instruments require installing the included Liquid Player (Mac/Win), which runs stand-alone or as a plug-in.

Score FX's nearly 7 GB of content is divided into five categories: Accents, Beds, Construction Kits, Rhythm and Vocal Bits. Some sounds are obviously orchestral, some are purely electronic and many others effectively defy identification. Hundreds of phrases and loops are further classified by words suggesting moods they might convey.

With names such as Creepy, Disturbed, Howl, Notice Me, Panic, Piercing and Startle, Accents are probably the most unusual of the bunch. Close behind are Beds, which offer some of the same descriptors. Nineteen construction kits at tempos ranging from 83 bpm to 152 bpm are mostly groups of sound effects that fit together nicely and have names such as After the Battle, Last Day Alive and Where Are You Taking Me. The Rhythm loops are anything but traditional drum kits: Many are synthesized, and quite a few are processed ethnic percussion. Vocal Bits furnish a variety of multicultural melismata processed with effects. Virtually every sound in Score FX promises to give your tracks a distinctive edge (see Web Clip 11). If you want more, Score FX 2 should be available by the time you read this.


Veteran EM editors Geary Yelton and Len Sasso are quite capable of sounding unusual on their own, but a little assistance from sound libraries never hurts.

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