Beats, Bass, & Bliss - EMusician

Beats, Bass, & Bliss

Spectrasonics’ three virtual super-instruments, Atmosphere (Dream Synth Module), Stylus (Vinyl Groove Module), and Trilogy (Total Bass Module) have raised the bar for sample quality, realism, and musical expression. For this article, we’ll focus on power tips, improved customization, and getting even more bang for your not-so-virtual buck.
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Spectrasonics' three virtual super-instruments, Atmosphere (Dream Synth Module), Stylus (Vinyl Groove Module), and Trilogy (Total Bass Module), are out on the street, and word has it that EM readers have been rollicking in beats, bass, and bliss ever since. Developed by sound guru and Los Angeles session ace Eric Persing, and brought to you by his company, Spectrasonics, these comprehensive virtual instruments have served to raise the bar for sample quality, realism, and musical expression. Each module includes more than 3 GB of sample data and hundreds of diverse factory patches. But as Persing points out, “Customization is really where it's at. These instruments are merely a starting point for you to get creative and make your own patches and sounds.”

For this article, I'll assume that you already own and use at least one of these programs, and I'll focus on power tips, improved customization, and getting even more bang for your not-so-virtual buck. If you own all three instruments, perfect. Boot up your DAW host, connect your MIDI keyboard, and load up an instance of each module. Once you get through the main article, have a look at the three “Quick Tips” sidebars for even more inside information.

GENERALIZATIONS

Before I get into specific tricks about each instrument, here are a few general tips that apply to all of the Spectrasonics instruments.

Update is great

Visit the Spectrasonics Web site (www.spectrasonics.net) on a regular basis for updates, news, and bonus tips and tricks. At the time of this writing, Eric Persing was gearing up to record video tutorials for Atmosphere and Trilogy. The Stylus video is already online and is definitely worth downloading. Spectrasonics currently supports nine different host formats for each of the three plug-ins and offers free premium-level tech support for registered owners to boot.

Join the community

There's a healthy and active Yahoo users group for Spectrasonics instruments. It's not officially sponsored by Spectrasonics, but the participants are very knowledgeable and many great tips and ideas are exchanged there. Persing and the Spectrasonics staff often participate in the discussions, too. When you visit, be sure to check out the Files section, which includes a lot of useful downloads that end-users have created, including full context-sensitive Layer directories, utilities for various host environments, and much more.

Gimme room

If you own all three of these plug-ins, your hard drive might be squealing a bit at the sheer size (almost 10 GB!) of these instruments. To alleviate the pressure, you may want to consider transferring the goods to a second hard drive. (An iPod is a cool way to bring these instruments around in your pocket, as it will provide ample space for all three instruments.) Whatever secondary storage option you choose, Mac users will need to create an alias pointing to the DAT file in your Audio Units, MAS, RTAS, or VST folder (where your Spectrasonics plug-in resides).

Dats da life

Windows users can also move their DAT files thanks to Spectrasonics' downloadable application SpectraMove (available to registered users). This utility will assist you with the tricky Windows Registry updating process.

Patch and play

Spend your first couple of hours with the plug-ins going through the factory-made patches. As you discover a particularly interesting pair of sounds, save the patch. Patches are only around 300 to 500 KB, and they retain both your chosen name and the name of the original patch. That way, you can recall your favorite layers from the instrument's sample library and minimize your sound-design time.

Save me

Saving (and carefully naming) your patches is the key to personalizing your patch library. By creating subfolders (the manual calls this a “favorites list”), you can better categorize your sounds according to type. That will help you to zero in more quickly on the sound you're after. I typically make categories (folders) called “pads,” “leads,” and “strange,” but you might also add “percussive,” “filtered,” “soundfx,” or anything else you can dream up.

Reset

Control- (or Command-) clicking over any knob resets its value. That can be especially helpful when detuning Atmosphere or Trilogy layers. Alternatively, you can reset a patch you're unhappy with by using the Up and Down Scroll Arrows to reload the original version.

Automate

Lots of subtle expression and mixing possibilities are available, because all the plug-in platforms of the three instruments support MIDI-controller automation of the onscreen faders and knobs. Additionally, the latest Spectrasonics Audio Units update enables Logic 5 or 6 users to automate each parameter in the three modules directly or using the Logic Control surface (see Fig. 1). Audio Units is Apple's new OS X effects and instrument plug-in format.

Easy as A and B

When auditioning Trilogy or Atmosphere patches, take time to mute A and then B to listen to each layer on its own. That will help you learn what's in the core library of layers, since you can quickly mix and match any of the layer elements. You can create more than a million combinations per instrument using this common method. Pay especially close attention to Trilogy's B layers, which are chock-full of secondary bass-guitar noises such as string squeaks, rattles, and the all-important string release (the good kind). See the section on Trilogy in this article for more on this topic.

The missing Link

Beware when editing layers when the Link button is on (Atmosphere and Trilogy only). That forces A and B to accept all parameter changes. Link can, however, be very handy; for example, it can be especially useful when you want to quickly adjust attack, start, and release times to rapidly change the sound from a pad to a percussive sound or vice versa.

BEAT GARDEN

Offering more than 1,000 included loops, Stylus is more loop centered than its Spectrasonics cousins Atmosphere and Trilogy. It also allows you to load only one patch at a time. You can, however, take advantage of the thousands of one-shots that come with Stylus by loading additional instances of the plug-in for extra hits, fills, and layering support. For instance, you can create an incredibly flexible drum machine using one Stylus with a Kicks patch, one with a Snares & Toms, and one with a Hi-Hat menu.

You can load additional Stylus claps, snaps, effects, percussion, and more with relatively low CPU drain. These one-shots also work quite well when integrated with Stylus's loops and its mighty Zone Edit feature, which can act as a live, automatable, loop-tweaking tool. Here's how to get this done:

Load an instance of Stylus on track 1 of your DAW host. Open the Groove Control Stylus Breakbeat MIDI Files folder and locate the file called 120-Bosso Club a (you'll see the extension “.mid” if you have See Extensions enabled). Drag this MIDI file to the track corresponding with Stylus. Next load the patch called 120-Bosso Club a GC, which you'll find in the Breakbeat Groove Control/120-121 bpm folder.

Set playback to a four-bar loop and press Play. You should hear a cool Latin-rock-style brush groove. Click once on the Zone Edit button, which will glow blue. While the loop is playing, repeatedly move the Pan slider first right and then left. Let go every once in a while and watch the slider snap back into position. When the loop repeats, you will see the slider move automatically. Voilà! Miniautomation. Though this pseudoautomation technique will be limited to the length of the pattern (in this case, four bars), it is still a powerful trick.

Just for fun, grab and move the Fine and Coarse vertical pitch sliders in the same manner. Remember to let go occasionally. By now your beat should be percolating with panning and tuning changes. You can also use this technique with filter type, cutoff, resonance, Velocity, level, ADSR, and filter- and pan-modulation controls.

Another approach to using Zone Edit is to stop playback and edit individual Groove Control slices. For this example, load a fresh Groove Control loop and import the corresponding MIDI file into your sequencer. You will notice that each slice of the loop will be mapped across your keyboard but will vary in appearance depending on how many slices the loop contains.

Let's say that you would like to help anchor the groove by raising the volume of the kick drum occurring on the downbeat of measure 1 and measure 3. To do this, stop your sequencer and locate the first kick drum in the loop by auditioning your lowest keyboard keys. Once you hear the kick drum fire, activate Zone Edit and increase the Level slider (drag it to the right).

Now lower the Coarse pitch by a couple of semitones to add a little low end. Next, locate the slice firing on the downbeat of measure 3. Repeat the steps from above, then turn up the Level and lower the Coarse tuning by two semitones as well. If you have trouble finding a note you are looking for, click in your sequencer's Step Edit or Score window to determine which MIDI note corresponds to the sound you're after.

When you play back your groove, you should hear a lower, louder downbeat in measures 1 and 3. Using this technique, it would be easy to replace a snare or kick drum by grabbing each slice and turning its level all the way off (to the leftmost position). As an experiment, stop playback again and lower the volume of select slices one at a time at random intervals. The pattern will now sound more complex dynamically.

For one last trick, select a few hi-hat sounds (say G#1, A1, and B1) and activate a highpass filter for each one. Set the cutoff to around 5,000 Hz and the resonance to around 93. (Note: I am referring to the individual Filter, not the Master Filter section.) When the groove plays, you will hear syncopated chirpy highs.

PERCUSSION SECTION

To create the illusion of a percussionist improvising on the spot, load a Groove Control Perc Loop and its corresponding MIDI file, then make sure your Zone Edit is off. Turn on the individual HPF (highpass filter), and lower the cutoff to around 20 Hz. Now turn the First Modulation Source to Random and turn the Filter Modulation Depth knob all the way negative (or positive — it's up to you). When you play the loop, it will sound as if the conga player is jamming in real time. The modulation amount will determine whether the random accenting is subtle or dramatic — less will sound more realistic.

For a more complete percussion section, add three or four percussion loops (one cabasa, one bongo, and one cowbell) and repeat the steps for each instance. Results will vary because of the random factor, but you'll often produce hypnotic and strangely human-sounding material.

BASS IS THE PLACE

Trilogy unites the three kingdoms of low end: acoustic, electric, and synth bass. Its core library contains nearly every sound made by a bass guitar, double bass, or synth bass. You'll find DI and miked recordings as well as finger squeaks, rattles, buzzes, harmonics, slides, and note (string) releases. The possible combinations can make for some very unique sounds. Persing explains, “I didn't realize how important the release [of the finger off of the string] of the bass was. You can add that release to a synthesizer, say a Moog Taurus or SH-101, and create the illusion that the bass sound was played with a string.”

To do this, open an acoustic-bass patch such as Martin Acoustic Bass Guitar Full Range, then replace Layer A with a synth-bass waveform (such as one of the Minimoogs). You will need to adjust the volume of the release noise on Layer B to suit your taste. Notice also how the Velocity of your keystroke changes the sound of the release — the harder you hit it, the more rattle you get.

All of the Electric Basses in Trilogy were sampled through a direct box. Though that's great for getting a punchy and clean “studio”-type tone, you'll find that if you run Trilogy's Electrics through an amp, you can achieve a whole new range of authentic rock tones that often fit in a track even better. IK Multimedia's Amplitube works particularly well with Trilogy, as do Amp Farm from Line 6 and Nigel from the Mackie UAD-1 card. Better yet, try sending Trilogy out to a real bass amp and miking it up!

GOT LIVE

Trilogy is easily the most performance-oriented of the three Spectrasonics instruments. To take full advantage of the True Staccato patches, you will need a 76- or 88-key MIDI keyboard and a fair amount of practice. In Trilogy, you can dynamically affect your bass sound in several ways. For example, playing louder or softer triggers up to 12 different samples per key.

Also, if you place your hands three octaves apart and load any of the True Staccato patches, you will find sustaining bass samples (from Bb1 to A4) for your left hand to play, while your right hand can trigger staccato bass tones (from Bb4 on up). That allows you to eliminate the uninspired repeated-note “machine-gun” sound that often occurs when repeating the same sample on a single key and better simulate what a real bass player might play. Note that each True Staccato patch also features additional bass slides and effects samples in the lowest register of the keyboard beginning with Bь0 (A#0) and below.

NOT JUST FOR BASS

One surprise is that, although Spectrasonics does not promote it as such, Trilogy is a very capable Poly and Lead synth. That is because of the included raw waveforms from Moogs, ARPs, and Oberheims that you can program to create very fat analog pads and lead sounds.

To start experimenting with this idea, turn off Solo Mode and begin playing in higher ranges; also try playing chords. When you pan different multi-oscillator layers from different brands of synths, you'll get a rich combination that goes far beyond the idea of only a bass tone.

Be aware that for leads, not all the vintage synths were multisampled into their highest ranges, so you may experience some aliasing on really high notes (the samples are being stretched beyond their intended ranges). However, this can add a nice grit effect that you may find useful.

BLISS IN THE BOX

With more than a thousand possible synthesizer layers, Atmosphere is capable of 1 million possible synthesizer combinations (see Fig. 2). As if that weren't enough, each layer can be filtered, modulated, automated, and reinvented over and over again. Get to know these layers by studying Persing's patch programming and layer combinations. To see which layers make up a given patch before you load it, use the Layer display to scroll though the presets. For instance, if you go to Ambient/Bell Harmonics/Shivering Timbers, you will see that there are two layers — Steel Morphing and Outglassed. If you look at the very next patch, Castilia (directly below Shivering Timbers), you will see only a single layer named Castilia and a second empty layer. These single-layer patches give you room to add another sound.

When making your own sounds, start out by combining sounds in similar categories. For example, try pairing two Belltones, two Pads, or two Noises, and then get more adventurous as you get more comfortable with the library. Here are a few combinations that inspired me.

In Layer A, choose Pads/Airy Pads/Big and Slow Air/Big and Slow Air. For Layer B, load Pads/Airy Pads/Air Glass/Green Glass. The file Glassy_Eye.mp3, available at the EM Web site, uses this pad.

For a slightly warmer, more organic-sounding pad, try changing Layer B to Pads/Glassy Pads/PPG Warm Glass Pad/PPG Warm Glass Pad. You may also want to increase Layer B's amplitude-envelope's attack because this layer's default is higher than Layer A's. In this instance, I found that I wanted to hear the Big and Slow Air layer first. You should also lower the PPG in Layer B by an octave (to -12) using the Coarse tuning control. Note that other common pad intervals, such as a fifth below (-7) or an octave above (+12), sound excellent as well. You can hear this pad online in the MP3 files Warm_Glass and Warm_Glass_Low.

Now let's get an idea of what happens when you mix two dissimilar sounds by combining a Noise layer with a Belltone. For Layer A, select Noises/Morphing Noise/Epileptic Seizure/Epileptic Seizure; for Layer B Belltones/Plucked Airbell/Fairlight Ankluvox. Reduce the level and amplitude-envelope attack for Layer A. The resulting patch sounds like a science-fiction- or horror-movie melody tone. You can hear an example of this patch in the file Docking_Sequence.mp3.

To make this patch a little more practical, let's swap the Noise layer (Layer A) with Noises/Synth Noise/Prophet Noise/Prophet 5 X-Mod Noise. I like this one as is, but by increasing Layer B's cutoff frequency to about 5,000 Hz, you can quickly add an airy quality. If the breathy sound in Layer A is getting out of hand, try switching its filter to the highpass filter. That way you will still hear the airy hiss but will leave yourself some room in the lower register (for other instruments). Check out Twilight_Sequence.mp3 to hear this patch.

By applying filter and amplitude modulation, you can add flutterlike motion to your sound. For Layer A, increase the Filter Envelope Depth to about 3 o'clock and the Amp Mod level to high noon. Next, map both the Filter Mod and Amp Mod sources to Wheel/LFO 1. I chose LFO 1 since LFOs 1 and 2 are layer specific and better for flutter or vibrato-style effects because they restart the oscillation phase every time a Note On message is sent. Now as you play and roll your mod wheel, you will hear a vibrato effect. Adjust LFO 1's rate to match the tempo (or a subdivision of the rhythm) of your song.

For some more experimental combinations, try mixing a Vinyl layer such as Vinyl/Romeo Leslie/Romeo Leslie A in Layer A with a Noise layer like Noises/Percussive Noises/Secondary Strike/Secondary Solar Noise. For this particular combination, play the middle of your keyboard to hear how the raw layers are working together; also listen to the file Where_For_Art.mp3 at the EM site.

To radically change the timbre of the patch, flip each layer's filter (assign Layer A to HPF and Layer B to LP2). You will hear vinyl crackle come to life that was previously suppressed by the filter. Too busy-sounding? If so, maximize Layer A's Amp Mod depth and set the control to Alternate, and every other note in the layer will be cut out. Check out Romeo_Splash.mp3 to hear the effect.

WHERE DO I BEGIN?

As some EM readers will know, the attack portion of a sound is critical in determining its character. Many of the layers Persing has sampled and created are long, slowly evolving sounds. If you increase a sample's Start offset point, you can add urgency, attack, and other leadlike qualities to your sound (see Fig. 3). This is a great trick for rock and lead playing. Let's try a specific example by playing with the AMP ENV (Amplitude Envelope) section of your Atmosphere instrument. We will look at an extreme example for better understanding.

Load the patch called Mysterious Movement, found in the patch group Evolving Moods. Notice the gradual attack and bubbling synths. Now reduce the attack times to zero for both layers (The Motion of Sea Tides and Vorgan Swell). Next, increase the start time for both layers. The new sound has a more definitive attack and immediacy than the original.

MORPHEUS

Another tip for synth or bass blending that also works with Trilogy is to crossfade or morph one patch into another by using the Amplitude Modulation parameter. To do this, load two dissimilar layers — for example, a pad and a lead (found in the Solo layers). Next, activate the Link button (located between the A and B buttons). Go to the Modulation setting and crank the Amp knob all the way up. Then set Wheel as your Amp Mod source by opening the Source Selector pop-up menu. Now deactivate the Link button (to edit the layers independently) and click on the small Polarity LED light below the Amp knob. It should turn from blue (meaning positive) to yellow (negative). Check the other layer to make sure its light is blue.

As you play your patch and slowly move your mod wheel back and forth, you will hear Atmosphere gradually morph between the two layers. You may need to adjust each layer's filter and amplitude settings for optimal blend and check that no other modulation control is mapped to Wheel. Once you do this a couple of times, you will begin to see the possibilities that open up when you swap the polarity of other modulation values.

PITCH AND PATCH

Because Atmosphere has a generous four-octave pitch-modulation range, you can create some wild techno-style pitch fall-offs and glissandos by mapping the Filter Envelope to the Pitch Modulation control. For the moment, mute Layer B. Now turn the Pitch Modulation knob to its full position and set the modulation source to Filter Envelope (see Fig. 4). Turn the Pitch Modulation to +48 (full position), and then set the modulation source to Filter Envelope.

Make sure that the other three modulation settings are in the Off position in order to clearly hear the results. The Filter Envelope now controls how your layer's pitch change will be affected. Sustain will control the pitch itself, while Attack and Decay will control the length of time it takes to get to that pitch initially. Release determines how long the layer takes to descend back to the original pitch, and Velocity will change the slope of the Attack to Decay. Try reversing the Pitch Modulation's polarity LED to reverse the direction of the pitch.

ON YOUR OWN

Though I have touched on some creative ideas for working with each of the three Spectrasonics plug-ins, this article can serve only as the beginning. Most of the examples and ideas covered here can be expanded in many ways. Set aside some creative time to focus on getting to know each section of your plug-in(s) intimately and thoroughly; new ideas and inspiration will be yours when you do so. Spectrasonics has given you the raw (and the cooked) sample data and starter patches. Now make these instruments your own.

Former Seattle multitaskerDave Hill Jr.is composing, drumming, and writing in New York City. Listen to his music atwww.jettatura.com. His book is titled Ableton Live Power! (Muska & Lipman, 2003). Thanks to Eric Persing for his generous time and valuable instruction on this piece.

TRILOGY QUICK TIPS

Creating unusual patch combinations within Trilogy is the first step toward taming the massive Trilogy core library and customizing your own sounds. Here are a few ideas.

Mix an acoustic bass on Layer A and an electric-bass release noise on layer B, then adjust the volumes for each layer.

Mix two of the exact same waveform patches. Detune one layer by a few cents using the fine-tuning knob in order to get a fatter tone. Or use Coarse tuning to create layers that are separated by a fixed interval. Perfect fourths, fifths, and octaves are especially nice.

Load the low end of a Taurus pedal in Layer A and a Martin acoustic-bass release noise on Layer B. You may need to lower the synth's amplitude-envelope release value to eliminate any tail in the synth sample.

Use an upright- or electric-bass sample as an “attack helper” (transient) for a bass synth on Layer A and a synth bass on Layer B. Lower both the sustain and the release for Layer A.

Combine a Juno 60 suboscillator with an ARP Odyssey on the top. Though the ARP Odyssey has a lot of “pointy” character, it can lack bass-worthy depth.

To give a smooth fretless bass more character and low-end support, mix it with a Minimoog on Layer B.

ATMOSPHERE QUICK TIPS

To apply filter sweeps manually, set the Filter Modulation control source to your mod wheel and increase the modulation depth. Then move the wheel. Also try reversing the polarity by clicking on the LED to invert the way the modulation is applied — this works for Trilogy, too.

Because LFOs 1 and 2 are different for Layers A and B, and LFOs 3 and 4 are universal for the plug-in, keep one layer stable and one moving by using LFO 1 or 2. To create complementary motion, set a modulation source to LFO 3 and 4 for both layers, and then reverse the polarity for one of the layers.

Create gradual motion in pads by assigning LFOs as the source for Filter and Amp modulation. Use a depth between 10 and 20 and a rate around 4 Hz. You will also need to increase the Filter and Amp modulation depth.

To make “chopperlike” stuttering sounds, max out the LFO's rate and depth. Then choose that LFO as the source for amplitude or pan modulation. For softer “blades,” back off on the depth.

For smoother layer blending, assign Layers A and B to opposite filters. For instance, if you apply an HPF to Layer A, try using one of the lowpass filters (LP1, LP2, or LP3) on Layer B. Keep the resonance at about 9 o'clock, and then “sweep” the cutoff until you find the sweet spot. Increase resonance to taste.

The Key knob (filter-keyboard tracking amount) can help you brighten up darker or muted-sounding patches that are in the higher register of the keyboard.

STYLUS QUICK TIPS

When playing loops from Stylus's Groove Menus, you will have 61 different loops mapped to individual keys at the same tempo. By using Zone Edit, you can radically filter certain loops, which allows you to create a more interesting and cohesive palette of loops to mix together. To do this, play a key corresponding to a loop with a predominantly low frequency range. Then use one of Stylus's two LFOs to accentuate these lows even more. Next, use one of Stylus's highpass filters to eliminate the lows from a busy snare and hi-hat loop.

With Zone Edit on, increase the attack time of alternate loops in order to clean up the downbeat of the bar. Doing so will eliminate flamming or overemphasizing the first beat. Or you can lower the Envelope's sustain to force a secondary loop to get out of the way of a main loop. This “ducking and weaving” makes loop performances more musical and more fun to play.

To add more rhythmic possibilities to your Groove Menus, try pitching some loops up or down 12 semitones. A 12-semitone boost will force the loop to play at twice the Groove Menu's tempo (handy for fills), while 12 half steps below Groove Menu tempo will provide a cool half-time element.

Mac OS X users will find it helpful to place their Groove Control MIDI files folder on their Dock. To do that, drag the folder with both Perc and Breakbeat MIDI files to the right-hand side of the Dock (next to the Trash). You can then access the folder to drag-and-drop MIDI files into your host sequencer. A little-known OS X tip is that if you click and hold this folder in the Dock, a pop-up menu will open just the way it does in OS 9 and the Apple Menu!

Experiment with mixing and matching loops with Groove Control files. For a couple of cool combinations, try the MIDI file 114-Housebreak c.mid (found in Breakbeat MIDI Files/110-114/114-Housebreak C). Set the tempo to about 110 and load the Groove Control groove 100-Big J GC (found in Breakbeats Groove Control/100-104 BPM/100-Big J GC). To explore more grooves and different feels, press the patch Down Scroll Arrow. I found that 100_Bing Bang A GC sounds great, and after scrolling through another ten loops, I stumbled on 100-OBliged [sic] for another great groove. Be sure to try others until you find something that suits your taste. In general, using a straight and simple Groove Control MIDI beat is best for driving the more complex loops.