Creating guitar pads with Ableton Live's Grain Delay

Stretch out your audio using crossfaded and chopped slices, automatically
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If you grew up in a financially strapped family you may have experienced Hamburger Helper, a box of pasta and seasoning to which you add beef. Cheaper than meat, it stretches the budget by making a pound of chuck or flank go further, but grains being more fattening than meat, it sadly may also stretch family belts. Adding a different kind of grains to your pads can increase their girth as well, but fortunately, in the audio world this is often a good thing. Having stretched that simile to a breaking point, let’s begin at the beginning.

“Pad” can refer to a wash of sound that fills space behind a melody, or creates an ambience over a groove. Guitarists usually produce pads by swelling up the volume of a chord, using either the instrument’s volume control or a pedal, while running the sound through a delay or reverb effect. The new delay and reverb effects often offer a “shimmer” mode that adds pitch effects to the delay or reverb function. Players availing themselves of this sound can create lush, string-like pads.

Ableton Live does not include a shimmer option for its reverb or delay plugins, but it does offer a plugin called Grain Delay that can emulate these sounds, while adding a unique character. Grain Delay slices the input signal into tiny particles called “grains,” which are then individually delayed. Each grain can have a different pitch and you can randomize those pitches. For our purposes we want keep all the grains the same pitch within each instance of the plugin.

Using Grain Delay’s Pitch parameter, I have created one instance set to an octave up and another on a separate track set to an octave down. The size and duration of each grain are controlled by the Frequency parameter. I have found it best to set the frequency at around 15Hz to create an octave that is in tune. The Spray control randomly changes the delay time without changing the pitch. We will stick to a moderate value on the upper octave to smear the signal across time, creating an interesting diffusion effect, without descending into sonic chaos.

Fig. 1 The lower octave Grain Delay' the Feedback is at zero for maximum focus.

Fig. 1 The lower octave Grain Delay' the Feedback is at zero for maximum focus.

Feedback determines how much of the output signal returns to the delay line input. I dialed in a high feedback amount on the upper octave to create a more pronounced shimmer, but kept it minimal on the lower octave for better definition, as shown in Fig 1.

Fig. 2 The upper octave Grain Delay is EQed to bring out the high shimmer.

Fig. 2 The upper octave Grain Delay is EQed to bring out the high shimmer.

To make a massive pad, I installed three tracks and two effects returns in a live session. The guitar’s dry signal is sent directly to the master input from Track 1, and simultaneously to Tracks 2 and 3 (See Fig 2), where I have installed the two Grain Delays. The Grain Delay tracks are sent to the effects channels only. This helps hide any digital artifacts in the pitch shifting. In one return I have a huge, 22-second decay time reverb that I then feed into Live’s Filter delay for further spread. I am also running the upper octave Grain Delay through Live’s Auto Pan plugin to get some motion into the pad.

Another interesting way to create pads for your project is to record a single note through this setup and into a clip using Live’s Resampling input. You can then load it into Live’s Simpler or Sampler and play single notes or chords using an app like Jam Origin’s MIDI guitar.

There are now pedals that offer pitch shifted and granular delay, but no hardware yet quite like Live’s Grain Delay. My pad served up sparkling shimmer up top and Gregorian choir-like sounds down below.