Sound Design Workshop: Xtreme DNA

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FIG. 1: Celemony Melodyne''s polyphonic analysis reveals hidden harmonic structure (Cmi11) in this ambient clip.

Celemony's new Direct Note Access (DNA) technology, available in the most recent Melodyne editor, opens a host of heretofore difficult sound-design processes. I'll discuss a few ways to stretch DNA beyond unraveling and remapping polyphonic material. Not surprisingly, it takes some effort to get worthwhile results, but the time is well spent.

The Blob

The heart of DNA is the new polyphonic note-detection algorithm. In Polyphonic mode, blobs can overlap in time, and each blob has its own complex frequency spectrum and fundamental pitch.

Selecting the Note Assignment tool at the far right of Melodyne Editor's toolbox switches to Note Assignment mode, revealing gray inactive blobs in addition to the orange active blobs shown in Edit mode. Inactive blobs represent spectral energy distributed among the active blobs. Activating an inactive blob (by double-clicking it) separates that energy from the other active blobs, allowing you to manipulate it in Edit mode. Conversely, deactivating a blob distributes its energy among the other active blobs. You can't audition the changes in Note Assignment mode, but affected blobs shrink and expand to give you some indication.

For sound-design purposes, you'll often want to activate blobs to change the sound of other blobs and then move or mute the newly activated blobs in Edit mode. I'll start with a simple example that reveals most of the relevant ideas.

Pulling Strings

Record the C two octaves below Middle C of a virtual or acoustic piano and then load the recording into the stand-alone Melodyne editor, where it will appear on the C2 line. Choose Polyphonic from the Algorithm menu to force Melodyne to re-analyze the note in Polyphonic mode. Select the Note Assignment tool. You'll see blobs, mostly inactive, for some of the lower harmonics: C3, G3, C4, E4, G4, A#4 and C5. If necessary, move the Crescent handle of the slider beneath the toolbox to the right to reveal more blobs. Moving it all the way right lets you even create blobs from clouds of spectral energy too dim for Melodyne to automatically interpret as blobs.

Activate all the harmonic blobs by double-clicking them, then select the Amplitude tool (F4) to return to Edit mode. Click and hold on each of the blobs to hear its contribution to the piano note (see Web Clip 1). Mute some blobs by double-clicking on them, then play the file to hear what's left. You can capture the results by simply saving the project as an audio file (see Web Clip 2).

Use this technique — applying the same process to each sample — to change the character of sampled instruments. Then use the new samples in a new instrument or in velocity, keyswitched or crossfaded layers.

Inside the Blob

At the other end of the spectrum, you can use Melodyne to process sounds it was never meant to handle. Any harmonically rich sound is fair game, and polyphonic analysis often reveals hard-to-hear harmonic structure. In Web Clip 3, I've started with a bubbly, ambient clip from Wave Alchemy SFX Collection 01 (see Fig. 1).

One of the quickest tricks is to export a MIDI file and then use that to create synthesized chords, arpeggios and melodies to use with the clip (see Web Clip 4). To make the MIDI file less busy, select all the blobs and click any of the note separators with the Note Separator tool (F5). That eliminates all the separators and results in longer MIDI notes.

Auditioning individual rows of blobs lets you pick out useful timbres from which to build melody or harmony parts. Click on the scale axis to select a row of blobs, use Edit > Select Special > Invert Note Selection to change the selection to all other blobs, and then double-click on any selected blob with the Amplitude tool to mute them all. Audition the remaining unmuted row, and if it has an interesting timbre, use the Note Separation and Pitch tools to create a melody. Then export the project as audio to mix in with the original clip (see Web Clip 5).

Len Sasso is associate editor of EM. For an earful, visit his Website,