Tremolo (not to be confused with vibrato, which is what Fender amps call tremolo), was big in the 50s and 60s, especially in surf music—so it has a pretty stereotyped sound. But why be normal? Studio One’s X-Trem goes beyond what antique tremolos did, so this week’s Friday Tip delves into the cool rhythmic effects that X-Trem can create.
The biggest improvement in today’s tremolos is the sync-to-tempo function. One of my favorite techniques for EDM-type music is to insert two tremolos in series (Fig. 1).
Figure 1: These effects provide the sound in Audio Example 1. Note the automation track, which is varying the first X-Trem’s Depth parameter.
The first X-Trem runs at a fast rate, like 1/16th notes. Square wave modulation works well for this if you want a “chopped” sound, but I usually prefer sine waves, because they give a smoother, more pulsing effect. The second X-Trem runs at a slower rate. For example, if it syncs to half-notes, X-Trem lets through a string of pulses for a half-note, then attenuates the pulses for the next half-note. Using a sine wave for the second tremolo gives a rhythmic, pulsing sound that’s effective on big synth chords—check out the audio example.
X-Trem’s waveforms are the usual suspects: Triangle, Sine, Upward Sawtooth, and Square. But what if you want a downward sawtooth, a more exponential wave (Fig. 2), or an entirely off-the-wall waveform?
Figure 2: Let’s have a big cheer for X-Trem’s 16 Steps option.
This is where the 16 Steps option becomes the star (Fig. 2) because you can draw pretty much any waveform you want. It’s a particularly effective technique with longer notes because you can hear the changes distinctly.
But for me, the coolest part is X-Trem’s “Etch-a-Sketch” mode, because you can automate each step individually, choose X-Trem’s Automation Write, and go crazy. Just unfold X-Trem’s automation options, choose all the steps, add them to the track’s automation, and draw away (Fig. 3).
Figure 3: Drawing automated step changes in real-time takes X-Trem beyond “why be normal” into something that may be illegal in some states.
Of course, if you just draw kind of randomly, then really, all you’re doing is level automation. Where this option really comes into its own is when you have a basic waveform for one section, change a few steps in a different section and let that repeat, draw a different waveform for another section and let that repeat, and so on. Another application is trying out different waveforms as a song plays, and capturing the results as automation. If you particularly like a pattern, cut and paste the automation to use it repetitively.
And just think, we haven’t even gotten into X-Trem’s panning mode—similarly to its overachieving tremolo functions, the panning can do a lot more than just audio ping-pong effects. Hmmm…seems like another Friday Tip might be in order.
You like to mix with mastering processors in the Main bus to approximate the eventual mastered sound, but ultimately, you want to add (or update) an unprocessed file for serious mastering in the Project page. However, reality checks are tough. When you disable the master bus processors so you can hear the unprocessed sound you’ll be exporting, the level will usually change. So then you have to re-balance the levels, but you might not get them quite to where they were. And unfortunately, one of the biggest enemies of consistent mixing and mastering is varying monitoring levels. (Shameless plug alert: my book How to Create Compelling Mixes in Studio One, which is also available in Spanish, tells how to obtain consistent levels when mixing.)
Or, suppose you want to use the Tricomp or a similar “maximizing” program in the master bus. Although these can make a mix “pop,” there may be an unfair advantage if they make the music louder—after all, our brains tend to think that “louder is better.” The only way to get a realistic idea of how much difference the processor really makes is if you balance the processed and unprocessed levels so they’re the same.
Or, maybe you use the cool Sonarworks program to flatten your headphone or speaker’s response, so you can do more translatable mixes. But Sonarworks should be enabled only when monitoring; you don’t want to export a file with a correction curve applied. Bypassing the Sonarworks plug-in when updating the Project page, or exporting a master file, is essential. But in the heat of the creative moment, you might forget to do that, and then need to re-export.
The Pre-Main bus essentially doubles up the Main bus, to create an alternate destination for all your channels. The Pre-Main bus, whose output feeds the Main bus, serves as a “sandbox” for the Main bus. You can insert whatever processors you want into the Pre-Main bus for monitoring, without affecting what’s ultimately exported from the Main bus.
Here’s how it works.
Figure 1: The Pre-Main bus, outlined in white, has the Tricomp and Sonarworks plug-ins inserted. Note that all the channels have their outputs assigned to the Pre-Main bus.
With all channels selected, changing the output field for one channel changes the output field for all channels. Assign the outputs to the Main bus, play some music, and look at the Level Meter to check the LUFS reading.
Now assign the channel outputs to the Pre-Main bus. Again, observe the Level Meter in the Master bus. Adjust the Pre-Main bus’s level for the best level match when switching the output fields between the Main and Pre-Main bus. By matching the levels, you can be sure you’re listening to a fair comparison of the processed audio (the Pre-Main bus) and the unprocessed audio that will be exported from the Main bus.
The only caution is that when all your channels are selected, if you change a channel’s fader, the faders for all the channels will change. Sometimes, this is a good thing—if you experience “fader level creep” while mixing, instead of lowering the master fader, you can lower the channel levels. But you also need to be careful not to reflexively adjust a channel’s level, and end up adjusting all of them by mistake. Remember to click on the channel whose fader you want to adjust, before doing any editing.
Doubling up the Main bus can be really convenient when mixing—check it out when you want to audition processors in the master bus, but also, be able to do a quick reality check with the unprocessed sound to find out the difference any processors really make to the overall output.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Steve Cook, who devised a similar technique to accommodate using Sonarworks in Cakewalk, for providing the inspiration for this post.
Sometimes when you’re mixing, sounds conflict because they have too much energy in the same part of the spectrum. The usual solutions are to lower the level of the sound deemed less important, or use EQ to try to ensure that each sound carves out its own part of the spectrum. This week’s tip presents an entirely different solution. It’s the kind of tip where people will likely go “yeah, whatever…” until they run into this problem, try the tip, and find that amazingly enough, it works.
But we’ll also take advantage of this tip to describe how to make a simple FX Chain. FX Chains are an extremely powerful Studio One feature, so if you haven’t gotten into creating your own yet, this is a good project for getting started.
HOW IT WORKS
The Tightener creates four sharp, narrow notches in a Pro EQ, at frequencies related to the musical key. For example in the key of A, the notches are at 110 Hz, 220 Hz, 440 Hz, and 880 Hz. If you have, for example, a song in the key of A where the guitar conflicts with the piano, to have less piano and more guitar, insert the Tightener FX Chain for the key of A into the piano track, and increase the depth of the notches. Here’s how to create a Tightener FX Chain.
Figure 1: The filter settings for the key of A Tightener, with the notches set to maximum depth.
6. Ctrl+click on LF-Gain, LMF-Gain, MF-Gain, and HMF-Gain to select all four parameters. The FX Chain Editor should now look like Fig.
Figure 2: The FX Chain Editor shows the Pro EQ parameters used for the tightener.
Figure 3: Adjust one of the graphs so that the maximum value is 0, then copy and paste to the other graphs.
Figure 4: Don’t forget to store your FX Chains, so you can use them again.
And now you have a Tightener FX Chain! But you’ll want one for each key. It’s easy enough to do—type new frequencies into the four EQ bands, rename the control for the appropriate key, and then save the FX Chain under the name of the new key. For example, if you change the frequencies to 147 Hz, 294 Hz, 587 Hz, and 1175 Hz, you now have a key of D tightener. Here are the frequencies for all the keys (Fig. 5).
Figure 5: Frequencies for an octave’s worth of tighteners.
You need to be a little strategic about applying this FX Chain; it’s needed only when you want to help keep instruments from stepping on each other.
So that you can get started experimenting with this as easily as possible, all the Tightener FX Chains are available for download. After downloading, place them in the folder Studio One Songs and Projects\Presets\PreSonus\FX Chains\Tighteners, or wherever you specified the location for presets in Studio One > Options > Locations > User Data.
But even if you download them, try your hand at creating an FX Chain if you haven’t done so already. They’re really handy.
Summer may be over in the northern hemisphere, but we can still splash around. This is one of those “hiding in plain sight” kind of tips, but it’s pretty cool.
The premise: Sometimes you don’t want reverb all the time, so you kick up the send control to push something like a snare hit into the reverb for a quick reverb “splash” (anyone who’s listened to my music knows this is one of my favorite techniques). The reverb adds a dramatic emphasis to the rhythm, but is short enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome—listen to the audio example, which demos this technique with Studio One’s Crowish Acoustic Chorus 1 drum loop.
However, although this technique is great with drums, it also works well with rhythm guitar, hand percussion, synths, you name it… even kick works well in some songs. I’m not convinced about bass, but aside from that, this has a lot of uses.
Studio One offers an easy way to produce regular splashes automatically (like on the second and fourth beats of a measure, where an emphasizing element hits). Insert X-Trem before the reverb, select 16 Steps as the “waveform,” click Sync, and choose your rhythm. The screenshot shows Beats set to 1/2 so that the reverb splash happens on 2 and 4, which in the case of the audio example, adds reverb to the snare on 2, and to the closed high-hat on 4.
And that’s pretty much it. Because the reverb is in a bus, set Mix to 100%. The 480 Hall from Halls > Medium Halls is one of my faves for this application, but hey… use whatever ’verb puts a smile on your face.
Some people see “Pattern” and think “step sequencing—not useful for anything other than EDM.” This tip shows how to use Patterns in a rock drum context to add humanized percussion easily and effectively.
First, let’s subject ourselves to a 16th-note pattern of shaker hits, which is the kind of sound that shows why people don’t like step sequencers. Someone who would use this in a musical context is either not a nice person, or perhaps a pharmaceutical company executive who wants to increase sales of headache remedies.
Let’s start improving matters by copying the shaker to two more pads, and creating some sonic variations.
One copy is transposed down two semitones, and has a shorter decay. The other is transposed down three semitones. All three have slightly different filter settings. By alternating the different sounds, we have something that’s better. Well, at least slightly better.
Let’s make it a lot better. We’ll make sure the original shaker sound hits at maximum velocity on every beat to establish a rhythm.
The second row uses a different shaker sound. Because this is a busier part, we’ll create some velocity variations.
Let’s also introduce some repeats so that two of the hits “stutter” a little bit.
However having repeats happen the same way every time doesn’t sound very realistic, and this is where the Pattern’s coolest feature (well, at least in my opinion) comes into play—Probability. The notes with repeats have a fairly low probability, so they’ll show up from time to time but not overstay their welcome. A few of the other notes have lower probability as well. Also, there’s some added swing—not only are Patterns not just for EDM, swing isn’t only for hip-hop.
Now we have a much more interesting shaker part.
If this is too inconsistent for you, it’s easy to make the velocity more similar, increase probabilities…whatever. And of course, we can create variations on these Patterns, make a few changes here and there, and have them sound similar yet different throughout the song.
Thankfully, Patterns don’t have to sound repetitive and boring…unless of course you want them to sound repetitive or boring. But that’s a whole other topic.
Studio One’s Phaser is quite sophisticated, especially because you can set the number of stages from 2 to 20. This can emulate many classic phasers, as well as go beyond what was done with typical analog phase shifters. So why do we need yet another phase shifter?
As explained last week, a phaser’s response is like an EQ with multiple notches, because a pair of phase shift stages produces one notch. So for example, if you set Studio One’s Phaser to 8 stages, it produces four notches. The Customizable Phaser differs from standard phasers because every filter stage can be either a notch or peak, to any degree you want. Mixing resonant peaks in with notches produces a sound that recalls a phase shifter, but has a uniquely resonant quality.
Again like last week, the Pro EQ is the star of the show. The five parametric stages are spaced an octave apart and cover a four-octave range. The trick is having a single Frequency control alter all five stages simultaneously… here’s how.
Although there’s a downloadable preset, delving into how this effect works is instructive. Mapping a control panel knob to a stage’s gain control is easy; open up the control panel to access the Macro Controls Mapping, and for the five Gain knobs, chose the respective Gain parameter as a target. I limited the knob’s range to -24 dB and +18 dB, because a +24 dB peak can be too much gain. After adjusting one knob as desired, copy the graph and paste it into the graph for the other knobs. Map Q similarly; a range of 4 to 16 works well.
Mapping and offsetting multiple parameters from a single knob is a little more difficult. Start by pinning both the Pro EQ and the Macro Controls Mapping windows. I chose the initial frequencies for the five stages as 75, 150, 300, 600, and 1200 Hz. For the Knob 1 macro, add each stage’s Frequency control as a target.
Suppose you want to map the LF-Frequency target. Set the Frequency knob full counter-clockwise, click on the target’s graph, and while looking at the LF Freq knob on the Pro EQ, adjust the graph’s low node so that the LF Freq knob is at 75 Hz (or thereabouts). Now turn the Freq control fully clockwise, and set the graph’s high node four octaves higher (1.2 kHz) according to the LF Freq knob.
Proceed to the next filter Freq knob and use the same general procedure. For example for the LMF stage, the initial frequency would be 150 Hz, and the highest frequency would be 2.4 kHz. Continue mapping the remaining stages until all the filters cover the desired range when you move the Frequency control.
You’ll also note the Low Cut control is mapped to a knob that covers the range of 20 Hz to 1 kHz. Use this if the signal becomes too “boomy” with the frequency control set to a lower range.
With all the Gain controls set to minimum and a fairly sharp Q, you have the equivalent of a 10-stage phaser. Now try increasing the LMF and HMF gains to around 8 or 9 dB—you’ll hear an immediate difference in the sound. Vary the Q for even more variations. You’ll find that between the Q and Gain controls, it’s possible to obtain phase-shifter sounds, but more importantly, you’ll be able to dial in combinations of resonant peaks and notches that aren’t quite like anything you’ve heard before. Ready for a new phase in phaser sounds? Check out this FX Chain.
Sometimes it seems that certain recorded sounds, like acoustic guitar attacks and percussion, just don’t have the “sparkle” you hear when they’re playing live. The Sparkler is a sophisticated brightening FX Chain that adds definition—without treble equalization.
The Sparkler is a parallel effect. Referring to the FX Chain structure, a Splitter in normal mode creates a dry path through the Mixtool. This increases the level by 6 dB to compensate for the volume drop that occurs when bypassing an FX Chain where one of the splits contributes no significant level. The other split goes to the Sparkler effect, which consists of the Pro EQ, Redlight Dist, and Dual Pan.
How it works. First, the signal goes through the Pro EQ, set for a steep (48 dB/octave) high-pass filter that leaves only the very highest frequencies intact. The Low Cutoff control varies the cutoff from 7.6 kHz to 12.5 kHz. The Redlight Dist synthesizes harmonics from those high frequencies. (Even though it has a High Freq control, that’s not drastic enough a cutoff—hence the Pro EQ.) The Soft/Hard control chooses between 1 or 2 distortion stages; stage 1 is my preference because it sounds more natural, but people with anger management issues might prefer 2 stages, which gives a nastier, more aggressive sound.
The Amount control sets the Redlight Dist output, which determines how much Sparkle gets added in parallel with the main signal. Use the Sparkle Bypass button to compare the sound with and without the Sparkle effect.
The reason for the Dual Pan module requires some explanation. The Sparkle FX Chain is intended for individual tracks, buses, and even master mixes when used subtly. Highs are very directional, so if with a bus or master there’s a trebly instrument mixed off to one side, like tambourine, the Sparkle effect can “tilt” the image toward the channel with more highs. The Center Highs control, when turned clockwise, brings the Left and Right “sparkle” channels more to center until when fully clockwise, the highs for both channels are centered.
Applying the Sparkle. To learn that the Sparkle effect does, it’s best to listen to the effect by itself and manipulate the controls to hear the results. Unfortunately you can’t assign FX Chain controls to Splitter parameters, so if you want to hear the Sparkle sound in isolation, go into the FX Chain and bring down the post-Mixtool level control all the way. As you tweak the Sparkle sound in isolation, grab only the highest audible frequencies, and avoid harsh distortion—you want just a hint of breakup, and only at the highest frequencies.
When using the Sparkle effect in context with a track of bus, start with the Amount control at minimum, and bring it up slowly. Use the Bypass button for a reality check—you want just a subtle brightening, not highs that hit you over the head and make dogs run away in panic. It takes a little effort to master what this effect can do, and it’s not something you want to use all the time. But when used properly, it can really add—well, sparkle—to tracks that need it.