I’m always looking for new ways to manipulate sound and create unique effects. The last few weeks I have been using Granular Synthesis to add a whole new level to my production. In this article I wanted to walk though what it is and how to use it.
What is Granular Synthesis
Granular Synthesis is a method by which sounds are broken into tiny grains which are then redistributed and reorganised to form other sounds. This way you can take any original sample and put it into a device that cuts it up into grains. Those grains can then be effected in different ways to create a new sound. Once you have the grains you can change their attack, release, randomize them (jitter), and more.
At low speeds of playback, the result is a kind of soundscape, often described as a cloud, that is manipulable in a manner unlike that for natural sound sampling or other synthesis techniques. At high speeds, the result is heard as a note or notes of a novel timbre. By varying the waveform, envelope, duration, spatial position, and density of the grains, many different sounds can be produced.
Think of taking any sound and being able to stretch it, repeat it, and add pitch changes on the fly. This is where Granular Synthesis Comes in.
What is a grain?
Just to make sure you get the building blocks of Granular Synthesis here is a definition of a grain.
A grain is a small piece of sonic data. In granular synthesis it will usually have a duration between 10 to 50 ms. The grain can be broken down into smaller components, the envelope and the contents. The envelope is used primarily so that there is no distortion and crunching noises at the beginning and end of the sample. The shape of the envelope though has a significant effect on the grain. The contents of the grain is audio. This can be derived from any source. Sine wave, square wave, audio sample, etc.
Granular Synthesis in Ableton Live
Since Granular Synthesis is just taking small section of a waveform and repeating it in unique ways you can use the Simpler in Ableton Live as a very simple and easy Granular Synthesizer.
Granted this just scratches the surface of what you can do with granular synthesis. I used this technique in a recent Free Instrument Effect for Risers. The video below will give you a quick run through of the effect. You can see how using the simpler you can get a granular synthesis effect out of it.
Download the file below.
More Advance Granular Synthesis In Live
If you want to truly dive into the full effect of granular synthesis I suggest this Max For Live Density and Pulsaret by Amazing Noises. The two Granular Synthesis devices for Ableton Live (Instrument and Fx), implements respectively a sound file granulator (wav,aiff or mp3) and live-buffer granulator. This device brings out the true and spectacular nature of Granular Synthesis.
This video will walk through what the device does and will also give you a good idea on the power of granular synthesis.
There is also a free granular synth for M4L made by the infamous Robert Henke. It’s Called Granulator II and is free to download off the ableton site. I personally like the depth of control and effects I can get from the Density more, but to try out granular synthesis you can grab the Granulator II.
Now keep in mind the idea of granular synthesis can be seen in many effects. In a lot of ways a delay is similar. It takes a signal, or a certain grain, every so often and repeats it. You can take that basic idea and add some deep principles of Granular Synthesis to get even stranger effects. The guys at Amazing Noises do a lot with that.
Overview of Granular Synthesis
This Article was a basic run through of what Granular Synthesis is and doing it in Ableton Live. Granular synthesis is an extremely powerful way to manipulation sounds and it makes it possible to adjust the speed, pitch, and character of that sound. This way you can take any original sound and manipulate it into endless new sound structures.
If there is a way you like using granular synthesis in your music then post a comment below, or link to some music you have made using the technique.