Sound Design Tutorial: Lo-Fi Color – Adding Wooly Cassette Character to Soft Synths w/ Garrett McIndoe

In this sound design tutorial, Dubspot’s Garrett McIndoe shows us how to transform clean soft synth sounds into gritty Lo-Fi goodness with a cheap cassette tape recorder and Ableton Live. Our Sound Design Komplete Program starts soon in LA, NY, and Online, Enroll Now!

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Lo-Fi Color – How To Make Your Boring ITB Synths Sound More Syrupy and Dusty

Lo-Fi Color is an ongoing series in which we explore the sonic character of failures, errors, and uncertainties. If you’re an Ableton Live user with a Punk ethic, or you’re searching for a little bit of DIY grit – stay tuned for some easy anti-production techniques.

The sound or hardware instruments and analog recorders (and their undeniable charisma) have served to define the sound of some underground genres. The squeaky clean, hyper-digital production esthetic of Dubstep or Trap have been abandoned in some cases in favor of a more syrupy, wooly, or dusty sonic palette.

If you don’t have a Juno 60 running into an old four-track, but you’re looking for that effect, follow the steps below. Using a cheap cassette tape voice recorder, you can transform your predictable in-the-box synth into something that sounds like it was recorded in a garage back in 1988. In this quick tutorial, I’ll demonstrate what it takes to soak your Ableton Operator synth in syrupy, dusty sludge.

Before:

After:

What you’ll need to get started:

  • Studio Monitors

  • Audio Interface with Analog Inputs

  • Cassette Tape Voice Recorder

  • Blank Cassette Tape

  • Cable to connect tape recorder to your Audio Interface

The cassette recorder used in this demonstration is the Sony Clear Voice Recorder, which you can find on eBay for not much money. There are many other similar cassette recorders that will do the trick as well. Just look for something inexpensive that can record from a microphone. You’re looking for lo-fi sound here, so you don’t need anything fancy.

Step 1 – Choose a Synth Plugin and Record a Synth Line to a MIDI Track

Step1---Part-1

In this example, I created a particularly brittle-sounding pad preset using Live’s Operator and then recorded a 4 bar chord progression that repeats twice.

Step1---Part-2

Here is what it sounds like:

Step 2 – Hold the Tape Recorder in Front of Your Studio Monitor and Hit Record

Once the tape begins recording, wait a few seconds to allow the cassette to get up to speed. When ready, playback your sounds in Live and record the full MIDI pattern.

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*Note – You can place the tape recorder as close to or as far away from your monitor as you like. Just note that close distances will capture more detail and apparent loudness while further distances will capture more room space and have less apparent loudness. Keep that in mind when trying to achieve your desired effect. In this case, I kept the recorder close and slightly off-axis.

Step 3 – Rewind the Tape and Setup a Track in Live to Recorded the Results into Your Session

The Sony Clear Voice Recorder has a stereo mini-jack headphone output, so I used a ⅛ inch to ¼ inch splitter to feed the tape output into two open channels on my interface. In this case, channels 7 and 8.

Step3---part-1

 Record the tape playback into a new Audio track within your session.

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Step 4 – Sync Your New Audio Clip with Your Original MIDI Clip

Slide your audio clip into place so it lines up in sync with the original MIDI clip. Trim any unneeded audio recording tails so you end up with two clips of the same length.

Step4

Nice work,  you now have a Lo-Fi tape print of your original synth line!

Lo-Fi Tape Print:

Step 6 – Add The “Pitch” MIDI Device to Your MIDI Track and Transpose Everything down One Octave

Step5-part-1

Pitching your sound is optional. However, transposing your synth line will add lower bass frequencies and help glue the two sounds together and create a richer sound.

Here is an example:

Step 7 – Add Equalizers to Your MIDI and Audio Tracks to Shape the Resulting Sound

You can add or remove frequencies to sculpt how the tracks sound together when played back in unison. Feel free to adjust these parameters to taste, but I’ve found that cutting the highs of the original synth line leaves room for where most of the tape recorder characteristics sit in the high-mid range.

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In addition try cutting the low frequencies on the tape track, since that is mostly noise that is not musical.

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Here is the results:

 Step 8 – Add Reverb and Compression to Glue It All Together

If you set up a subtle reverb on a Return Track, you can send your two tracks into the same space which helps to make the finished product feel cohesive. In addition, drop a Compressor onto the master bus to squeeze it into a final mix.

Final results:

Here are two more examples of this technique in tracks I’ve made.

The spooky, goth strings in this have been processed using the above technique.

And here’s an example of an ambient piece where this tape treatment has been used across the entire mix.


Sound Design

Sound Design Komplete Program
Become fluent in the language of sound design and synthesis with this comprehensive program. This six-level Sound Design program uses Native Instruments’ Komplete as a platform for learning synthesis and sampling techniques. Starting with an introduction to the properties of sound, this comprehensive series of courses covers the major techniques used for contemporary sound design.

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About This Program

Become fluent in the language of sound design and synthesis with this comprehensive program. This six-level Sound Design program uses Native Instruments’ Komplete as a platform for learning synthesis and sampling techniques. Starting with an introduction to the properties of sound, this comprehensive series of courses covers the major techniques used for contemporary sound design.

You will learn to create your own sounds with a variety of techniques and add a personal sonic signature to your tracks. We introduce you to the latest synthesis and sampling technologies and show you how to use the world’s largest and most diverse sound library. In the advanced levels, you will acquire total control over all aspects of the Komplete instruments while practicing genre-based sound design.

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