Using a Sampler For Sound Design
Last time, Soundminer talked to David Farmer about using a sampler — like the new Radium in V5Pro — for sound design. This time around, we talk with MPSE Award-winning sound designer Tim Walston, who’s been busy at E² Sound. Just this year alone, he’s designed sounds for feature films like Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Pet Sematary, Wonder Park, and The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part.
For Walston — also a former EFX intern, who happened to work there with Farmer — the Synclavier was a workflow staple. Being a musician, Walston felt at home with the play-to-picture type approach of cutting in sound effects that the Synclavier facilitated. But with the absence of the Synclavier in his workflow, Walston’s use of a sampler for sound design waned. The sampler went from an everyday tool to an occasional aid. Now, with Soundminer’s new Radium, Walston is back to using a sampler full-time.
Here, Walston discusses the benefits of using a sampler for sound design and talks about his favorite features of Radium, like its integration with his sound library and how easy it is to audition and manipulate any sound therein.
Can you tell me a bit about your career in sound? What studios have you worked in? What are some past projects that you're proud of?
Tim Walston: I was lucky enough to start as an intern at EFX Studios, where I could meet and learn from such talents as Harry Cohen, David Farmer, Ann Scibelli, and others. Those first few years were an amazing treasure trove of mentorship, knowledge and collaboration like I’ve never experienced before or since. The friendships built there formed the basis of my career. Those talented people sparked the creative inspiration to always look a little further, and try a little harder to make something new, or find a new approach to creating sound.
After EFX, I moved up to a union company called SoundStorm, then later I spent 10 years at Soundelux. After its sad demise, I worked with many of the same people at the Formosa Group, and for the last several years I’ve made a home with E² Sound. I’ve been so fortunate to be surrounded by amazing, talented people everywhere I’ve worked, and they all inspire me to try to raise my game.
Some of my favorite projects have been Star Trek (2009), Pacific Rim (2013), Riddick (2013), Stealth (2005), The Fast and the Furious (2001), and Pet Sematary (2019). I mention these because I got to create a lot of new design, and that work made it into the movie and made a satisfying contribution to the soundtrack.
When did you first start using a sampler for sound design? What sampler did you start on? How did it impact your work?
Walston: At my first job in 1996, I started using the king of all samplers (at the time) – the New England Digital Synclavier. It was the digital audio workstation of its day, and standard equipment at EFX. We auditioned sound effects from disk using the piano style keyboard. Let me emphasize this: there was no space bar to audition a sound from the library. The “play” button was middle C on the keyboard! This meant trying a library sound at a different pitch was as easy as playing a different note or combination — instant hands-on pitch exploration.
So, as I said we auditioned sound effects from disk using the piano style keyboard and then performed the elements into an onboard sequencer while sync’d to 3/4” video tape. When we were finished with a scene or a “food group” of FX, we recorded the sequence to Tascam DA-88 multitrack recorders. This is how I learned to cut sound effects, so this workflow was the only foundation I knew. As a musician and keyboard player, I was instantly at home with this setup. It was familiar to me. Instead of programming a cymbal crash on the downbeat of a song, I would place an explosion at the right frame of timecode to sync to picture.
What are the benefits of using a sampler for sound design?
Walston: The best way I can describe it is that I feel like I have my hands directly on the sound, instead of using a mouse like a distant remote control. It’s like sculpting with clay – I would prefer to shape it with my hands, rather than use a tool at the end of a long stick. Sure it could be done that way, but it’s much faster and more intuitive to perform the moves I want directly. It’s also a bit like mixing with a mouse versus riding levels on a real fader.
What aspects of your design do you prefer to do on a sampler? What are some tasks that a sampler works best for?
Walston: First of all, I like the sampler for pitch-performance effects. We’ve all been there: you start with a pitch curve in mind, then go to a plug-in and graphically draw the curve you want to hear. Then you listen and make changes, then listen again. It’s much easier for me to perform it with a MIDI controller, and to create variations while I’m at it. It’s a feel thing. It’s much more natural.
More powerfully, I love the ability to take a single sound and spin it out into many variations. By varying the performance of the keys on the MIDI controller, I can combine pitches and clusters of pitches and change the rhythm of the performance. Then I can add modulation and perform the pitchbend as well. This summer I did a lot of UI design. Using a sampler, I could start with a fairly simple sound and go off the rails… instantly creating complex phrases and combinations. But these variations are not randomly generated; your aesthetic desires and the needs of the project guide your performance. The same goes with creature vocals. I took a single sound and performed dozens or hundreds of variations — all connected as a “family” of related source, but all different enough to create elements for a large vocabulary. The same goes again with explosions, for example. Playing high and low pitches of your standard explosion and varying the timing of a few notes gets you more complex impacts and different sizes and intensities.
Those two kinds of benefits are using the sampler at its very basic level, with a single sound. If you split the keyboard, or layer different sounds to have multiple sounds playing at the same time, the possibilities expand exponentially!
Do you need a set of 20 to 30 wind whooshes? Gather a few appropriate wind sounds and load them into Radium. Adjust the attack and release for a smooth start and tail. Set parameters like ‘Random Start’ so every note begins at a different spot in the sample. Click ‘Record’ right inside Soundminer and go! Perform arpeggios or clusters of notes on the MIDI keyboard, experimenting with pitch and timing combinations. Add other processing effects in Radium or the DSP rack to further develop your sound. It’s easy, productive and fun.
Did you help to shape Radium? If so, can you talk about that process?
Walston: I’ve been a Soundminer user for many years, and I’ve bugged the software architect, Justin Drury, several times with little things during that time. I was surprised when, out of the blue, he asked me if I had ever used a sampler for sound design. This was in the fall of 2017. Thus began a thrilling and inspirational collaboration about one of my core tools, and how it could be taken to new levels.
We have emailed back and forth with questions and suggestions and discussions nearly every week since then, and the collaboration continues to this day, even after the initial v5 release. With all his wonderful feature additions, he’s kind of a young, Canadian Santa Claus!
I’ve tried to request features not just for me, but ones that I think would be universally useful to the sound editor and design community. He always receives my humble input thoughtfully and often turns it up to 11, making my ideas better and more powerful than I could have imagined. He surprised me with writing his own code for signal processing effects right inside Radium itself. And Soundminer’s ability to record live output from itself – be it from the sampler or through the DSP rack — has been such a game changer! I’ve never seen a developer more committed to product excellence, usability and innovation.
What would you like to see Radium do in the near future? Any features you’d request?
Walston: Well, they've done so much, but minor improvements come up occasionally through daily use of Soundminer v5 and Radium. I recently mentioned the power of their “double arrow head” modulation range graphs, but that they were so small that a super narrow range was hard to dial in. They've already come up with a great solution: a resizable modulation area. This is a minor issue but it’s an example that development and progress never stop.
What impact has Radium had on your workflow?
Walston: Radium is so much fun to use. I haven’t used a sampler this much since the old Synclavier days. In recent years, I would make sounds with another sampler from time to time, and it was really powerful. Justin always knew that he didn’t need to compete with classic stand-alone sampler products. Sometimes they are required for major programming and such. But Radium’s overwhelming benefit is its integration with Soundminer. Having it immediately available, inside my library program, means I will use it 99.9% of the time over the old sampler. This advantage is the key for me.
What are some features of this sampler that you find useful?
Walston: Integration with my library. I love the onboard effects, and that it feeds right into the DSP rack. Self recording! Easy modulation. Playability. I haven’t even scratched the surface.
Can you share some specific examples of how you've used Radium?
Walston: Let’s look at creating user interface sounds for a game or film project. Start with a simple beep. In Radium you can play different pitches instinctually for different effects. Play chords or melodies, major and minor, and you already have variations for “access granted” or “denied” type sounds. Record your performance experiments to a file using Soundminer’s self record feature. Now try looping that short beep. Long or short loops have different feels. In this case a short loop feels like a data graphic or text on screen. Now play more examples, holding some notes longer to engage the looping sound. Play pitches high and low on the keyboard and record your experiments. Next, let’s add a pitch curve, maybe a short sharp move at the head of the sound to enhance the attack. Add some other modulation with the onboard effects, or process through the DSP rack. Try an LFO to modulate pitch or panning. Add a slow Ring modulator effect to add texture. Try different distortions or reverbs. Explore the extremes of the parameter ranges; use it in ways it wasn’t meant to be used! Twist your sound, bend and try to break it! Always record your experiments. The discovery of creation is half the fun.
Soon, with very little effort, you have created many unique composite sounds from the smallest of seeds. If you really dove in, then you probably have 10 minutes or more of source you recorded, and you have produced results that you would not get by editing that beep in your DAW. The randomness in the performance and tweaking parameters means you get unplanned, unexpected results easily. The fact that they are all derived from the same original beep means the whole set has some common audio DNA and sounds cohesive.
This might be a slightly boring example, but now imagine this kind of method with sci-fi weapon sounds, or creature vocals, and you get the idea. Your sounds are now putty in your hands.
I recently discovered another awesome benefit of using Radium. Sometimes I've got to fine tune a pitch map onto a long file. With Pitch 'n Time, doing that meant listening to the whole file and waiting for it to loop around to hear the changes I've made to the pitch graph. With Radium and its waveform locked pitch graph, I can set part of it, then move the start maker and draw in the next part, moving my way down, then resetting the start marker back to the beginning before transferring the whole thing!
Justin has already told me about a new module he’s working on that will add more crazy manipulation possibilities. And there are more ideas in his notebook that he hasn’t mentioned or tried yet. I think we all benefit from what he cooks up.
In closing, I’d like to acknowledge that Soundminer has collaborated with many brilliant and talented people, and also with people like me, while developing Radium. I have been only one voice among many, and it’s been my privilege to contribute in some small way. But it FEELS like they've been writing custom software just for ME! And that is perhaps the most rewarding part.
Go make sounds!
Thanks to Jennifer Walden for conducting the interview, and Tim Walston for his graciousness... Radium is available on macOS for v5Pro, and coming in 2020 to Windows. Request a trial here.