Getting Creative With Noise
Updated: Sep 8, 2022
What is the real difference between musical elements and non-musical elements, often associated with noise ? How can you employ it to enhance creatively and artistically your productions? Is there really a boundary within which it can be useful and aesthetically accettable music-wise?
These are just a few questions I'll try to answer in this third installment of my Pro Producer's Tips series, hopefully giving you plenty of tips you can experiment with and food for thought.. This is gonna be a long but funny one, believe me, so stay with me and Make Some Noise!
Let's start with the basics: what is noise?
Spot the differences between the following graphics of two different soundwaves measured on an oscilloscope:
The first graphic ('A') shows an oscillating violin string and, as you may have noticed, it has some periodicity in its cycles. That's why we can hear a discernible pitch coming from the instrument, forced into harmonic motion by the bow.
[Here i'm simplifying things, the theory of pitch is way more complex and is associated with the concept of autocorrelation, that is the measurement of how much a signal is similar to itself over time]
The second graphic ('B') shows on the other hand the waveform of a white noise signal. As you can see, it's aperiodic, with variable amplitude over time as well. No discernible pitch in this case, as technically speaking white noise generates every single frequency in the human audible range (20Hz-20Khz) with a global constant amplitude. You may have heard it a thousand times, that old 'TV static' sound, an annoying burst of energy piercing your earing system.
Not a cool way to start a blog post trying to find the benefits of noise, right?
Jokes apart, noise is incredibily useful for a lot of applications, for example to stimulate the acoustic response of a room to be able to measure it or for a PA system calibration. But there are other 'colours' of noise as well, the most popular being pink and brown.
Pink noise is psychoacoustically closer to the way we hear, differently from white noise, as it has equal power per octave range and slopes off at 3dB/octave across the frequency spectrum. It comes very handy with mixing at the balancing stage because it's a useful ear referencing tool.
Brown noise is basically a more filtered and steeper version of the pink noise, falling 6dB/oct, and its name comes from the 'brownian motion'.
There are a lot of other colours and tastes of noises that I encourage you to investigate on, the most interesting being, in my opinion, black noise (a.k.a. silence).
I love the idea that silence is associated with a sound's name because philosophically it alludes to the idea that in nature pure silence never exists (think carefully about it when employing it in your productions, it's an artificial but powerful tool!).
Before getting into the more fun and less theoretical territory of sound design applications of noise, I wanted to mention an interesting exception that sits in between musical sound and noise: harmonic noise. It's a fascinating territory of hearing perception experiments, very important to understand more clearly such topics as consonance and dissonance, harmony etc. Basically harmonic noise is obtained by superimposing different bands of white noise, each centered on an integer multiple of the chosen fundamental frequency. In this way you are blending into an hybrid the distinctive characteristics of an harmonic sound (with its harmonic series) with the randomic nature of white noise. The interesting fact here is that the narrower the bands, the more 'musical' and with discernible pitch the result, viceversa the broader the bands the more noisey it becomes.
The following graphs show these two latter cases:
2. Creative Applications
Now let's put things into practice; as usual I've prepared something special for you, dear reader, to download for free at the end of the article 😉.
In order to explore the basic use of noise in music production as a typical transitional tool, I've created a rack which simplifies and speeds up the process of making risers, downlifters, rhythmic sound fxs and more. It started with that goal in mind, but it happened to offer deeper sound design possibilities; watch the following demonstrational video for some ideas and then experiment for yourself:
This is the rack I am using in the video and the one you will get:
As you can see all 16 macros have been employed (thanks Ableton 11 for extending them!) and mapped to various devices in the chain. It all starts with a noise generator inside of Ableton's Analog stock substractive synthesizer and everything you'll do with it is just noise being processed!
The primary parameters are the first three, blue, that affect the noise color (kind of pre-filter stage) and the behaviour of the 24db/oct low-pass filter: just playing with the cutoff and resonance will get you all sorts of sweeps, wooshes and similar effects. Orange controls are global effects to the patch: reverb, delay, sample rate reduction (similar to a bitcrusher) and a resonant metallic fx. The other controls are matched by colour for clarity, so you get for example the amount of the fx or the switch that activates it and its respective rate control: tremolo, filter wobble, gate, autopan and pumping (ducking). Unfortunately I wasn't able to map properly the values of the gate rate and pumping rate as note value fractions, as the others, because apparently Max For Live devices don't give this option. Anyway they give faster results moving the knob to the left and slower to the right.
What makes this rack special and why did I make those particular mappings?
Noise, as I have said earlier, is a wonderful source for filtering, as it contains a lot of frequencies. Being a steady sound I've tried to make it sound more dynamic and interesting with spacial effects, such as reverb, delay, chorus, and more rhythmic with auto-pan, gating, ducking, tremolo and wobble.
Automating the rates and amounts of these controls makes for more impactful and tensive transitions. But it doesn't stop here. Again, as mentioned earlier, noise is atonal and doesn't have a pitch, but by employing a resonant filter you can give it a tonal character, as high resonance in an analog modelled filter gives self-oscillation and generates a sinusoid at the cutoff point.
An other interesting thing to explore is playing with different rhythmic divisions on the various effects: check out the 'Liquid' preset for seeing this into action.
Also by pushing the rates to the fastest you start getting a 'buzzing' tone ideal for drones and tonal sounds with an internal 'unstable' quality.
Playing around with high resonance and sample rate reductions gives you that classic dubstep 'Yoi' sound too. There are indeed a lot of sonic results you can get just with this rack and I encourage you to experiment with unusual settings.
3. Geek Territory
Now it's time to get advanced and explore 10 creative and 'geeky' ways in which noise can be our ally. I will keep this paragraph schematic in order to be more concise and not to get too verbose, but there is enough material to divide this topic in a series (maybe in the future I'll dig deeper into the subject, here just touched).
Noise OSC on synthesizers
Noise is most surely found in every synthesizer as an oscillator option and it's a great layering tool to give your patches a fuller character (think of supersaw leads), a texture or a transient and percussive element if modulated with a snappy envelope.
It can be used as a modulator too, let's say an LFO with a noise waveform, to give some randomness and unstable, organic character to your patches (see the last blog post about Generative Music).
Being noise atonal and lifeless on its own, it works wonders when processed with distortion, which has the effect of accentuating and de-accentuating some frequencies, giving a more distinctive tone and character. Combine it with effects such as flangers and phasers, prior in the chain, and you get a fluctuating and moving timbre as well.
Try applying a tonal character to your noise signal and then play with the pitch transposer in your sampler of choice after resampling the audio. Also changing the algorhithm of pitchshifting delivers timbric variations.
Field recording is a great practice to have: go out from your studio and register real world sounds: birds singing, rain falling, people chatting at the cafè.. everything that catches your ear. By layering little portions of these recordings under your electronic beats it increases the organic and emotive feeling drastically: think of a vinyl noise for an old school hip hop vibe or some environmental noise for your lo-fi beats. Treat this material as any other sonic material: EQ it, sidechain it to the kick for an added groove or just keep it as a bed of ambience underneath your track.
From Atonal To Tonal
This is a thing I've already mentioned a few times but let's focus on it more: start with a raw noise signal and apply a resonant steep band-pass filter to almost generate a tone out of it. Help yourself with a tuner and tune it as your liking. Now that you have a tonal material you can play with it as a normal instrument and give it the movement you like; for example experiment with a synced square LFO moving an other band pass filter for a stuttering result.
Vocoding With Noise
Inside of vocoders you will likely find a white noise source to blend in with the carrier, useful to improve the intelligibility of effected voice by enhancing sibilance for example. In an other scenario where the voice is the modulator and the noise the carrier, you can get ghostly sounding voices; given the static nature of noise, interesting results can come by feeding to it a percussive loop as a modulator. Try for yourself!
Spectral stem separation
Some cool softwares such as Izotope RX give you the option to separate the 'tonal' material of your audio from your 'noisey' one, or viceversa. While this is intended for audio restoration issues, it's an immensely creative tool to have: imagine separating the percussive elements of an audio file from the melodic and tonal instruments. It's crazy cool and an alternative way to use your samples and sound more unique.
Layering Drum Elements With Noise
Drums sound great when layered with noise, either by creating a shadow bed groove as in the 'Ambience Noise' tip or by blending and layering it with your drum kit elements: it gives more punch, energy and can even give a louder sound while having more headroom if used right: how? It can shift the focus of a kick drum, let's say, from just the low 'thud' to a broader frequency spectrum giving the result of eating less headroom (as low frequencies typically do, because they carry a lot of energy in the mix) and having a fuller, spectrum-wise, and so louder sound. Check out the following video as a proof!
Synthesizing Drum Elements With Noise
This is a more extreme approach compared to the last tip, but crazy fun. You can actually synthesize most drum elements just with sine and noise waves! Indeed for kick and snare for example you just need to craft the tonal element, usually with a pitch modulated sine wave that provides the initial thud, and the noisy element, which provides the transient for the kick and the resonance for the snare (between them the most apparent difference is the envelope, much snappier for the kick and with a little sustain and moderate release for the snare). Just those simple concept are enough for creating the initial tone, then you can optimize it with some saturation, reverb and compression. Check out the video for a deeper look at the process!
BONUS TIP: Experimental Bass Design - Noise Bass
I kept this one as the last for a reason: I'm deeply in love with bass design and eager to discover exciting new timbres, also this tip in some ways resumes what we have learned so far. The so called 'noise bass' is somewhat popular in the neuro d&b subgenre and in some others more experimental kinds of bass music. Basically it consists of the combo sine wave + noise, interestingly again the complementary parts we used in our drum synthesis technique: a tonal element with just one frequency and an atonal element with a broad frequency spectrum. In sound design it's great to combine contrasting sources to craft an hybrid result; in this case, similarly to the drum layering technique, I used noise as a source of FM for one of two sine waves, detuned to each other, to create a grittier tone. I then added the lovely Izotope Trash 2 to distort and blend the two sources in a cohesive whole (see the 'Distorting Noise' Tip), EQ-ed them to attenuate the second harmonic that was too predominant and roll off the extreme lows and highs, before adding a pumping effect. Check out the video to see how it was made!
All good things come to an end, they say, so congrats for having arrived this far! (well unless you skipped I hope! 😄)
Anyway thanks so much for reading and if you learned something new and are more inspired I achieved my goal. If something isn't clear or just wanna ask anything feel free to drop a comment below and as usual consider to like, subscribe to my newletter so you don't miss future content and share this blog post with your friends if you liked it, that would help me a lot. And remember: Noise is noice!
Until next time..
Happy Music Making!
P.S: Click the artwork below to download the free rack I mentioned and something extra 😉
Art credits: Nexumorphic
Special thanks to Computer Music Magazine - 'The Art Of Noise' feature and to Groove3 - 'Experimental Bass Design' course for giving me ideas for this blog post.