Making Sound

Over the years I’ve attempted to play a number of musical instruments. Unfortunately I was never instantly adept, so I tended to move onto other things. The one sound-maker that I have kept coming back to is the keyboard. The wonderful thing about the keyboard is that it requires no skill whatsoever to cause it to make its sounds, unlike flutes and violins and things that won’t even make their proper sounds in the hands of a beginner.

When you start playing around with the session editors of machines like the Proteus or the Procyon, or getting serious with Mind Workstation effects, it begins to become useful to understand some of the underlying terminology, and the principles of audio synthesis.

The most fun way I know of doing that is to get a software analog synthesizer and hear the interaction of oscillators, filters, feedback, waveform, etc. There’s heaps of freeware standalone synthesizers (just Google “free synthesizer download”). The real fun starts, however, when you get into a VST based system. Virtual Studio Technology was developed by Steinberg and has become a major standard for plug-in virtual instruments, samplers, effects, and other studio essentials. I don’t know how long freebies have been available, but it wasn’t so long ago that to use VST plugins you had to part with some serious money for the “Studio” software that supported them.

Recently I stumbled upon a very nice, free VST environment by the name of Dark Wave Studio. With a program such as this as a wrapper, a whole galaxy of free VST plugins opens up. I’m currently using a a great little synth called Ilosynth. I’ve had an Edirol PCM-30 midi keyboard lying around for a while, so I was all set for input, but if you don’t have such things lying around there’s plenty of freeware virtual keyboards to be found. I’ve downloaded a few other interesting looking goodies from SoundEditor.

The point of all of this is that a typical analog synthesizer has one or more oscillators (tone sources) that can be modulated by one or more low frequency oscillators, and the output can be fed through an assortment of filters and other effects such as echo, reverb, etc. All the controls are laid out in front of you and with most synths you can twiddle the knobs in real time and hear immediate results. A fairly immediate realisation is that one oscillator modulated by another oscillator makes either a monaural beat or an isochronic beat, depending on waveshapes and frequency relationships.

The Proteus has two oscillators that can be modulated by two low frequency oscillators which also do the lights. The Procyon has two audio oscillators that can be modulated by any of the three low frequency light oscillators. The waveshape of all these oscillators can be selected from square, sine or triangle, and in the case of the Proteus, user created.

Programs like Mind Explorer expose their oscillators too and introduce noise generators. Mind Workstation and Neuroprogrammer do all this and effectively expand to an unlimited number of oscillators as you add tracks, with each track associated with its own array of filters and other effects.

Lots of people from the sound industry have found their way to brainwave-related psychoactive music. It’s not hard to find VST plugins to create binaurals, or whole studios centred around embedded entrainment and other mind-warping techniques. MWS and NP2 are purpose built for those who wish to mess with their minds, but underneath, they’re synthesizers and sequencers.

Apart from the benefits of understanding what’s going on under the hood, anyone with just a bit of imagination can use a simple synth to create some awesome drones, pads, shimmers and other frilly bits to decorate a session. Crikey, some synth presets are so complex you can stroke one key and then listen to the sound unfold for the next 10 minutes. I’ve suggested an analog synth for a start, because it’s easy-ish to get the gist of what’s going on and see how it relates to entrainment audio, but there’s also subtractive synths, fm synths, natural instument synths, and so on and on, each with it’s own special type of sound.

If you want to take a step beyond downloading loops and samples for your background tracks, and start creating your own, VST is the way to go and with the astonishing skill and generosity of the music software community, money is no object.


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