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Do you use physical controllers for designing (not mixing) sounds?

Perhaps you use a keyboard, or other more exotic type of controller? What do you control with it? Is this to speed up the process or does the controller add an extra element to the design process, if so how would you describe it?

To put this into perspective, I'm really interested in how we design sounds, and how people have developed different strategies and processes. One area which inspires this question is that we often we use equipment designed for making music, but are applying these to a design process. Do these controllers allow for greater expression, and what does that mean in terms of sound design anyway?

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I do use physical controllers for designing sounds. I use Pro Tools for my work environment, and Pro Tools is very bad at allowing out of the ordinary controllers to interact in meaningful ways with the main DAW features. A MIDI controller, usually a keyboard, is good for controlling plug-in instruments like a sampler for great expressive use of pressure, pitch and mod wheels, as well as various knobs and faders to control pitch, filter, sample start time, etc. Any MIDI controller can be used for this sort of thing. Plug-in maker Flux has started adding OSC control to their range of v3 plug-ins. So you can use an OSC controller like an iPad running TouchOSC or Lemur to control your IRCAM Spat panner/spatializer. However, the most generally useful controllers for Pro Tools are mixer-like, such as HUI protocol mixers and JL Cooper protocol panners, especially accessible is Neyrink V Control Pro for iPad, Eucon based controllers from Avid/Euphonix, or the various D-Command and Control devices made by Avid/Digidesign. These all look like mixers but can in fact be used to control practically any parameter in Pro Tools. They are useful for getting the real-time gesture or performance of expressive parameter modulation into Pro Tools quickly and with feeling!

Frequently controlled parameters are volume, send levels (usually to reverb or a sub-synth) and pan settings. But these are usually considered mix parameters. (It's all sound design!) It's fun to play in the more design realm with plug-ins like GRM Tools to play with bandpass filter parameters, doppler, pitch shifting, etc. Controlling these with faders and knobs while watching and hearing in real time is very powerful. Just putting the output of what you are playing with into a record track and going for possibly tens of minutes at a time can be very useful. Remaster the best bits and build a library, or perform direct to picture in sync. Sometimes I record automation and then tweak that by hand before recording the output of these sounds. The recorded sounds are cut into conventional tracks, tracks with this kind of plug-in inserts and automation almost never makes it to the mix as a live thing.

Ultimately the mouse or trackpad can be the most flexible general purpose expressive controller with the least amount of setup time. It mainly falls short in that you can only have one of them.

  • Thanks for taking the time - some interesting thoughts there. Those Flux plugins look interesting, will definitely check them out. Nice that you mention OSC, are you using the Flux plugins with OSC in Pro Tools? Curious as to whether they send/receive data independently of Pro Tools? – Mark Durham Jan 4 '14 at 12:05
  • To be honest, I haven't tried the OSC control feature of the Flux AAX plug-ins, so I can't say. I am interested in that though. Pretty sure they work independently of Pro Tools. – Douglas Murray Jan 7 '14 at 2:51
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My design controllers lately have been:

  • My midi keyboard controlling Structure, a sampler plug-in
  • My Wacom tablet (as a mouse) to control the x/y parameters of GRM Tools

I've found this setup very useful (and fun) to perform motors, vehicles, whooshes/swishes, vocal processing, weapon movement, and such.

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This is an area I'm also keen on exploring, particularly with respect to synthesizer-based sound design. Most traditional controllers are performance interfaces, rather than interfaces for the actual design of sounds. Clearly design and performance are linked as any sound that is designed is going to require performance at some point, even if this is only playback (for example using a sampler).

Even where parameters of a sound are to be controlled the key then becomes the mapping of the parameters to the controls. Where this is a one-to-one mapping there is little added benefit, but when you move to many-to-one or many-to-many mappings (such as a tablet for example) then it becomes possible to control multiple aspects of a sound and will give more scope in the design process. However, the important consideration is then how you go about working out which parameter should be mapped to which controls. I'd be keen to hear how others go about this process.

  • I totally agree - it's about mapping in some kind of meaningful way. – Mark Durham Jan 6 '14 at 21:08
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This is one of protool's many failures. I use the c24 knobs and faders to do basic controlling of various plug in parameters. When in Ableton, I love my Livid Ohm64 controller and the complete freedom to quickly assign anything to anything making completely custom setups for whatever the purpose. Again, I highly recommend Livid controllers.

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The only thing when it's impossible to design sounds without controller - when you need really fast control of your parameters. The great example is one shot heavy automated sounds designed with Alchemy or Ableton Live's group sections (or any plugin with complex automation ability). Let's say you have 1 sec SFX, and you need to move 4 different parameters in absolutely chaotic way to hear the full potential of how far this SFX can go. You just can't do it without controller.

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