Part of the joy of playing electronic musical instruments is exploring the unique banks of sounds inside. Behind the scenes, creative sound designers painstakingly tweak parameters to tease out the instrument's personality — all so you'll be rewarded when you press a key.


These sonic sculptors are often standout musicians themselves. This month, we speak again with Francis Preve, a Top 10 remixer who also works as the principal sound designer for Ableton and a consulting sound designer for Korg. (Special thanks to Korg's Jack Hotop for creating the demos of Francis's OASYS presets.) In this episode, you'll hear what goes into creating the sounds behind the hits. (DMI 02-15-2008: 23 minutes 10 seconds)

Production Notes

Once again, Francis and I did the interview via SkypeOut (computer to landline telephone) while simultaneously recording to our computers at higher resolution. He recorded into Ableton Live with a Blue Snowball mic; I recorded into Ecamm Call Recorder with my Logitech 250 headset. The Logitech doesn't sound nearly as nice as the SE Electronics USB2200A mic I used for the main voiceover, but it's more comfortable to talk into during a long conversation. Afterward, Francis sent me his side of the interview as an MP3. I synced it up with mine and then discarded the Skype reference track.

Call Recorder had captured both sides of the conversation (the direct signal from my headset mic plus the murky Skype signal from Francis) to two tracks of a QuickTime file. I then used QuickTime Pro to export the recordings into a mono AIFF file of my voice and a stereo AIFF file with my voice in one channel and Francis's Skype signal in the other. I loaded the two AIFFs plus Francis's direct MP3 recording into three tracks in Ableton Live and slid Francis's track around until it lined up with his Skype signal. (See last episode's notes for a screenshot.)

Preve by the pool
Preve pilots Peak poolside, producing popular presets.

And once again, the MP3 track ran at a slightly different rate than the reference track, causing them to drift apart over the 30-minute duration of the file. Last time, I fixed that by time-stretching the MP3 by a tenth of a BPM in Live, but this time the drift was so minor that I just ignored it. (I had just upgraded to version 7 of Live, so perhaps that was more stable.) After all, precise sync isn't usually necessary when you're aligning two sides of a conversation. The offset was only noticeable when I played Francis's MP3 against the reference Skype recording, which I wasn't going to use anyway.

Voiceover, Assembly, and Mixdown

This episode's voiceover sounds better than last month's because I was back from traveling and could use the big SE mic instead of the headset. Another factor was that I could mix this show with my subwoofer-equipped speakers and powerful Beyerdynamic DT 770 headphones. The $89 earbuds I had last month on the road simply couldn't reproduce the low end in the signal, so I overlooked a number of microphone thumps and other bass nasties.

Preve in the weeds
Texas isn't the first place that comes to mind when you think of remixing and sound design, but it's worked out well for Francis Preve.

This time, I used BIAS Peak to snip out those thumps and tighten up the vocals. Next, I imported vocals, the music examples, and the background music into a new Ableton Live session and enhanced the vocals with Izotope Ozone. I also created a few new music examples directly in Live by playing Francis's preset sounds over MIDI. (These had names like Pure Horror, Glassifier, Glitter Monks, Analog Soprano, and Radioaktiv.)

After adjusting levels with envelopes, I rendered the mix as a new AIFF file. Finally, I converted the mix to an MP3 in iTunes, where I added the cover art.

The Digital Media Insider theme music came together in Live as well. The opening sound effect is a compressed mouth noise spliced onto a tone cluster I generated in Native Instruments Reaktor. The main groove is from Steinberg Xphraze. (Jim Aikin turned me on to both virtual instruments in his article "My Five Favorite Soft Synths.") The piano is from the Garritan Personal Orchestra, which I discovered when we interviewed Gary Garritan.

The theme also features a few percussion samples dredged from my hard drive. Altogether, it took just six tracks. Effects processing was courtesy of Live's default plugins and Freeverb.

Call Recorder movie tools
Ecamm Call Recorder comes with several drag-and-drop applets to reformat the unusual three-channel QuickTime audio recordings it creates. I got better results with QuickTime Pro, however. Ecamm's AIFF converter inexplicably lowered the file's peak level.

People and Products Mentioned in the Show

  • Francis Preve — Remixer, producer, writer, sound designer.
  • Ableton Live — A music recording and performing program for Mac and Windows. I use it to produce this podcast; Francis Preve is also principal sound designer for Ableton.
  • Power Tools for Looping Software — Francis Preve's book explains the technical and creative aspects of making music with audio loops
  • Jack Hotop — Legendary Korg sound designer and keyboard whiz (see video).
  • Peter Schwartz — Longtime studio musician, composer, music director, and Korg sound designer.
  • BeatPortal — electronic music news, reviews, DJ profiles, from the online music store BeatPort. Francis Preve is a contributing editor.

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