Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Processing Vocals With Alchemy

Last week I got an e-mail from my friend Daniel needing a remix done quickly for an upcoming EP his band Destroid is putting out. I was happy to oblige and thought it might be a good opportunity to try something out I had been thinking of ever since I first got Camel Audio's excellent Alchemy softsynth. If you're unfamiliar with it, here's an extensive review I did of it when it first came out. The Cliff's Notes version, though, is that Alchemy is a synth designed to manipulate samples in ways that had previously only been the domain of pricey systems like Symbolic Sound's ultra-cool Kyma platform. Basically, any sample becomes clay in your hands to twist and sculpt in tons of different ways. Since I work in a genre that often makes use of manipulated vocals, I wondered immediately what possibilities Alchemy had as a means of creating some twisted vocal effects?

A lot, it turns out. So today, I'll take you through the basics of this, but really, there are so many possibilities, you could fill a book covering it all. You might want to cancel any appointments, because once you try this, it's easy to get lost for hours tweaking and experimenting.

1. Although Alchemy can handle quite large samples, for the sake of keeping things manageable, you'll want to split the vocals up into different sections. Daniel provided me with the vocals already edited this way, so I had, for instance, verse 1 as a file to itself, the chorus as a file to itself, and so on. Of course, you can split the track into as many sections as you like if you want to get really crazy, but I kept it relatively simple, as I intended for the effect to be applied consistently. Be sure to have each file start on a bar marker so you can drop it into your arrangement and have everything time out correctly without any problems.

2. Once you have your vocal edited into sections, it's time to import them into Alchemy. Technically, you could load 4 different sections in each of the 'Sources' and crossfade between them using the X/Y pad or another modulator, but my computer is pretty new and I've got CPU to burn, so I used a separate instance of Alchemy for each part. To import a part, first click in the little Source name window which should default to a SAW wave. A menu will come up giving you a number of options. We want to import some new audio, so click IMPORT AUDIO. A window will come up allowing you to audition and load files from your hard drive. The important thing to remember when you're importing audio into Alchemy is that you need to select which playback engine you want to use to analyze the sound from the buttons at the top of the window. All have different advantages for different types of material, but for this instance, I decided to use the Additive engine to get a more 'artificial' sound. Select the file you want, hit Import, and Alchemy will analyze and load the file. (This might take a little while depending on the length of the clip...)

3. Now the fun can begin. What to tweak first depends on what you want to do with it. I wanted Daniel's vocal to play back in the original tempo, so I stayed away from the POSITION and STRETCH parameters, but with automation, you can definitely program some cool special effects this way - probably ones best used on a single word or fragment thereof. I mainly wanted to screw around with the timbre of his voice, so I stuck mainly to the buttons on the lower part of the SOURCE window. The first of these parameters I messed with was the SYM knob. SYM alters the symmetry of waveform of your sound. Think of it like a pulse-width control you can apply to samples. Turning it to either extreme produces a sort of harmonic buzz to the sound, but at lower levels, it adds a more subtle touch that already makes the vocal sound more mechanical.

4. The next fun parameter to try is the PVAR parameter, which stands for 'pitch variation'. I wanted the vocal melody to come through clearly, so I left this at 100%, but if you crank this down to zero, all pitch variations in a file are reduced to a single pitch, instantly 'robotizing' your sound.

5. The NOSC parameter lets you define how many sine waves are being used to resynthesize your sound. The highest values will give you the most accurate recreation, while extremely low values sound increasingly artificial. The lower values sound great, but it does reduce the high frequency content quite a bit, so if you play with these lower values, you may find you need to do some EQing to brighten things up to an appropriate level. Playing around with different combinations of values for the PVAR and NOSC parameters opens the door to all manner of Kraftwerkian goodness. I set mine at about 40%

6. Finally, I messed around with the PITCH settings a bit. There are different PITCH modes available from the drop down menu beneath the PITCH knob. Which one works for you depends on the application, but for my purposes, I found I got the best results from the 1245-1346 mode. I was almost there, but there were some sort of whistling harmonics present in the sound that I didn't care for, so I cranked the pitch knob all the way down for a more pleasing, buzzy timbre.

7. This already sounded really unique on it's own - almost like a really weird vocoder. So, to emphasize that quality further, I add an instance of Logic's built-in Pitch Correction plug-in to the insert on my Alchemy channel and restricted the scale to only the notes in the melody for less natural sounding transitions between notes.

Keep in mind, that what we did was just ONE of the different analysis engines Alchemy has and we haven't even gotten into using envelopes, LFOs, or step sequencers to modulate some of these parameters... we haven't filtered it... we haven't even delved into the effects section.. we haven't looked at the EDITOR that allows you to tweak things at the partial level. You can imagine how virtually limitless the possibilities are here. Like I said, you're going to lose yourself for hours once you try this. Daniel was kind enough to allow me to post a short snippet of my remix so you could hear the effect in action. The EP is to be released near Christmas on the German Scanner label. Enjoy!


Ronnie said...

Alchemy is a proper beast. I keep forgetting how powerful and versatile it is.

Martin said...

Just bought Alchemy largely based on your review and of course the group buy.

(I got a Kyma Capybara for sale, if you're interested... will trade it for a Moog Old School Voyager)

Great blog by the way

Nick Oring said...

That is just awesome. I never thought about doing anything like that. Thanks for the ideas!!!

line of control said...

very nice sounding tune... will be checking this band out for sure.

Anonymous said...

This week I bought the Silent World Destroid EP on which your remix appears. I love this remix, structure, instrumentation, vocals, everything. It gets better with every listen!