Audio School: Recreate Environmental Sounds Using Synthesis

Sound Synthesis

A master class in how everything we hear is made of soundwaves – and how you can modify them to echo the world.

“I found myself walking around city streets, or in a park, and listening to everything, and then sort of reverse-engineering it and going, ‘Oh yeah, that bird is actually a sine wave with a pitch envelope on it, and maybe a little FM…'”

There’s lots to learn from sound designer and educator Francis Preve‘s chat at Ableton‘s Loop summit, as he elaborates on his ongoing project to re-create the real-world sounds artificially, using the building blocks of audio – synthesis – and what that can teach us about ways we can interpret and express:

Francis demonstrates how, beginning with white noise, one can, with each additional modulation or filter, create the sound of waves, then wind, then the interior of an aircraft – just one example of his ongoing project, Scapes, which seeks to reverse-engineer environmental sounds (or sound we might ordinarily “sample”, or record) through synthesis alone. (Preve, 9:51)

Citing Daniel Leviton’s book This Is Your Brain On Music, Francis demonstrates how we distinguish between different musical instruments based on their timbre and envelope. Beginning with a featureless sine wave, Francis modifies the “pure” tone’s envelopes to recreate wind, tuned percussion, and string instruments. (Preve, 12:03)

Sound design is a language, and listening enables you to expand your vocabulary.

Francis Preve

“We already have that language in our repertoire. So in terms of designing sounds with synths, it’s a matter of translating that language that we already know for identifying musical instruments to identifying waveforms.” (Preve, 15:04)

“It’s really a matter of understanding the qualities of the harmonic characteristics of each of the standard analog waveforms, and then modifying them with what we are building a language for.” (Preve, 20:57)

Further Listening

New to synthesis? Start with this intro guide, then follow the links to go from beginner to advanced tutorials:

You don’t need to use Ableton Live specifically, but if you’d like to, here’s a quick beginner’s guide: