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. Here’s a short excerpt to give you an idea:

In the full length video, 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: