Plug-ins come in all shapes and sizes these days. Among the mind-boggling array of instruments available for free online, you'll find synthesisers, drum machines, samplers, sound modules and step sequencers. The range of effects on other is even greater, encompassing delays, reverbs, distortions, dynamics processors, harmonizers, de-essers, vocoders, spectral processors and more.
This overwhelming ocean of virtual instruments and effects ably covers pretty much every conventional sound and process you could possibly need in your day-to-day music production endeavors. Distortion alone comes in a huge variety of flavors, from the warm, subtle color of an analogue tube model to the lo-fi sonic-destruction of a digital bitcrusher. But what about going properly beyond the norm and variations thereon? Does the world of freeware offer anything in the way of surprises?
Here, we aim to seek out those plug-ins that take a different approach. From a unique take on the traditional to the truly madcap, these devices conjure, twist, mangle and transform sound using unique methods, and one rarely bears any similarity to the next. But there is one thing that these plug-ins certainly don't do, and that's pander to any sense of convention. Each operates In its own singular, eccentric manner and won't let anyone tell it otherwise.
With music technology now so readily available, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make your music stand out from the crowd and find new sounds to stake a claim to. One surefire way to break away from the mainstream and inject originality into your compositions is to use tools and techniques that nobody else has discovered yet. With crazy tools come crazy ideas, so read on to discover how you can get inspired by our pick of the weirdest, most wonderful free plug-ins on the net.
Geometer is a visual-orientated waveform geometry plug in. It's been around for quite a while, but it still remains one of the most bizarre effects available.
The incoming audio signal is processed In segments, called "frames" or "windows". Geometer analyses the audio data in each window and marks out a series of landmarks. Once these have been acquired, a number of operations can be performed to add, remove or change them. At the final stage, the landmarks are used to redraw the waveform. Geometer can do this in a variety of ways, and the results can sound similar to the original or nothing like it.
Geometer are quite complex, the GUI is easy to work with. However, you do need some understanding of its internal operation to get the most from it. Helpfully, every control features an explanatory tooltip telling you what it does.
At the top of the interface is a waveform display that gives a visual representation of how the signal is being altered. Below this are the three stages of operation: Generate Landmarks. Mess Them Up and Recreate Waveform. At each stage is an image that indicates how that stage will process the data. and a slider that offers some control over the process. In addition, there are two other images that set the size and shape of the processing window.
Geometer is capable of producing a mind-boggling array of effects, including lo-fi distortion, pitch shifting and resynthesis. It's important to remember that Geometer's output is highly dependent upon the incoming audio signal, so you may find that the end result doesn't sound anything like you expect it to.
When you find that the sample· based approach to creating rhythm tracks just isn't cutting it. synthesis is the way to go. And if you really want to push the boat out, go granular!
Minerva uses granular synthesis - specifically, "wavelet" synthesis - to generate percussion. Sounds are broken down into minuscule fragments called grains, usually between 10 ms - 50 ms in duration, which are then reorganized to form new sounds.
Minerva's GUI is pretty straightforward, centering on six sound generators, called Units. Each Unit generates its own percussive sound and is triggered using white keys C3 to A3.
Sound generation begins with the selection of one of 80 source "wavelets". There are 40 short wavelets for traditional percussive sounds and 40 longer wavelets that can be used to produce more sustained (but still percussive) sounds. Parameters in the granular processor enable the user to control the pitch, grain pitch, grain size and grain rate, offering access to a vast range of timbres. These parameters can also be randomized. Finally, the signal is passed through a bitcrusher for an injection of lo-fi distortion.
Before we get into the walk through, we should point out that Minerva doesn't display the value of its parameters in its GUI. While some DAWs - such as Ableton Live- will give you access to parameter values through t heir 'standard' interfaces, others won't With this in mind, we'll refer to each setting as a percentage, rather than a specific value.
On with the walk through, then Minerva is capable of creating a huge range of abstract percussive tones, so it's often best to think outside the box when designing sounds with it In the interest of clarity, however. we're aiming to create granular versions of more traditional drum sounds here.
A dual-delay, dual-reverb effect with a built-in enhancer, Twin Engined Verb's aim is to create abstract delays and spatial effects. A number of things distinguish it from your average reverb plug-in.
The process begins at the reverb stage. First, the effect receives a damped echo as the audio source for each room. This signal is separated via a crossover: Room One processes the lower band of frequencies and Room Two processes the upper band. Following the reverb stage, the audio signal is then passed to the Enhancer, which uses a variety of distortion, dynamic processing and filtering effects to further modify it.
Twin Engined Verb's GUI is well designed, but does have a lot going on in a relatively small space. On the front panel are three control sections. each containing a multifunction dial combining all of the major parameters for that section. For example, in the Room One section, the center wheel controls room size, the middle wheel controls the mix between echo and reverb. and the outer wheel sets the room width. Additional parameters are located above and below the dial.
Twin Engined Verb also features the multipurpose Metering Scope View, with extended controls and various metering displays. The Waveform, Scope and Response Meter views give visual representations of the output signal via VU meters and a scope. The Randomizer view enables you to randomize groups of parameters or all parameters at the same time. The Balancer/FSU view has balance and distortion settings, while the Width Manipulation view houses a four-stage graphic compander and a correlation meter.
The underlying principle of Manic is fairly simple, yet the plug-In is capable of producing surprisingly complex rhythmic sequences.
Manic is a sampler/drum machine with eight sample slots. Its unique feature is that the user doesn't have direct control over when the samples are triggered. With the correct randomization settings, Manic can conjure up great sequences that you'd never enter intentionally.
The GUI is divided into three areas. On the left-hand side are the sample banks and their Probability settings; at the top right are the global randomization and delay parameters; and below that are the sample randomization settings.
The Global Settings section determines the level of resolution that Manic works at. The plug-in syncs to the host project tempo, and hits (samples) are placed using the Hits/Beat setting. A setting of 1.00 would instruct Manic to place hits on the beat only, while a setting of 4.00 would extend the resolution to four hits per beat. The Swing parameter randomizes the timing of each individual hit.
The sliders next to the sample slots set the probability that each sample will play, and the 'd' buttons next to those route each sample to the delay effect.
The likelihood of the delay affecting each sound Is controlled via the Delay Probability setting, while the delay time is set using the Hits control. Feedback and Cutoff parameters determine the length and timbre of the delayed signal.
Finally, we have the randomization options for each sample. Manic doesn't feature velocity layers or key switching. Instead, you can randomize the volume. pan and pitch of each sample. You can also have the samples play backwards, if desired.
Fauna is a unique instrument designed for the synthesis of abstract and animal voices. It uses a physical modelling technique called waveguide synthesis to generate its raw sounds. This involves the use of delay lines to model the transmission of sound through the vocal tract. A number of parameters describe the shape of the tract and emulate its acoustic properties in five different segments. Up to nine modulators can be assigned to further enhance the simulation of organic forms. These include note velocity, key scaling, LFOs, envelopes and the mod wheel.
At first, Fauna can be quite overwhelming - it's home to a number of parameters that will be unfamiliar even to experienced synthesists. Along the top panel are the parameters associated with the base-level sound generation or physical modelling aspects. Many of the controls are described in terms of the vocal tract model, so you'll find such things as Pressure. Length and Tension. To the right is an X/Y pad and four sets of five sliders that describe the shape of the five vocal tract segments. The X/Y pad can be used to morph between the four sets for immediate dynamic control of timbre.
The rest of the synth's interface should be at least vaguely familiar. The other parameters are all for modulation and routing. Fauna's modulation and sound-shaping capabilities are extensive, including four multistage envelopes and three dual-contour LFOs. For routing. you've got nine sends and two "splits", which enable modulators to be routed to multiple parameters.
Fauna doesn't display its parameter values, so we're using percentage descriptions in the walkthrough. While it was originally built to generate vocal sounds. it's more than capable of producing excellent pad and bass tones, too. The movement, detail and variation can be far more interesting that that of more conventional synths.