Sound Depends on Context May 28, 2016 17:39
Every now and then someone will ask me “In your demo for this bank, what preset is playing at x:xx time?” It’s interesting when you think about it, at most there might be 128 sounds in my banks, but once you factor in the type of sound, pluck, lead etc you’ve narrowed the search to about 25 sounds. So how hard can it be to find the match? The exact sound used in the demo is right there, among those 25, and many of my newer demos are practically unprocessed.
Well as it turns out context is quite important. It’s quite easy to hear the same sound in two different contexts and conclude that they are not the same sound. The fact is, the same thing has happened to me. You hear something in a demo, you get the thing and then it doesn’t quite sound as good. Conversely, sometimes I'll be sent some music which sounds totally fresh to me, and the producer will then tell me how much of it makes use of one of my banks and I will hardly recognize it. Some of this is due to processing, EQ, compression and multi-band compression can all create drastic changes, but even when such processing is not used there is another reason for this difference in perception, namely context.
If you hear a sound with a melody and a musical context such as a backing track, it’s possible it won't sound quite the same in isolation or with a different melody. Now, once you are aware of this, and with a little bit of ear training you can minimize the problem and learn to hear a sound as it actually is without being too influenced by the melody and other context. In a way, it's not all that different from the McGurk effect.
So what’s the take away here? Well for starters, if you’re going to go after a certain sound, make sure you’ve totally nailed the melody, or at least have it in the same key and octave as the original sound, don't under-estimate the importance of the rhythm and the swing timing. It greatly helps to add some essential accompanying elements like bass and percussion, listen for things that really make the source track stand-out. You'll need to make an educated guess about which synth with suit the sound the best, trying it on a couple of different ones can help. This is the surest way to have a chance at nailing the sound.
The second thing is, when you’re auditioning or programming sounds, make sure they fit the context and hopefully the whole process will be more productive. Some presets just don't sound very exciting until they are put to work in the right context.