Today we’re looking at two essential sound design techniques that are pretty easy to get a hold of, but at the same time something you will use in the rest of your career. These two techniques are pitch shifting and pitch layering. So I hope that you’re just as excited as I am, because today we’re going to be designing some sounds!
Pitch Shifting is the simple act of raising or lowering the pitch of a sound. Almost every DAW has a plugin of some sort that can do this, so you should be able to get right into this!
As you can see on the picture below, I’ve set up a reaper session with three identical sounds on top of each other.
I recorded the motor of my handheld blender, which has this cool and dirty sci-fi laser sound. What I want from you, is to record something from where you live, as long as it sounds cool! You’re going to be using it in a minute! This is what my blender sounds like;
Now, take the sound that you recorded and put it onto three tracks, just like I did in the reaper example above. Put a pitch shifter plugin on two of the tracks. One track is going to be pitched up and the other one is going to be pitched down. I’ll show you my pitched up version to start with and then you can try the same thing with your sound. This is how my pitch plugin (ReaPitch) looks on the pitched up version.
As you can see, the only thing that I’ve done is pitching the sound up 24 semitones, which equates to two octaves. This introduces some sonic artifacts (think of this as digital errors in your audio), which isn’t that desirable most of the time but in this case it’s fine since I’m going for that sci-fi sound. This is how it sounds..
For the pitched-down version it was a little bit more complicated to get a good sound. Remember, this is all about experimentation. Not every sound is going to react the same way to being pitched… some are going to sound excellent pitched-up but horrible pitched-down and vice versa. This is how ReaPitch looked after getting a good pitched-down sound;
As you can see, I’ve messed around with formant shift as well but a word on that in a bit. As you can hear below, this version of the sound doesn’t stand on it’s own as well as the pitched-up version, but it would be an awesome layer combined with other sounds. That is the nature of pitching sounds. Now try pitching down the sound recorded before and see if you can get a good result.
A Quick Note On Formant Shifting
A formant is a concentration of acoustic energy in a particular frequency, resulting in a frequency boost or a resonance. Formant shifting basically introduces a resonance at a certain frequency, which I used in the above sounds to get some more punch and low-end.
Now comes the real “sound design-y” part! Pitch Layering! It’s pretty simple… Pitch layering just means taking the same sound and layering it on top of one another in different pitches. I’ve made another reaper session to demonstrate this.
Here I’ve taken just one of the blender sounds and layered it on top of another four times. I’ve focused on giving each layer a frequency focus, so one layer is focused on low-end, one high-end and so forth. This makes for a fuller sound with more depth, which is also what this technique is used for the most. You rarely hear sounds that are just built this way (but that shouldn’t stop you from doing just that of course!), but you will often see sound designers doing a bit of pitch layering to add some more low-end and beefy-ness to a sound effect. This is what the four layers sound like together;
Pretty cool I think! Now, of course you don’t have to use four layers.. you could use 2 or even 10, it’s all up to you. Try it with the sound you recorded and see if you can come up with something cool. Before we get to the exercise section, let’s try listening to the two layers we made in the beginning together.
The sound is suddenly a lot more attractive and complex, so you don’t even have to do that much to get a good sound out of something. Exciting!
- Record 10 sounds from your home and try pitching them up or down, save the best results for future use.
- Take notes while you’re pitching… what sounds good, what doesn’t?
- Make 3 pitch layering variations on each sound. Save the best results for future use.
- If you’re feeling fancy, try layering different source sounds and then using pitch layering on them. Again, save the best results for the future.