I sometimes tend to abuse plugins. It all comes down to the fact I used to be a young lad, who had no idea whatsoever how, for instance, equalizers or compressors work. Or how one’s supposed to check in/out levels. I begun doing hometaping with my Fostex X-15 four track cassette recorder, and while I was doing that, I was busy playing, not looking at the meters, for instance. Performance and sound first. This led to interesting results at times – as everyone, who has ever used a cassette recorder can witness. Overdrive and saturation were, quite literally, omnipresent. I think I burned down the inputs at least twice.

You need to play by the rules in order to know how to break them, if needed.

Petri Alanko

After a few synths and drum boxes, I had gotten my first sampler, an Ensoniq Mirage DMS-8, and I begun sampling my own library, some of which I still use. Mirage had a very, very, VERY limited metering, and thus pretty much each sample I fed into it was at least saturating, some even distorting, and not only thanks to me neglecting the levels… Truth to be told, Mirage wasn’t much good for anything else: it was marvellous when you just abused it a little, and should you have ever tried to do hi-fi things with it… nope. No can do. At least not mine, despite the fact I had an input sampling filter fixed into its explansion slot in the back, the module that could bring the sample rate up to 50kHz from the factory state 30kHz – however, the bits were awfully low, and thus the hi-fi rate was practically unusable, plus it ate the memory like a Hummer H1 eats gas.

Control – making you feel lost in an endless place

Since the machine had a two LED digit display, any graphic feedback for loop editing was useless. As was pretty much everything else, that relied on the graphic feedback, too. I used my ears for truncating the samples, as well as looping. Of course, no crossfade loops, so what you’d get was a constant PLUNK-mee-iow-SNAP-mee-iow-SNAP. But that was the start of it. I noticed some sounds got a new soul when they were transferred into Mirage, and in some cases what seemed like a boring source, they sort of found a new life when inserted into my sampler. I LOVED sampling. I walked everywhere with a dictaphone, just to temporarily store something cool, which I, later on, could put into Mirage.

I also had a few MIDI sequencers (In my Amiga, a Dr. T’s KCS sequencer software, and after a while I acquired an Atari, in which I first ran Steinberg stuff, only to adapt C-Lab Notator slightly afterwards, because it was used everywhere, thanks to its Unitor interface – it enabled SMPTE sync plus it had a MIDI expansion built-in. When Steinberg invented Avalon, the first affordable graphic sample editor, I finally was able to transfer my precious samples from Mirage over to my newly-acquired Yamaha TX16W (which was pure shit to edit, by the way) as well as my hugely expensive Akai S1000, which I owned 50/50 with my then studio mate. He had a space and speakers and mics, I had synth and sampler gear. A perfect union.

And there it, sort of, got off. I still, to this day, don’t like watching ins and outs. I love using my ears, and if the signal gets in a little too hot… who gives a shit if it sounds good? I know some people are crapping bricks having read I say that, but to be honest, that’s the truth. I tend to watch the meters only when outputting my material for distribution or implementation, which is when the EBU levels and dBFS/LUFS/etc. stuff need to be understood, of course. I don’t bend the rules there, they exist for a good reason, and there’s no point on bypassing them, since all you do then is make innocent peoples’ lives much harder.

I know some people are crapping bricks having read I say that.

My point is, you miss a lot if you just fly your plane watching the meters instead of the scenery, but taking off and landing, that’s where they come really handy. Listen to your sound, embrace it. You can tell if it sounds wack or bad, which is when you need to know what to do to fix it – and this is where learning the theory comes handy: You need to know the basics. You need to play by the rules in order to know how to break them, if needed. You need to know how your plugins work in order to get everything off them.

For instance, back in the day, long, long ago, I was thoroughly taken by the then new Logic addition, Space Designer. Convolution reverb. It was – compared to Logic’s other reverbs – miles ahead from the rest. It was basically a neat application of transfer function calculations, or inverse Fourier transform of the cross correlation… anyway, in short, a nice sounding plugin. I kept doing a soundtrack back then, using my own set of “battle elephant war drums” or simply, a set of large toms overdubbed and controlled by two continuous control pedals, the left one dealing with the number of samples being triggered, the right one controlling the pitch deviation between the samples, 12 velocity layers, each up to 12 or 14 round robins (to avoid the “machine gun” effect).

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Step on them both, and you’d have a lot of toms from left to right, from high to low. The samples were distributed on the keyboard so that in the middle, you’d hit the drum membrane middle, and towards the edges of the keyboard, you’d reach the rim. Basically, a nice set, but a little underwhelming, thanks to a poor microphone setup. No comp/EQ could beef it up enough, and neither did any psychoacoustic plugins I had then. I had to come up with a quick fix – or resample/re-edit the whole thing, maybe even employ a new sample set… but I had no time. The cue was meant to be sent to the studio that very same evening, and it was an important one.

I finally was able to transfer my precious samples from Mirage.

By accident, whilst just testing, I dragged a low tom sample into a Space Designer (instead of Kontakt), and I noticed it sounded actually quite cool: instead of room echo I had in it a second ago, I now had a huge BOOOOMPH in conjunction with the original tom set. It, in short, sounded really, really good. Beefy, fullbodied, dangerous. Some sum waves kept booming, so I shortened the original sample set release time and added a 1176 compressor to it. I then remembered there was a convolution module inside Kontakt, too…

I did a quick re-evaluation about the situation and decided to take my accident purposedly and knowing a tad further. I edited the tom sample I had used in Space Designer a little, added some pitch downwards scooping, eq and compression and then removed the initial transient (maybe 6-10 ms only), shortened the sample – and dragged it in the Kontakt’s convolution module. Then added another, similar sounding thing into Space Designer, taking care of the “summing” of the convoluted signals. With some parameter adjusting and multiband dynamics/EQing, I had The Hugest War Elephant Tom Monster Sound Set That Ate New Jersey And Shat What’s Now Known As Bermuda. YES!

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Petri Alanko

Petri Alanko (aka Lowland) is a BAFTA nominated Finnish composer, musician and producer. His dynamic repertoire ranges from the haunting orchestral/electronic score for Remedy Entertainment’s psycho-thriller, Alan Wake etc.