How Granular Synthesis Works

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Granular synthesis might sound like a complex term, but it’s a powerful tool for working with sound.

It has changed the way we think about and manipulate audio. This method breaks a sound wave into tiny units called grains. This lets sound professionals change pitch and time in new ways.

Each tiny grain of sound can be changed on its own.

When we look at how granular synthesis works, we’ll see how changing the grains themselves changes the sound we hear. This technique is more than just a new idea, it’s been a key turning point in sound design.

We’re going to talk about how this method works in detail below. By the end of this guide, you’ll know exactly how granular synthesis is done.

Granular Synthesis Fundamentals

Granular synthesis is a way to create sounds by breaking down some form of audio into tiny parts called grains, and manipulating them. These grains are very small, usually lasting only 1 to 100 milliseconds.

Once the sound is broken down, you can change how it plays back.

You can change how many grains there are, how long they last, their pitch, volume, and where they sound like they’re coming from. You can also change the order they play in, loop them, play them backwards, or scatter them.

An Audio File and an Individual Audio Grain Depicted

This means granular synthesis can make a lot of different types of sounds from just a small bit of initial audio.

The great thing about granular synthesis is that it keeps the special parts of the original sound, but you still have a lot of control over what the final sound will be.

This allows you to design sounds that wouldn’t be possible in other forms of audio synthesis.

Tools and Techniques

To use granular synthesis, you need special software. There are many types of this software. Some work on their own, while others work inside music creation platforms, known as digital audio workstations or DAWs.

For example, Granulator II is a tool that you can use with Ableton Live to generate synth sounds. Then there’s Melodyne, a tool that’s great at changing pitch and timing. This shows how flexible granular synthesis can be.

There are lots of options to play with within various software options, like the size of the grains, how many there are, their pitch, and where they are placed.

This means you can keep trying out new things to get the sound you want.

You can create soft background sounds, sharp and sudden sounds, or even stretch a sound out over a long time without changing its pitch.

Here are some popular granular synths in use today:

  1. Tasty Chips Electronics GR-1: This is a standalone hardware granular synthesizer that allows you to manipulate sounds in interesting ways. Its intuitive controls and beautiful design make it a favorite among professionals and hobbyists alike.
  2. Output’s Portal: This is a granular synthesis plugin that is designed to take your sound to new dimensions. It offers deep control over the granular synthesis process and also includes a variety of effects and modulations.
  3. Steinberg’s Padshop Pro: This is a granular synthesizer that excels at creating lush, atmospheric pads. It offers two granular engines, a variety of modulation options, and a built-in effects section.
  4. Native Instruments’ Form: This is a powerful synth that uses sample-tracking technology.
  5. Granulizer 2 by Inertia Sound Systems: This plugin is designed for experimental sound design. It offers a range of controls over grain size, density, pitch, and more, allowing you to create complex, evolving soundscapes.
  6. Particle 2 by AudioThing: A granular delay / pitch shifting plugin. It can produce a wide range of effects, from traditional echo and chorus effects to particle clouds and glitchy, time-stretched sounds.
The Tasty Chips GR-1 Granular Hardware Synthesizer
The Tasty Chips GR-1

Granular Synthesis Techniques

There are many different ways to use granular synthesis to create exciting sounds.

Here are some techniques that are favored by sound designers around the world:

  • Grain Clouds: This technique involves creating several grains at once, which can then be manipulated in terms of pitch, duration, and volume. The result can range from a dense cloud of sound to more sparse, textural sounds.
  • Time Stretching: This technique is used to lengthen or shorten a sound without affecting its pitch. In granular synthesis, this is achieved by changing the rate at which grains are played back.
  • Pitch Shifting: Sound designers can also change the pitch of a sound without changing its duration. This is done by altering the playback speed of individual grains.
  • Grain Skipping: This technique involves skipping certain grains during playback, resulting in a glitchy, stuttering effect.
  • Scanning: This technique involves moving the start point of the grains through a sound file, which can create a variety of effects depending on the speed and direction of the scan.
  • Layering: This involves stacking multiple layers of grains on top of each other, each with different settings. This can create a rich, complex sound.
  • Granular Delay: This effect is achieved by feeding the output of a granular synthesis process back into its input. This creates a kind of echo effect, where the sound is repeated with a delay.
  • Grain Modulation: This involves changing the parameters of the grains over time, such as their size, shape, or pitch. This can create a wide range of sounds, from subtle changes in tone to drastic transformations.
  • Granular Resynthesis: This technique involves taking a sound, breaking it into grains, and then reconstructing it. This allows for a high level of control over the sound and can create very unique effects.

Another thing you can do is change the sound/audio file itself. This lets you pick and choose parts of the file to make new sounds with. You have to be careful to pick the right start and end points for the grains.

There’s also something called spray effects. This makes the sound spread out and change over time. It’s like watching a cloud change shape. By changing the envelope parameters, you can control how the sound starts, continues, and ends. This is important for shaping the overall sound.

Granular Synthesis Parameters

There are many different controls and parameters that can be adjusted on a granular synthesizer.

How you combine these various changes will impact the sound that you end up with. It’s usually a good idea to just experiment with the different controls to see how they affect the sound you’re trying to design.

After enough time, you’ll start to know exactly how these parameters work and affect a sound.

Most of the controls have to do with manipulating the grains of audio themselves (obviously), but there are others that can help enhance your sound as well.

Software Granular Synth Screenshot
Granular Synth by Cherry Audio

Here’s the most common parameters and controls you’ll come across on a granular synth.

  1. Grain Size: determines the size of the audio fragments that the synthesizer works with. A smaller grain size can create a smoother, more continuous sound, while a larger grain size can create a more choppy, fragmented sound.
  2. Grain Density: determines how many grains are played back at once. Higher density can create a thicker, more complex sound.
  3. Grain Pitch: allows you to change the pitch of each grain individually, creating a wide range of possible sounds.
  4. Grain Position: determines where in the original audio sample the grain is taken from.
  5. Grain Envelope: controls the amplitude envelope (ADSR) of each grain.
  6. Grain Pan: controls the spatial distribution of the grains (where the grains appear in the stereo field – i.e. left of right speaker, etc.).
  7. Grain Scanning Speed: controls the rate at which the synthesizer scans through the original audio sample.
  8. Grain Modulation: lets you apply modulation to the grains, which can create a variety of effects including vibrato, tremolo, and frequency modulation.
  9. Reverb/Delay: add additional depth and texture via ambience and echo to the sound.
  10. Feedback: controls the amount of audio signal that is fed back into the input, creating a feedback loop that can generate complex, evolving sounds.
  11. Sample Rate Reduction: reduces the sample rate (how many “snapshots” of audio data are captured) of the grains, creating a lo-fi, digital distortion effect.
  12. Bit Depth Reduction: reduces the bit depth (how “deep” each snapshot of audio is) of the grains, creating a similar but distinctively different type of digital distortion.

By manipulating these parameters and controls in various ways, you can create a wide range of new and interesting sounds with a granular synthesizer.

The Creative Potential of Granular Synthesis

Granular synthesis lets musicians and sound designers make sounds that are different from normal audio tricks. They can chop up and rearrange sound pieces to make new and experimental sounds. This can make listeners think differently about what music can be.

There is so much you can do with granular synthesis. By tweaking the grains, you can make new and complex sound patterns that were not possible before. This has changed the way we make sound art, movie scores, and electronic music. The only limit with granular synthesis is your imagination.

This form of synthesis can make old samples sound new or turn simple sounds into rich and detailed ones. Granular synthesis is not just a sound tool, but a way to express yourself in new and exciting ways.

It allows for a wide range of sounds to be created. Here are some types of sounds that can be made effectively using granular synthesis:

  1. Evolving Soundscapes: granular synthesis excels at creating evolving, atmospheric soundscapes
  2. Time-Stretched Sounds: stretch sounds in time without changing their pitch, creating unique effects.
  3. Glitchy Sounds: create glitchy, complex sounds that would be difficult to produce with other synthesis methods.
  4. Pads and Drones: create rich, deep pads and drones by smearing and stretching out sounds.
  5. Abstract Sound Design: often used in sound design for film and video games to create otherworldly and abstract sounds.
  6. Textural Percussion: By manipulating the grains of percussive sounds, granular synthesis can create unique, textural percussive sounds.

Future of Granular Techniques

Technology is getting better and better. This means that granular synthesis in audio production is set to grow.

The growth of this area is driven by better technology that lets us control tiny sounds in more detail. As computers get stronger and smarter, we can do more new things with sound. This helps both sound designers and musicians to work with complex sounds more easily.

Granular synthesis opens up almost endless possibilities for sound design.

We expect future versions of granular processors to be easier, and more powerful, to use. This will help users connect deeper and faster with the material. People who do not have a lot of technical knowledge will also be able to use it quickly, as well. This will make it easier for more people to create art with sound.

Moreover, the use of granular techniques in virtual reality and augmented reality can make these experiences even better.

By using tiny sounds, creators can make very realistic settings or strange, magical atmospheres. This will make the story and emotions in these digital worlds even stronger.

Granular synthesis is about to enter a new age. It will be used in many more ways than just making music. But it will forever be a way of creating interesting sounds for your musical productions as well.

What to Do Next

Thanks for reading this complete guide on granular synthesis for beginners. Next up, deep-dive into another area you’d like to learn about.

We recommend learning about additive synthesis next, in this guide.

Or check out:

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