Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Volca Sample tips and tricks

This articles is part of my ongoing series on Desktop Electronic Music (DEM). The landing page provides easy access.

My last article presented overview of the Korg Volca Sample. This sample player holds up to 100 different sounds, though the 4MB of memory enforces a total duration of only 65 seconds. If you have experience with old-school samplers, you will be right at home with these restrictions. But readers more familiar with software samplers might be perturbed. How can we get useful results without gigabytes of memory?

This article will run through a number of ticks and tricks, some specific to the Volca Sample. Be sure you've read my previous article, which points you to useful software and other resources for your Volca. To clarify terminology: A sequence is a pattern of sixteen beats. A sequence includes up to 10 parts, each of which has a sound chosen from one of 100 samples.

Preparing samples

First, make notes! Use a notepad, spreadsheet, or whatever system you like to list the samples you are using on a given piece, together with their size. Consider how many you might need and which are superfluous. This is especially useful if you are trying to pack in as many samples as possible. The unit itself does not tell you how much space remains, but simply refuses to load excess samples.

Delete all samples you don't need from the Volca. This frees up memory for other samples, since the total memory is shared over the 100 slots. You can only have ten parts per sequence, so perhaps you only need ten samples in the unit. Load a new bank of samples for your next track, clearing as you go. This is not a good strategy for live performance, but works in the studio.

The Volca Sample is a stereo unit, but consider if you really need a stereo sample. Mono sounds can be panned later on, to produce a wider sound stage. For drum hits a mono sound should be more than sufficient... and this save you half the memory.

Consider the sampling rate of 31,250 Hz. The samples you start with are likely 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, or maybe even higher. Resample your sound to reduce the file size. (I should point out that Vosyr will automatically do this in any case, so that the samples load properly on the unit. But it's a good general principle.)

Trim all files down to the shortest usable length. This is already the case for the factory samples. When you audition them individually, some seem too short, to the point of being unusable. But in the context of a drum pattern, they sound fine.

Use the Volca's features

Long cymbal crashes or legato sounds are likely not possible. But that's why the unit has a reverberation effect that can be assigned per instrument. Augment a short sample with reverb to produce a longer tail.

One of the most important features on the Volca Sample is the "Loop" toggle. A typical drum machine does not need to loop samples, since they are one-shot by nature. But the Volca Sample can repeat a sound, retriggering it for as long as its amplitude envelope permits.

Here we come to an amazing trick. Audition a sample by playing it from the touch panel. At the same time as you play it, quickly tweak the "Amp Decay" knob to its maximum setting. The sound will now just keep playing, without a decay. It's a hidden mode for infinite sustain! (Thanks to Schtang on YouTube.)

The "Start Point" and "Length" of the sample can be adjusted. If the sample has a percussive attack, increasing the "Start Point" skips the impulse component, resulting in a smoother onset. If the sample has a significant decay, reduce the "Length" to the point where the sample is still sustaining. By making both of these adjustments, you retain only the steady-state portion of the sample, which will now loop more seamlessly. You are now well on your way to legato parts and pads.

When working with pads, it's often good to layer similar sounds, but starting on different beats. This will help cover up the glitch that might be heard at the start of the sample. If you are working with a drum rhythm, choose those beats of the measure that already have a strong drum hit. No-one will hear the loop restart if its masked by a snare drum.

The "Speed" control also adjusts pitch, since the sound is not being resampled, but simply stretched. The Volca Sample has an enormous range here, so you can slow down a sound to a subterranean rumble, or speed it up to a bird call. In the first case, a short sample lasts much longer. Used judiciously, you get something for nothing.

Play entire parts

Now we come to a fantastic technique from old-school hardware sampling. Say you have created a bass pattern in an instrument but wish to play this back on the Volca. You will trigger this sample on the first beat of the sequence, and it will play for a whole measure. Pitch the bass up one or two octaves on the computer and save that sample, now much shorter. Once it's loaded onto the Volca, pitch it down by the same amount. Voila! It plays at the original pitch and tempo. (This manipulation might change the timbre, so you need to experiment.)

The Volca Sample gives you plenty of other ways to manipulate your sound, including a pitch envelope. Consider that you can start with the same basic sample, choose different regions of the file using "Start Point" and "Length", and further transform these until they are quite unrelated. In other words, you can get two sounds from the same sample, at no memory expense.

Combine the previous two techniques. You can play back a fixed bass part, but also extract individual notes, so you can create variations for different measures.

OK, that's it for now. Hopefully these thirteen tips will help you get the most out of your sampler. Under the surface the Volca Sample is quite a capable unit, if you use some ingenuity.

Summary of Tips

1. Make notes to track sample usage.
2. Delete sounds you won't be using.
3. Use mono samples.
4. Resample sounds to 31,250 Hz.
5. Trim files to the shortest usable length.
6. Augment a short sound with reverb.
7. Loop a sound to increase its duration.
8. Tweak "Amp Decay" for infinite sustain.
9. Adjust "Start Point" and "Length" to get a steady-state sound.
10. Use "Speed" to lengthen samples and adjust pitch.
11. Layer a pad using more than one instrument.
12. Pitch up the original sample and pitch back down in the Sample.
13. Extract different parts of a sample to create different sounds.


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