5 Sound Design Hacks

Posted by James Cullen on

Here at Top Music Arts, we know how important it is to get your music production right, and more than anything, we know how many factors contribute to an overall finished product that you’re happy with. 

We’ve covered many areas of production, from mixing and harmony to performing live, but today we are going to give you some sound design hacks to help you in your quest to become the world’s greatest music producer! Or you know...just to improve your skills, that’s your call.

So, get your notebook out, because we’ve got some great tips for you. You can use sound design to really influence what your listeners are hearing in your music, and a lot of these techniques only require basic knowledge of how our ears process sounds!


The Haas Effect


The Haas Effect is a psycho-acoustic phenomenon discovered by Dr Helmut Haas in 1949. We will spare you too many details, other than to say that Dr Haas discovered that when one sound is followed by another sound with a delay time of roughly 40 ms or less (which is below humans’ echo threshold), the two are perceived as a single sound

This is important because it relates to how we process sound as well as the sound’s spatial location, and you can use this in your mixes!

To hear the Haas Effect in practice, you’ll need a Mono source of sound in your project. You’ll then need to duplicate this Mono track, panning the original and the duplicate hard left and right, respectively.

Now, add a Delay to one of the tracks, and start to bring up the delay time, remembering to keep it under 40ms. It’s worth noting that you’ll want to set the delay time above 5ms, as this can actually enhance phase cancellation between your two sources of sound, so you may have one sound starting to sound much more dominant over the other.

The key with the Haas effect is that, providing you keep your delay time under 40ms, you won’t add any perceived repetitions of the sound. What you’ll be doing is adding to the perceived stereo image and dimension of an otherwise flat Mono sound source!

Another great point about this is that it tricks the brain into hearing a wide stereo image, but your centre is actually left free for other instruments!

Try it out!


You need to know about Frequency Masking

Frequency Masking is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a particularly annoying phenomenon in which two sounds that have overlapping frequencies can interfere, usually with the louder of the two cancelling the quieter one out.

This obviously has direct implications to consider when you’re mixing, because chances are, if there’s a sound in your track, you’ve put it there on purpose, so you don’t want it to completely disappear due to frequency masking.


Check out the chart above, courtesy of LANDR. It’s full of information on what instruments occupy which frequencies in the spectrum, so it can help you identify your choices of instruments from the start. Think about frequency masking from the writing stage of your song, as this could inform your choice of instruments used!

It’s one of the main reasons EQ was developed, to carve out those annoying frequency clash zones, but there’s only so much you can do this way, so take care to really consider your frequencies when you’re writing your music!


The Fletcher-Munson Phenomenon.

The human ear’s natural frequency response is not a linear response to sound. We hear in a non-linear way, and this has implications when you’re mixing or producing music. What this means is that our ears are more sensitive to mid-range sounds than frequencies at the extreme high and low ends of the spectrum.


So, how do our ears’ sensitivity to the mid-range manifest on a practical level?

When you play back a piece of music at a low level, you may notice the Mids are the prominent thing you’re hearing. Now as you gradually turn it up, the level increasing might make you notice that the ‘mid-boost’ bias of your hearing system has less of an effect, with the high and low frequency sounds seeming proportionally louder (and closer)

Now, we don’t actively notice this all of the time, because we’ve been hearing this way forever, and our brain takes into account the mid-range bias, but it does come into effect when you’re mixing. So much so that the relative levels of instruments at different frequencies can actually change depending on the overall volume you’re listening at.

So how can you get around this?

Luckily for you, Fletcher and Munson have got your back. Researchers Harvey Fletcher and Wilden A. Munson discovered that our brains are worse at perceiving the balancing of instruments at higher volumes, because everything sounds ‘closer’. 

This is because our natural hearing has evolved in the earth’s atmosphere, where sounds lose their higher (and to an extent lower) frequencies over long distances. This, coupled with how we have a boosted mid-range response, basically means that when you hear something louder, it sounds closer because you can hear the extreme lows and mids too.

You may have heard the tip: mix your track at a low volume. This is directly because of this Phenomenon. You should be able to do the best balancing at lower volumes (while saving yourself some ear strain too!)

The loudness/closer effect on the non-linear hearing response aspect of the Fletcher-Munson phenomenon is also true in reverse. While you can cut the midrange or boost the highs and lows to create perceived loudness at lower levels, you can also do the opposite. If you cut the high and low frequencies of a sound in your mix, you can make it sound further away! Try this with elements you want to stand out and others you don’t, you can send elements ‘further back’ in the mix by using this trick of perceived distance we have with our hearing.


Creating more Ambience with Reverb Reflections


Sometimes you just want a sound to have that little bit more character, and you can achieve some great results with a Reverb plug in. If you want to thicken or add ‘warmth’ to your sounds, try using a Reverb with early reflections to help elongate the louder portion of the sound in a natural and ambient way. 

When you think of Reverb, you think of it making things sound like they’re a mile away, or in a cavernous cathedral. But using this trick you can actually make the source sound much thicker and warmer by playing with super early reflections. It’s all about the timing though, so applying the reflections before they register as ‘repeats’ instead of just the same original source sound, sort of like the Haas effect which we discussed earlier!


Use Noise to your advantage!


There are several ways you can use Noise to aid you in your production. One such way -which we’ve mentioned before- is using Pink Noise to mix your tracks. The basics of this are, you use a Soloed Pink Noise sample at about -9dB to individually mix the elements of your track against, lowering the volume of everything and then gradually bringing it up against the Pink Noise until it’s barely audible just above it. The idea behind this is that it allows you to get a good balanced mix, which you can then add small tweaks to if you want individual parts to stand out.

But that’s not all you can do with noise. Most DAWs have a built in Noise Generator, but if yours doesn’t, chances are one of your synths does. You can use the various types of Noise to add density and layering to your tracks, so experiment and see which one works for the particular purpose you’re after. You could add bursts of noise to a synth part, or use filtered noise for build ups to different sections. White Noise is also great for adding some punch to a snare sound!


Hopefully the tips above have given you some new tools in your arsenal for creating music. It’s good to know the basic principles of sound like the Haas Effect or the Fletcher-Munson Phenomenon, so you can take advantage of how you can use them in your music. There are endless amounts of possibilities when you look into this area of music production.

Sure, it might be a bit technical, learning about frequencies and the human hearing mid-range bias curve and such, but it’s always useful to learn more ways to wow your audience. There’s more to music than just the rhythm and melody.

The name of the game though, is to experiment. New genres, styles and emerging artists didn’t get where they are today by sticking exactly to the rules they were taught. Rules were made to be broken, principles to be questioned, methods to be challenged. Try anything that you think makes your music sound good!

Thanks for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts, and as always, head to the rest of our site for some great deals on Ableton Templates and more!

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