Sound Design with Inspired by Nature: Vector FM

Posted by James Cullen on

So, in the first part of our collection of guides which focuses on the Ableton Live pack Inspired by Nature, we covered three devices. They were Bouncy Notes, Emit and Tree Tone.

Shout out to ELPHNT on YouTube for highlighting these devices and bringing them to my attention! It's a funny feeling when you stumble upon something that's been under your radar for so long, and I find it can trigger a frustration of wondering what else is out there that you're not aware of yet. But that's the beauty of music production; there's always something new to discover, waiting for you just around the corner. 

So, as we mentioned in those previous guides, the Inspired by Nature pack is a collection of seven devices which create sound by emulating the way forces work in nature. We had some cool imitations of gravity and the way plants grow, and interesting uses of virtual particles in controlling how sound is emitted.

The next devices we are going to cover are all Vector devices.

These are:

  • Vector FM
  • Vector Grain
  • Vector Delay
  • Vector Map

We'll go over the ins and outs of each of these, covering their basic controls and operations.

But in this guide, we are going to focus on Vector FM.

 

Vector Devices

Inspired by Natures contains three vector devices - Vector FM, Vector Grain and Vector Delay. These all use the same particle system contained in a 3D visual interface as their focus on creating sound, where each particle is a visual representation of an individual voice. 

Each particle's movement is influenced by simulated forces of gravity and magnetism, or the particles are sent through a flow field. You have direct control over the various parameters which effect the particle's movement, meaning you can get a wide variety of sounds from them.

  • Gravity - in the context of these Vector devices, gravity dictates the attraction towards a body with a certain gravitational strength.
  • Flowfield - this is a path based on directional forces which determine the particles' ability to move left, right, up, down and diagonally.
  • Magnetism - this is a sort of pseudo-magnetism, as it's really based on each particle's charge and the gravitational attraction between particles, based on that charge.

You can tell just from reading the way these are described that they are going to be interesting ways of working with sound design, so let's go over the first device.

 

Vector FM

Vector FM is a granular FM instrument with a really unique modulation system. Before we go any further, let's take a moment to remind ourselves about what FM synthesis is.

FM Synthesis is synthesis where the frequency of a waveform is changed by modulating it with a modulator. So, using the amplitude of a modulating signal, we can change the frequency of an oscillator. FM Synthesis is interesting because it can create both harmonic and inharmonic sounds. We are taking a Carrier signal and then using a Modulator signal, to totally change the timbre of our sound, without the use of filters.

FM Synthesis can be quite complex, so if you're unsure at any point in our explanation of Vector FM, head over and read all about the basics of FM Synthesis. I found a good guide here.

Like all the devices in this guide, the sound in Vector FM is controlled by the particle system. You can see this in the image below on the left hand side of the device. The interesting thing about Vector FM is how it takes a relatively straightforward FM Synthesiser and puts the modulation in the hands of this unique particle system. There are a tonne of controls in Vector FM, so we will go over the main ones here. 

A note before we continue, it's inevitable that we aren't going to cover every control in minute detail here, but remember, you can always click the disclosure triangle in the bottom left of Live's screen, which will give expanded info on anything you hover your cursor over! And this isn't unique to Inspired by Nature, this is true for all of Ableton Live.

Let's have a look at the controls.

To the right of the device are additional controls, as well as four tabs which each open different sections of Vector FM, allowing precise adjustments of various parameters.

When you load it up in a new track, the ADSR controls are shown by default providing that you're in MIDI mode. This means that notes are created by incoming MIDI signals. 

But the four tabs are where you really get into the fine tuning of things, so let's check out those tabs, and see how we can get into making some sounds with Vector FM.


The first tab is the Operators tab. If you've used Ableton's Operator, you'll be familiar with this. I've set it to run three operators for the purposes of demonstrating how it works.
The numbered buttons in a row along the top dictate how many operators you have at once, and the patterns below let you organise how the routing works.
When you have two or more operators are enabled in Vector FM, you start to notice some really wonderfully weird changes in your sound. Each new MIDI note corresponds to a new operator,  the characteristics of which will depend on the FM configuration.
In default, the first note you play will create a sine wave, and the second note will then frequency modulate the first note. A third note will create a new carrier, while a fourth note will then modulate the carrier.
What's really cool here is that you see this represented visually; each carrier appears in the display, and the modulator is then joined by a line to its carrier particle.  You're seeing the direct interactions on the screen, which is unique, and a good bit of visual feedback for when you're adjusting parameters and seeing the changes in real time.
 
The second tab is where all of your conventional FM Synthesis controls are. Earlier we mentioned the Carrier and the Modulator, and here is where you can set the waveforms for each of these.
When only one operator is enabled, the carrier will modulate itself, based on the Ratio and Index values, which you can see in the Modulator section. Adjusting these will change the timbre of the sound rather considerably. 
It's also worth noting that when the Index is moved all the way down to zero, you can use Vector FM like a conventional subtractive synthesiser, and then the Filter section will adjust your timbre.
Now, the five knobs along the bottom of the audio parameters tab, with their corresponding dropdown boxes, represent some unique controls for the Particle Attributes.
These let you manipulate elements of the device using attributes of the particles within the visualisation screen. 
These are:
  • X Modulation this allows you to control the depth of modulation applied to the selected parameter, and this modulation is controlled by the horizontal (or X axis) position of the particle.
  • Y Modulation - the same as above, only the modulation is controlled by the vertical (or Y axis) position of the particle.
  • Magnitude Modulation - this one sets the depth of modulation applied to your selected parameter, but uses the magnitude of the particle positions, which is the distance from the centre.
  • Velocity Modulation - like the ones above, this controls how much modulation is applied to the selected parameter, but in this case the velocity (or speed) of the particle controls that modulation.
  • Mass Modulation - finally, we have the modulation of your selected parameter being controlled by the particle's size.

 

So, in the dropdown menu underneath each of these controls each contain a selection of parameters that these controls can modulate. Using these you can get really creative with these controls, routing modulation to a variety of parameters within Vector FM

What's cool, is that each note played into Vector FM creates its own individual particle, and these all apply their own modulation to the note. All of these controls can work together to get some really wacky results for your sounds. 

Mass

So let's take a detour to talk about Mass.

The final control we discussed above (Mass Modulation) used the Mass of each particle to modulate an assigned control. This tab is where we can adjust and control the mass of the particles in Vector FM.
It's possible to have a fixed mass for each particle, as well as to have the mass randomised.
The Mass control is where you select the fixed mass of each particle, and the Rnd>Mass is where you select the amount of randomness applied to the mass of each particle when it's generated. 
The cool thing about the Mass in Vector FM, is that not only does it affect the modulated parameter, but it also effects the behaviour of the particles within the simulation. This is, after all, a physics emulating algorithm, so it makes sense that Mass would have such an effect here. In the next section we discuss how you can control the forces acting on the particles, and in turn, you'll see how Mass would dictate how each particle interacts with those forces.
It's a really cool combination of things working together to create some really unique sounds.

Using the Force

The final tab is the Force settings tab. This is where you control the parameters of the forces acting upon the particles. 
You'll notice there is a square in the centre of the display. This is called the Attractor. You decide how much the particles are attracted to this using the Strength control. 
Particles also have charges, either Positive or Negative
(This is really beginning to feel like a physics lesson isn't it?) 
The controls under the Attracts heading dictate whether the Attractor pulls in positive, negative, or both.  The Magnetism control up in the top right also can be used to influence particles' behaviour with regard to their charge. This affects whether oppositely charged particles attract or repel one another.
You can see in the image above that the Flowfield option is enabled. Rather than placing an attractor in the centre and allowing the particles to interact with that, this places a grid of vectors (directional forces) which allow movement of the particles in more specific and complex ways. 
When the Flowfield option is enabled, the grid of forces can be changed by dragging the mouse over the grid of directions. You can modify the direction of each cell based on the mouse movements between them.
The Flowfield option contains the same controls as the attractor.
  • Strength sets the amount of force the vectors exert on the particles. Note that if the velocity is high, more strength is needed for the particles to closely follow the directions you've set.
  • Moveand the three buttons below it control which charge or colour of particles the Flowfield applies force to.
  • Size controls the resolution of the Flowfield, the higher the resolution, the more vectors there are, which results in a complex movement pattern. 
The important thing to bear in mind about all of this, is to try these changes out as we're going through them in the guide. This is because even small adjustments to these parameters can have quite drastic effects on the overall sound. So experiment!
These are free devices if you're running Live 11 so there's no excuse!

Vector FM thoughts

Vector FM is a really unique instrument. It's possible to get super specific with the controls, and create a wide range of sounds from inharmonic spooky drones to more musical timbres.

The key to success with this is - of course - experimentation. Sort of like with physics in the real world!

There are countless different combinations of settings you can use within Vector FM, each of them creating drastically different results, so get messing around with it and see what you can come up with!

As always, thanks for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts, and be sure to let us know down in the comments if you've been trying out the Inspired by Nature devices as we've been covering them in our guides. While you're here, be sure to check out our deals on Ableton Live Project templates, which are a great way to learn how a professional level track is put together!


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