Creating Rhythms and Textures with the Granulator II by Robert Henke
If working with field recordings is as exciting for you as it is for me, a natural extension in the practice is to find those tools that can extract more sonic magic out of your samples. With sample-based granular synthesizers, I usually find myself rendering interesting results. Granular synthesis, in essence, means looping very brief segments of sound, thereby creating sonic 'grains'. One of the devices I am most familiar with, and which works very well for me, is the Granulator II by Robert Henke (for more information about this digital media and sound artist, check out his website). It comes included with Ableton 10 Suite and can be downloaded from Ableton's website.
The Max for Live device Granulator II, developed by Robert Henke
To use it you simply drop a sample into the window of the device (which has been placed on a midi track in Ableton), start playing it with a sustained midi note (C3 will play the fundamental pitch of the sample) or play different notes with your keyboard and lose yourself in experimental sound design by tweaking various parameters. Some of the key features and functionality include:
Zoom / Out buttons, located directly above the Grain control, lets you zoom in and out of the sample. By dragging the number to the left of the Zoom button, it is possible to zoom vertically
FilePos. By turning the knob or klicking in the sample window you move the playhead within the sample
Grain adjusts the grain size, that is, how quickly (in Hz) the playhead is looping. Hence, this adjusts the character (including pitch) and content of the sound. In order to create some grain variation there is an LFO, a random detuner and a stereo width (spread) control
Spray randomly moves the playhead around within a time interval of the sample, thereby achieving constant variation in the sound
Scan adds additional position modulation by scanning through the file while playing. The curve parameter modifies the scanning speed as a function of time
Crossfade control, or the so called window function (located between Scan and AM) lets you modify the envelope of the crossfade between each grain
AM (amplitude modulation) lets you randomly mute or change volume of individual grains
Voices in the bottom right corner of the device lets you decide how many voices, or layers, of looped grains you want to be able to play. This setting also impacts for example the Spray function, as the instrument will randomly shift around the various layers within the sample
Pitch, in the Filter view, lets you change pitch and detune. This is one of my favorite controls. By controlling parameters with an LFO, melodic sequences can be created
Note that for most controls there are built in LFOs which make it easy to create sounds which are constantly changing. For more LFO control, the LFO device in Max for Live is an excellent companion to the Granulator (and to any instrument for that matter). There are also a number of classic synthesis parameters such as an ADSR envelope, filters and an FM oscillator.
On this page from Robert Henke's website, most of the functionality is explained more in depth with sound examples. In addition, here is a tutorial video by Frequent which gives you an example of how the Granulator can be played.
When I was using the Granulator for the spatial audio piece for this project, I found the fact that I had collected all my sounds in one single sample both practical and, at a relatively low grain frequency (long loop), I was able to use the Granulator as a generative sequencer, playing different sounds from my sample. I managed to generate some quite satisfying beats and melodies in this way. Examples of this can be heard in the finished piece, for example at 16:00 and 20:00 minutes. I was using an LFO to get the changes in pitch. This was in fact the only LFO I was using. As I was going for a quite repetitive and hypnotic style, I did not want too much random change. I also wanted to preserve the recorded sounds as much as possible and not introduce too many digital artefacts.
I hope this introduction of the Granulator II has motivated you to start experimenting with the device or try some new ways of using it. At the moment this is one of my favorite instruments of all.