Sound Designer Roundtable

Have you have ever downloaded a ReFill from this site? Or even used a synth patch from the Reason Factory Soundbank? Then you probably know the work of this group of Reason sound designers. These guys have been very active creating their own ReFills as well as contributing to the Reason Factory Sound Bank. We wanted to know a little more about them and how they go about creating all those great sounds. And here is what they said.

Propellerhead: Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!

DANIEL OLSSON AKA EXODE - My name is Daniel and I'm a 29-year old sound designer that go by the alias of eXode. I've been into computer generated music since the mid 90-ies when I first discovered Pro Tracker for the Amiga platform. When the Amiga died and my needs expanded I moved on to the PC and FastTracker II. In 2004 I purchased Reason 2.5 and the rest is history.

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G.W. Childs. Photo:

G.W. CHILDS - My name is G.W. Childs, I am a musician/remix artist, sound designer and author based in the Bay Area of California.

As a musician I play in the Industrial/Goth band Soil & Eclipse, our most recent album is “the Mirror”. As a remix artist, I’ve remixed acts like Gene Love Jezebel, James Brown and Ray Charles.

I was one of the sound designers on Reason 3 and Reason 4, Cakewalk’s Rapture and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. I’ve also designed several original and reinvented several of the voice processes that have been heard in many of the Star Wars/LucasArts games over the last several years as well as working as a voice actor in some of the games like Star Wars: Battlefront.

In recent years I’ve written the books “Creating Music and Sound for Video Games”, “Rewire: Skill Pack” and I am currently finishing up “Using Reason on Stage”.

Also, I teach a digital composition college course at Globe Recording in San Francisco, which very much uses Reason.

JEREMY JANZEN - Hi. I'm Jeremy Janzen, Owner and Lead Designer at Nucleus SoundLab.

I'm a sound designer and composer living in Canada. To further sum myself up quickly: I'm a bassist who discovered sampling and computer music in the late 90s. I began creating my own sounds in 2003, and in the last few years sound design has become my full-time job. I love what I do!

FLATPACK - The two of us at Flatpack that do the sound design are Simon Price (now Sherbourne -- long story) and Ian Duncan. We are freelance engineers in the UK. As well as working on Flatpack, we both mix sound for film & TV. Ian also does a lot of music and programming work, and I write for Sound on Sound magazine.

KURT KURASAKI AKA PEFF - Most people in the online world know me as "Peff" (, which is sometimes odd since in the real world I just go by “Kurt”. I've been an avid user of Propellerhead software products for a long time and have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work on several different Reason projects. Besides programming patches for Reason 4.0 Factory Sound Bank, I was invited to be on the Reason Electric Basses sound design team. My other reason projects include the Power Tools for Reason Book Series, and a collaboration with Josh Mobley on the Music Production with Reason 4.0 DVD Tutorial. I’ve also been very fortunate in having been asked to present at several Producers Conferences.

MIKE GORMAN AKA LIZARD - My name is Mike Gorman known as Lizard to the Propellerhead community. I operate the Reason Community site CombinatorHQ. Initially I had thoughts of using the site to host the sounds/refills/backdrops I was personally creating but knew it would have a much greater use in serving as a tool to distribute the work of anyone so generous to share with the community.

Propellerhead: What kind of sounds do you make – do you have a 'signature' sound?

DANIEL OLSSON AKA EXODE - I do a wide range of sounds. From emulating vintage vintage synths to modern hybrid sound. Because the type and amount of sounds I've made are so great, It's hard to pick out a signature sound, there's so many of them that I'm fond of...

JEREMY JANZEN - I am far from an expert in electronic genres and their characteristic sounds. That actually serves me well, because I don't fall on those genre cliches in my sound design.

I try to create sounds that would work well in any genre of music. Good sounds are flexible enough for that.

FLATPACK - We like analog synth and drum sounds, and also tend toward dark, film-style textures and atmospheres.

KURT KURASAKI AKA PEFF - As it pertains to sound design projects, I generally work in a mimetic mode where specific guidelines are set, and sounds are created to fit into specific categories. These projects often involve replicating sounds of electronic and acoustic instruments. Within this framework, I try to take the approach of creating an instrument and not necessarily a specific tone. I’m never quite sure how the patch will be used, so I try to make something that has the flexibility of being part of an ensemble as well as solo instrument.

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Kurt Kurasaki, aka Peff

I would not say that I have a trademark style, however my favorite types of sounds are analog synth tones, ring modulation, and frequency modulation (FM) tones. This is especially apparent in my work for the Reason Factory Soundbank, where I contributed patches like "CCRMA E Piano" for the Subtractor, "Chowning Around" for Thor, and the "Dream in Sine Waves" Combinator Patch. I'm quite pleased with the results of my unorthodox programming techniques in combinator patches like "Strumm System", which uses Thor step sequencers to trigger guitar strumming events tied to velocity. Another example is the programming in the "Touch Orchestra" combi, where I applied the RPG-8 to create a moving solo violin lead. Also a patch, called "REX Pusher," where the mod wheel and pitch bend engage different effects.

MIKE GORMAN AKA LIZARD - I try to be as diverse as I can in sound creation from synths, percussive elements and sampled acoustic tones. I of course am a fan of the workstation style 'multi-layer' sounds available with the Combinator. However, I don't feel that I have a 'signature sound'. The bulk of my refill work has focused on vintage gear (sampled as well synth programming). I just really dig the old stuff and I enjoy having them at my fingertips with a quick click of a button within Reason. Perhaps my 'signature' is more like 'forgery'? LOL

Propellerhead: What, in your mind, constitutes a good sound?

DANIEL OLSSON AKA EXODE - A good sound in my mind can be many things, depending on it's use. The simplest way to describe it would be a sound that knows its place in a production. Depending on the project you might want a gentle mellow bass, soaring pad or a disted in-your-face lead. Whats important is that the sound is organic and not static, I think this is a key factor when doing sound design.

G.W. CHILDS - A good sound for me is a patch that you find yourself using on more than one song. Every time you are working on a track and you think to yourself, "Something's missing..." and then you play a part with that one sound that you love... you find it constantly filling in the blanks.

It's especially wonderful when the sound or patch has wonderful modifiers or knobs that quickly switch up the sound in ways that make it useful in different types of tracks. For example: By default the sound might be a low pad, but with a quick turn of a knob, it can be brightened up and used almost like a lead.

JEREMY JANZEN - I think a good sound is something that accomplishes two goals: a sound should be unique enough to catch and hold a listener's interest; and it should fit in a mix easily. That sounds simple, but really its quite hard to meet those criteria each and every time.

FLATPACK - We try to build patches that are like new instruments rather than flat sound presets, so we like to make patches that can be tweaked over a wide range. We like sounds that are usable in a mix; sounds that can be easily layered, rather than being in your face.

KURT KURASAKI AKA PEFF - A good or perhaps even a great sound, in my opinion, has a quality that inspires and moves people when they hear it. Some sounds have an evocative quality that becomes a source of inspiration for a composer or producer, which in turn translates to an emotional quality perceived by the audience. A good sound can be a simple tone that has a nostalgic charm, and other times it can be a complex sonic generator that layer several different types of tones.

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Mike Gorman, aka Lizard

MIKE GORMAN AKA LIZARD - I think for me a good sound has unique character while at the same time has a good to high level of usability. A good sound has a home in just about everyone's library. And a good sound can find itself in many creative works but seem as though it was just made for that project.

Propellerhead: Tell us about your process when creating a sound. How do you begin? How do you know that it's done?

DANIEL OLSSON AKA EXODE - I often have a very clear image in my head when I'm creating a sound. I've understood that I'm gifted with the ability to think in terms of signals and how signals are affected. Thus it is fairly easy for me to 'translate' a synth path from i.e. a CS-80 or another vintage synth into Reason with the help of either Thor or the Subtractor. If I can't do it with just one synth then I'll layer synths in the Combinator to get the desired result.

G.W. CHILDS - I tend to start off with a list where I have several sounds that I’d like to have from whatever given synth I am am programming, but always with a ‘miscellaneous’ section as well. Although, it may sound rigid in the sense that I write things out and give myself a map, I also allow myself to explore the synth fully as I go along. Many times I’ll start off on making a particular sound, for example a lead and then discover that my creativity and button pressing has actually created some other kind of patch. Maybe a bass percussive sound that wouldn’t really work as a lead. I’ll end up just putting it in the ‘miscellaneous’ section.

Once my list is complete, I’ll go back through my miscellaneous folder and then categorize those sounds.

As far as knowing when it’s done? That’s generally when I’ll start soloing, or playing around on my controller without looking at the GUI. I’ll play while adjusting the Mod wheel, I’ll play and adjust knob assignments (does my patch make dogs howl when I turn knob A up on my Thor patch?). I’ll try different velocities. When the patch is at a point where it’s totally expressive and there are no glaring holes or oversights and EVERYTHING is labeled, then it’s done.

Sometimes I’ll bring up a song that I know really well and see how it sits too... That helps.

JEREMY JANZEN - One sound typically feeds the creation of the next. I'll work on a sound, and learn some techniques that might not necessarily be applicable with that sound - but next time I'll remember that technique and start from there. So, for me the more sounds I create, the more my creativity builds on itself!

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FLATPACK - With the Flatpack stuff we start with a new idea for a Combinator design, then create a load of building blocks, which are sub-patches for the devices in the Combi. Then we can have fun mixing and matching the components. With the Factory Sound Bank stuff (like creating sounds for Thor) I would say half the time we experiment to see what new sounds are possible, and half the time start with another synth, or a sound on a record as inspiration and try to recreate it.

KURT KURASAKI AKA PEFF - Most every patch I've created usually starts with an end goal in mind. Whether it is a classic analog emulation or synthetic choir or acoustic ensemble, having the target set helps establish the general parameters of the sound. It starts with establishing the primary sound generation source like a particular sample, or oscillator. I usually go and set the particulars like register and polyphony right from the start as well. I usually then shape the dynamic behavior of the sound as well as velocity response - this is especially important for musical tones, and finally I add filtering and equalization and more velocity modulation. Finally, I'll add more equalization, dynamics processing and effects to round out the patch. When I go into a purely experimental mode of sound design, an idea presents itself from the realm of possibilities, and my curiosity leads me to attempt and experiment with a new technique. Sometimes the experiments are very successful and I get into a groove where I use the new discovery as the basis for other sounds.

MIKE GORMAN AKA LIZARD - I think I am like many people where sound design is a journey. There have been of course the times where I have sat down and said I was going to design to a specific sound I've heard or wanted to create. But that is often less likely than the process of experimenting. It all starts with the joy of manipulating the Reaqson module you’re working with and listening to the change. At some point your ear catches something you like or that is different. It at this point where I start being specific to my programming choices. It's at this point I have a good feeling of what I want it to do. If I feel the sound need changes like more resonance, detuning, additional oscillators or tones etc, I'll implement them. As a sound designer I find it hard to make the call when I am done though. I can have stuff sit for months neveer feeling I reached the goal I set for myself. It just becomes a time when you feel comfortable with what you've done and think it will find a use to the end user. They are the ultimate judge.

Propellerhead: Have you spotted your sounds in released music?

DANIEL OLSSON AKA EXODE - I know that some of my patches are present in Moshang's Chill Dynasty, and I know of atleast one other album that specifically stated that they used my patches. I also think that the bass synth used in The Attic's In Your Eyes is very similar to my 3Osc Bass found in my minimoog refill, but that is completely unconfirmed...

G.W. CHILDS - I thought I heard one in a Hip-hop track on the radio once, missed the name of the song though.

I have had friends play tracks for me that they’d made for their albums and then I’d notice my sounds here and there. I’d ask, “Did you use Reason for this?” and they’d say “Yep”. I’ll just smile.

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Jeremy Janzen

JEREMY JANZEN - Users sometimes send me links to their work. My sounds have been used in everything from oceanic documentaries to reality TV, to cutting-edge electronic albums. I don't typically find most of these things myself, because I rarely listen to radio or TV.

FLATPACK - We quite often hear stuff on TV adverts and idents, and we know of a few records that Flatpack stuff has been used on.

KURT KURASAKI AKA PEFF - For most instrument patches, I’m never quite certain if it’s a patch that I’ve created. My thought on the issue is that if I created the patch from scratch, anyone else could have easily done the same. I think most producers of major commercial releases do a fair bit of tweaking to factory patches, in an effort to not only make it fit within the context of the song, but make it conform with the balance of the mix. I’m glad that I don’t often hear my patches used in commercial releases. It means that producers and artists are taking the extra effort to do a fair bit of audio sculpting and tweaking. I do hear quite a few of my Reason Factory Soundbank patches on television commercials. I know that there are people out there using Reason to churn out hours of mindless clips for music licensing companies, and it’s somewhat disconcerting that my efforts are used to grease the wheels of extravagant consumption by promoting a horrible film or discount auto insurance.

MIKE GORMAN AKA LIZARD - I haven't. I still have hope for one day. If someone does use them... make the old boy feel good and let him know. ;)

Propellerhead: Any sound design secrets you would like to share? Please? :-)

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Daniel Olsson, aka eXode

DANIEL OLSSON AKA EXODE - don't have any secrets per se but my biggest tip to any sound designer is first of all: To learn from vintage synths as much as you can. You don't have to have access to the hardware, software emulations is just as good. The big thing is to learn the inner workings and how you can emulate that (if that is your goal). The other big thing is to incorporate organic elements to your sound, especially when emulating old gear. I alwas try to incorporate a LFO or something that at a very slow rate modulate pitch slightly, to emulate drifting and other types of instability that add liveliness to the sound.

G.W. CHILDS - Always when finishing a song, save and organize your patches. I tend to make patches as I’m writing songs and producing them. Once I’m done, I have a master sound folder on my machine where they all go with sub-folders like basses, leads, etc.

Weeks later I may find myself in a situation where I’m supposed to make a bank of sounds. If I was a good boy and saved all of those new patches I made on my last couple of songs, I will already have a folder of sounds sitting there waiting for me that have already been field tested... in a song!

Also, when trying to make a particular patch, rest your ears ever 20 minutes or so. Take a ten minute break and come back and listen. It may be better than you think!

JEREMY JANZEN - Sure. One very important thing to remember when programming Thor is that it is a semi-modular synth. The signal path isn't fixed. So you can re-route signals through the mod-matrix to create feedback paths, or to bypass the filters altogether etc.

One more tip: its a fairly well-known technique to use an oscillator > filter signal path for Filter FM effects. However, you can create even more interesting sounds using a filter > filter signal path for Filter FM as well. Try feeding the signal from a formant filter as the FM source for a Moog LP filter. You'll discover quite some amazing sounds!

FLATPACK - Pick apart patches that you like, and to try to understand and recreate them. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of each synth.

KURT KURASAKI AKA PEFF - This isn't a secret, but it's something that people sometimes overlook. Having a solid hardware rig helps in the process of sound design as much as it helps in music production. If you spend any great amount of time in front of monitors, being bombarded by fluctuating air pressure, having a great signal path makes things much easier. There's nothing quite like being confident about your digital-to-analog converters, monitors, and acoustic treatment. Naturally, I support the same philosophy for a front end if you're sampling.

As far as synth programming is concerned, I often add a very subtle amount of modulation to oscillator or filter parameters. If the LFO or envelope generator is unused by the time I finish a patch, I will add a very small 1% pitch mod or filter cutoff mod with some velocity scaling. This enhances the sound by adding micro variations to keep the patch sounding a touch less static and more organic.

MIKE GORMAN AKA LIZARD - Secrets? Well.. perhaps a tip to keep in mind for sample users. It's not difficult to create natural sounding percussion kits using NN-XT. You can get a lot of variety with a limited amount of samples just by creating multiple instances of the same sample, grouping them and slightly varying filter settings, amp envelopes and sample starts. Set them to alternate within the group and you're done. This is not only effective with acoustic samples but electronic ones as well. It can help make all your electronic favs sound a little more 'out of the box' than off the disc. When played it will feel a little livelier. A little goes a long way.

Propellerhead: Thank you guys!

Published: March 2009