Tuesday 3 August 2021

What is 'Bathroom Door'?

I have gradually been ascending the learning curve for the amazing Decent Sampler, from the multi-talented composer, musician and programmer: Dave Hilowitz ( @dhilowitz ). My most recent Virtual Instrument published on Christian Henson's Pianobook.co.uk is called 'Bathroom Door', and it looks like this:

The 'Bathroom Door' virtual instrument in Decent Sampler

There's quite a lot going on there, so this blog post is effectively going to be the User Manual for it.

Bathroom Door

The name comes from a squeaky handle on the bathroom door, which is probably disappointingly mundane. I captured this (at some stage I really must get a Zoom recorder, but until then I'm using a modified mobile phone to implement a trick that I discovered back in the 1970s...) in stereo and then did some processing in Audacity. Yes, Audacity, and you can see why here - I am rarely impressed by media over-reactions, and the world does seem to now be driven by a huge amount of almost always unwarranted outrage. Also, that computer isn't connected to the InterWeb, and only gets updates of data via USB memory sticks (with some automatic scanning and stuff...).

Processing of audio falls into a small number of types, in my personal categorisation schema. There are the basic tools, like Audacity, then 'Plug-In' hosting tools, like Element (et al) and DAWs, which let you use VSTs and other plug-ins, and then there are the high-end editors, processors, repairers and even mastering tools, like DSP-Quattro, Pro Tools, iZotope RX8 and many more. I have example applications from each of these main categories, and I try to avoid too much duplication of functionality... But Audacity is home to some of my Nyquist plug-ins, and I really must get around to updating them to the latest version of Nyquist...

Anyway, the basic technique that I use for processing samples tends to be noise reduction, followed by Paulstretching or granular processing, looping (usually long cross-fades), and probably too much normalisation.  Actually, a lot of the major 'processing' happens inside Decent Sampler...

The User Interface

I am happy to admit that before I started using Native Instruments' Kontakt, and in particular, the Spitfire Audio sample libraries, I wasn't very familiar with the idea of 'Mic' sliders or mixers. I learned synthesis on real analogue, dual VCO, 'Moog' ladder-type VCF monosynths, where the source mixing was limited to the two VCOs and the noise source. So all of the top row of 'Bathroom Door', and the left hand side of the second row, wouldn't have made much sense to me. I was never a fan of the ARP Pro-Soloist type of UI whert you had a row of switches to select a sound, and I know that it was popular back in the late 70s. 

Now that I have spent more time programming virtual instruments, I'm beginning to see some of the appeal of having direct control over the sounds from many sources. Compared to the usual 'subtractive synth' technique of 'fix it with processing', this is the exact opposite (and more akin to mixing) - 'start with the right sources'. 

The Top Row Mic Sliders 

This is where you mix the main sources of tone and timbre. From left to right, you have Tones, then Clicks in the middle, then Noise on the right. 

[ Tone ]

On the left, the 'Tone' set of mic sliders are the pitched 'melodic' part of the final sound, and the main part of the pitched timbre - Feel free to mix the four sounds - these are not ON/Off buttons for a reason! 

[ Noise ]

On the right, the 'Noise' set of mic sliders are there to provide background 'fill', and this can affect the perceived timbre quite a lot. There's a fascinating psycho-acoustic phenomenon where your ears will assume that noise in a sound must be associated with the pitched portions of it, and will associate the two together. If you add noise to sawtooth 'string' sounds, then the strings sound brighter - and kind of less synthetic / more realistic! So don't be afraid to try mixing in a little bit of grit, dort, grundge...noise.

[ Clicks ]

In the middle, the 'Clicks' set of mic sliders are quasi-rhythmic loops of background textures that give a sort of 'evolving or moving' pad feel to the overall sound. As is often the case with this type of 'extra' element to a sound, you do not need very much volume to get the right balance of pitched sound and supporting movement. These definitely are not intended to be the loudest and most obvious part of the final sound! Subtlety is your friend here. 

The Extra Mic Sliders

On the second row, are five extra mic sliders. These are just little bits of extra tonality to add a bit of spice to the main 'top row' mic sliders. 

[ Detune ]

The 'Detune' set of mic sliders are just deliberately detuned versions of the 4 'Tone' sliders that are directly above them vertically. One obvious thing to do is to just raise the same Detune mic slider as the main Tone mic slider that you have above it. But there are no rules! - There's nothing to stop you using different Detunes to your Tones!

[ Fab ] 

Just a little bit of fun, this is the exact opposite of putting effects after a synth or sampler - it puts a phasing effect into the source mix! The phaser is deliberately 1970s in feel, and can either add a little bit of subtle movement to the final timbre, or can be over-used to swamp the sound in washiness. Or places in between - you choose.

The Processors

There's always a temptation to add too many processors. More rotary controls is better, yes?

But sometimes, less is more. This isn't meant to be a full synthesizer - note the name: Decent Sampler. (Not 'Decent Synthesizer'!) And samplers have different UI design rules - lots of controls are definitely too many. So I've deliberately kept to a minimalistic set: 

Attack and Release to control the start and end of notes (and slow versus fast 'Attack' settings can change the feel of a sound quite remarkably, which is often overlooked in a world full of patches with appealing names...).  

Tone (Low-pass filter cutoff frequency) and Q (Resonance) for setting the brightness of the sound, or rolling the top end off. The cutoff frequency is mapped to the Mod Wheel and MIDI CC 1 as well. I'm still trying to get my head around the <midi> section of Decent Sampler's .dspreset XML file, and so Expression (CC 11) and other MIDI controllers are still in the pipeline for a future version. 

Size and Reverb complete the processing section. Room size is an interesting control - just about everyone starts out with it on biggest, and gradually learns that smaller can be better, depending on the timbre. The Reverb rotary control is the Wet/Dry mix (Do not put a string reverb into water!) and again suffers from the 'more must be better' syndrome. This is only true in Demos and (maybe) in Christian Henson YouTube videos! 

Using It

'Bathroom Door' isn't a 'single sound' type of virtual instrument. It can provide unusual leads for melodies or counterpoints, as well as background pads, plus there's a lot of scope for atmospheric fills and effects. It got a 5 Star review on Pianobook.co.uk where the reviewer seemed to like it, and said that it was well suited to Pierre Henri material and ambient music.

Getting It

'Bathroom Door' can be downloaded, for free, from Pianobook.co.uk


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