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The 21 best tools for sound design

There are two sides to Cities and Memory – the field recording side and the reimagined, remixed sound design side. In our end of year roundup so far, we’ve looked at what makes a field recording special, and heard some of our contributors’ favourite ever field recordings.

Now we turn to the reimagined side – we asked some of our most frequent contributors to reveal all and tell us about some of their favourite tools for sound design, music and sonic manipulation. Read on for some serious sonic inspiration. In most cases, we’ve included a Cities and Memory piece in which you can hear the tools they’re talking about, whether they’re plugins, synths, instruments or FX…

[aesop_character img=”” name=”STUART FOWKES” caption=”Oxford, UK –” align=”left”]

Stuart Fowkes (Cities and Memory), UK

I’m a big fan of Native Instruments kit – they offer a breathtaking range of instruments, synths and sound design gear, as almost any electronic musician will be able to tell you. Here are two of my favourites.


Native Instruments Molekular
Native Instruments Molekular

This is a modular effects system that runs your source sound through various combinations of high-quality effects, with the ability to change the routing and tweak every parameter on the way through. There’s what they call an ‘interactive morphing field’ – basically a graphic interface broadly similar to a graph-meets-Kaoss-Pad – on which you can trace the timing and effect parameters freehand, or you can apply global changes.

This allows you to create new textures and new effects, and it’s perfect for working with field recordings due to the unpredictable and often-stunning nature of what happens when you run different types of field recording through various parameters.

In effect, you can layer and create self-generating sound pieces with the judicious choice of input sample and complementary effects. You can hear Molekular at work in this piece based on Zadar’s sea organ:


Native Instruments Rounds
Native Instruments Rounds

This is my current favourite NI synth product – the presets are already numerous and really high quality, and that’s before you get under the hood and realise you can make an extraordinary array of adjustments in real time to your sonic palette.

The synths layer analogue and digital engines next to each other, creating some fantastic textures, and there are even percussive and arpeggiator options to play with, too. Most of the elements in this reimagined version of Catania’s fish market were created using Rounds.

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Martin Kristopher, Germany

Martin lists the tools used in his Berlin Ringbahn piece, recently released as an album by us.

  • Resonators (as available in Bitwig or Ableton Live)
  • Amplifier simulations (in my case Waves Audio GTR 3.5)
  • Wavetable Synthesizer (many different available – most important for me is the option to import my own wave files, e.g. parts of the field recording)
  • Reverb (I love Valhalla Vintage Verb, most important for me is a long reverb time, Valhalla has a max of 70 seconds)
  • Delay (must be able to have the feedback be driven to self-oscillation)
  • A DAW with the capability of high sound quality time stretching

[aesop_character img=”” name=”ANDY LYON” caption=”Lincolnshire, UK –” align=”left”]

Andy Lyon, UK

“One of my favourite VSTs is Polygon by Glitchmachines. At its heart it is a 4 slot sampler with the usual forward, reverse, loop and once-through playback options. It also has an excellent granulator, 2 independent filters (use in parallel or series) and the more unusual effects of stutter, metaliser and ring mod.

“However, where it excels is the use of LFOs and envelopes which can be used to modulate pretty much any parameter, even each other.

“This means that you can load 1 sample 4 times, play one instance forwards and granulate the other 3 with different settings, different loop lengths, different filter settings and LFOs modulating the filters and effects to give a real subtle variation in sound.

“What I really like is how Polygon can be very subtle and delicate yet equally you can use it in a harsher, more aggressive way and get equally great sounds.”

“This is what myself and Kim [Rueger] did on ‘Our Lady Is Also The Moon’ [listen below] to produce some really subtle variation in background sounds using two different samples in this way.

“I find the result with Polygon is always so much greater than just layering those same samples, I think it’s because there are harmonics, overtones etc that really enhance the sound. You sometimes also get unexpected artifacts such as a bird tweeting that gets modulated by an LFO and the sound rises or falls in pitch and such artifacts are like hidden gems that Polygon gives you from time to time.

“What I also really like is how Polygon can be very subtle and delicate yet equally you can use it in a harsher, more aggressive way and get equally great sounds.”

[aesop_character img=”” name=”LEON MURAGLIA” caption=”Oslo, Norway –” align=”left”]

Leon Muraglia, Norway

“For processing I use Speakerphone a lot. The quality is excellent and unlike many other plugins it really encourages you to experiment: some of the presets are quite extreme.

“I also use Waves H-EQ and H-comp pretty much all the time. The H-EQ has a built-in spectrum analyser which I rely on.

“I actually used NI Guitar Rig for the effects processing on the Sofienberg Park sound piece.”

[aesop_character img=”×438.png” name=”MATT PARKER” caption=”Birmingham, UK –” align=”left”]

Matt Parker, UK

“I am a huge fan of the ‘Max for Live Convolution Reverb Pro’ device within Ableton Live for creative sound sculpting and blending environments together into polymorphic sound structures.

“I really like the simplicity of it. Even though you can only work in mono or stereo, I really like how easy it is to initially create your own Impulse Response with the accompanying Impulse Response maxforlive device and then throw it into Convolution Reverb Pro super fast.

“One of the things I really enjoy doing with imagined spaces is to capture quite dry recordings from a space initially and then find ways to modulate those spaces through what I would crudely describe as the spaces own architecture.

“What I mean I guess is that I like the idea of producing an impulse response recording within a space that I have recorded and then feed that IR back into a raw recording within that space to create a new sound world within the space itself (admittedly hugely inspired by Alvin Lucier’s I’m Sitting in a Room).

“In the piece St Michaelis Hamburg vs St Marys Birmingham I decided to use this method but in a different way.

“I really enjoy capturing dry recordings and then finding ways to modulate those spaces through the space’s own architecture.”

“Rather than playing with the space itself, as I received the field recording of the church in Hamburg through Cities and Memory, I decided to convolve that space within an approximate space closer to home (the church near where I lived at the time).

“I think there is something interesting about feeding spaces into themselves through convolution and like to think it creates some kind of musical disharmony that can act as a springboard for compositional development within my work.”

[aesop_character img=”” name=”ERIC POWELL” caption=”Montreal, Canada –” align=”left”]

Eric Powell, Canada

“My two favourite tools are Logic’s “space designer” reverb plugin, and a piece of software designed by Stephan Smulovitz called “Kenaxis“.

“I use the reverb plugin more as a convolution engine than as a standard reverb generator. This means I am often using short samples of percussion or string instruments as the impulse response – this can be heard in my Oblique Strategies piece from Dubai, or the piece from the Water call using the sound of raindrops to create a set of pitched drones.

“Sometimes, I use the reverb plugin to autoconvolve (using the same sample or excerpt from a field recording as both impulse response and audio file) – there is a bit of this in both my Water submission and the Utopia piece – this often creates very interesting (but unexpected) sounds as the sympathetic frequencies get multiplied.

“The other key piece of software in my toolbox is Kenaxis. This is a program that I use for granular processing (extreme time stretching without shifting pitch or timbre), and to create dense layers with multiple pitch-shifted loops.

“You can hear the granular stretching in my Utopia piece, and this multiple loop process in my remix of the Hamburg beach (with a little convolution as well). The great part about Kenaxis is that it is designed as a performance interface, so it is  easy to pair with external control interfaces, and gives each remixing session a very live and organic feel.

“On the hardware/ physical side, my favourite instrument these days is a hand-cranked siren. It is a great tool for creating sweeping glissandi or wavering drones for use as impulse responses.

“There is a lot of siren used to create some of the broader textures you can hear in my Oblique Strategies piece. I also use a glockenspiel and autoharp as source material for a lot of my work – which you can hear in both the Water and Utopia pieces (respectively).”

[aesop_character img=”” name=”NICK ST. GEORGE” caption=”Frome, UK –” align=”left”]

Nick St. George, UK

“Having migrated to Mac a few years ago, I inherited Garage Band which for speech editing, for example, is far from ideal (the reason for this may be in the name!). For a long time there was no Audition available for Mac. Now there is, I suppose inertia plus a greater understanding of what GB can do, has led me to stay put.

“I’m still discovering the effects therein. I’m still quite new to this game and recently connected a Yamaha DD-55 to the Mac via Midi and only last night uncovered some sounds in GB I hadn’t found before (result here).

“So I suppose the moral of this story is: even if you’re not using your ideal set-up (for whatever reason – practical, financial…), persevere. There will be goodies to be unearthed in even the most initially unpromising of kit.

“All of my C&M pieces were edited on Garage Band.”

[aesop_character img=”” name=”DAN TAPPER” caption=”London, UK –” align=”left”]

Dan Tapper, UK

“Over the last six months or so I have been working a lot with a piece of software I developed called Ven_d. The idea came from wanting to be able to gesturally move and morph between a number of sounds.

“I developed the basic system using a series of circles – each representing an individual sound file. the center of the circle is the loudest point, whilst the edge is the quietest – even without any additional effects moving quickly through a series of circles, with the gesture varying the amplitude can create an interesting effect.

Dan Tapper's Ven_D tool
Dan Tapper’s Ven_D tool

“After creating the basic system I began augmenting it by introducing pan and filter controls linked to the X,Y mouse axis within the circle window. I also added a delay matrix and pitch control allowing parameters to be changed separately for each sound – all parameters are also linked to a physical controller for quick modification of the sounds making it a very performative composition and improvisational tool.

“Additional features are the ability to cycle through sound banks, quickly loading new samples into each circle. This can be used to easily change between sample sets and more creatively to create interesting glitching and cutting effects.

“My recent goal has to be to augment the Ven_d software into a modular suite of tools, linking it together with new and old sound processing tools I have written in maxMSP. The chart below represents the parts of the software that I am currently working with, all the parts are modular and can be connected in a variety of signal processing chains and set to interact with each other.

“These tools include a sample freezer, envelope tool, granular mangler and a FFT filter that can filter very narrow frequency bands and be used gesturally to quickly write and change between filter patterns.

“My next step is to develop more user friendly interfaces for these tools and a routing matrix to easily connect them. I eventually plan to make the system available publicly for a small fee.”

Here’s the software in action:

[aesop_character img=”” name=”MARK TAYLOR” caption=”Birmingham,UK –” align=”left”]

Mark Taylor, UK

Mark talks us through the process of which tools he used to create his recent Cities and Memory piece ‘Corpus Christi Mysterium’.

“All of the audio in the re-imagined version was taken from the original field recording; nothing was added. Various short sections of the original recording were extracted and became the basis for the five strands of my remix:

  • Woodwind and brass phrases = opening mysterious chords.
  • Everyday background sounds = wind effect.
  • The bell ringer = the fragmented church bell like chimes.
  • Flute and drum = regular melodic pulse.
  • Drums = distorted, percussive loop.

“Granular synthesis and sampling techniques played a central role in the task, mainly within Native Instrument’s Reaktor 5 – modules such as Grainstates, Travelizer and Random Step Shifter.

“Reaktor has quite a steep learning curve but it’s well worth persevering – a wide variety of excellent instruments and ensembles available, (many for free via the Native Instruments community). One approach I found very useful in the early stages was to load up interesting presets and work out how various parameters were being used within them.”


grainstates“This was the module responsible for the opening mysterious chords… It’s a granular texture maker that excels at creating intense, morphing atmospheres. You can create soundscapes in real-time. You can easily import your own samples, even ‘freezing’ live audio feeds and weaving other parts around it.”



travelizer“This Reaktor module was used to create the fragmented church bell like chimes. Travelizer is another classic granular texture maker. It lets your ‘scrub’ through any imported sample and can be played over MIDI if needed – allowing it to be used for mysterious pads and ethereal leads. Importantly, it approaches the granular process in a significantly different way to Grainstates…

“Travelizer instantly granulates any sample loaded into it and gives you a variety of controls over the quality of the granulation. The sample grains pass through a 3-voice Resonator with independent controls for tuning and the capability to track midi notes. The Resonator is followed by a stereo delay which is linked to a high-pass filter.”

Random Step Shifter

random step shifter
“This intuitive Reaktor module was used to create both the regular melodic pulse and the distorted percussive loop. On the surface, more instantly accessible than GrainStates and Travelizer, this instrument still has plenty of depth.

“Random Step Shifter’s algorithms cut-up and rearrange sample loops, on-beat, in real-time. The intuitive sequencer triggers sample playback and modulates individual sample selection, positional offset, and playback pitch. If you dig deeper, these modulations can also be mangled via various pseudo-random sequences.

“RSS will create new sample loops for you very easily! You can load in any audio loop; just keep in mind that you may need to cut the loops accurately so that they play correctly when they are looped over their entire length.”

[aesop_character img=”” name=”TIM WATERFIELD” caption=”Southampton, UK –” align=”left”]


Tim Waterfield, UK

Tim lists his current top five sonic tools, used on several of his Cities and Memory pieces.

1. Cakewalk Sonar

“This is my main DAW and I have been using software from Cakewalk for so long I just find it really quick to do everything in.”

01 - Sonar





2.  SlateDigital Virtual Mix Rack

“This just goes on all my tracks by default and just adds something I can’t put my finger on. I have a bunch of other EQ and Compressor plugins but since I bought VMR it is my go to unless I need to do some surgical EQ cutting.”

02 - VMR





3. Valhalla DSP ValhallaRoom

“This is another plugin that I use on every project and just has some great big reverb settings.  With this and a filter I can get some great pad sounds as well as using it for normal reverb duties on a reverb bus.”

03 - Valhalla Room







4. Illformed Glitch 2

“When I’m stuck for ideas you can just insert this on a track and it will take you somewhere you never thought of.  At its heart is a sequencer that controls when one of the 10 effects will trigger and this can be set manually or with the use of the random buttons.”

04 - Glitch






5. Audio Damage FilterStation

“This is the Audio Damage take on the classic serial/parallel/stereo dual filter topology, made famous by the Sherman Filterbank and its many clones. It does odd things to audio so I love it.”

05 - Filterstation








That’s a selection of top kit tips from some Cities and Memory artists – which would you add? Leave a comment and let us know!