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The best sound design tools of 2016

This time last year, we presented our round up of the best sound design tools of 2015, as suggested by Cities and Memory contributing artists. Here, we update the piece for 2016 by asking several of our most frequent contributors which tools they’ve been using to work with sound this year. In each case, you can hear the tools in action in the Cities and Memory pieces below.

We’d welcome your suggestions too, so please leave a comment below with your ideas.


Cities and Memory

Movement by Output 

This is a really great tool to create rhythms out of any input source, from synth or guitar parts through to field recordings. The parameters are almost infinitely tweakable, and what I love is not just how this can transform an input sound into a full-on rhythm, but how it can be used much more subtly to lift sounds in other, less noticeable but still impressive ways.

In “Great Portland Beats” below, you can hear a few layers of Movement applied to a field recording of an underground train, to give it the motion and dynamism to provide an effective complement to the drum parts.

J37 Tape Saturation by Waves Audio

I’m a total sucker for making things sound like they’re coming through old tape machines, and this is one of the best tape effects out there, allowing you to tweak everything from tape speed and saturation to wow and flutter. It’s modelled on a 1960s analogue tape machine used in Abbey Road studios, and it sounds gorgeous.

Space Strip by Audiothing 

At first glance, this multi-effect plugin from Audiothing seems almost too subtle, but I’ve ended up using it one over half of my productions this year. It adds depth and space in a way that a straight-ahead reverb can’t, and really lifts synth parts and drones, giving them a much wider, almost ‘3D’ feel. It’s become an essential component of my setup in just a few months.

In the piece below, you can hear multiple instances of both Space Strip and J37 to widen and lift the drone parts, and to add an overall feeling of lo-fi wooziness across multiple sounds throughout.

Lo Air Subharmonic Generator by Waves Audio

It’s a one-trick pony of an effect, but what a trick it is. Lo Air, as you might guess, adds bottom end to any sound – from a solid bass expansion through to some truly extraordinary sub-bass wobble. The fact that there’s a preset called ‘Speaker Destroyer’ should give you a clue, and the ‘Outside the Club’ setting does exactly what you’d imagine. Great for beefing parts up, or transforming them with a more extreme treatment. Here it is in action, giving some extra throb to the low end of this piece from Amsterdam.

NX Virtual Mix Room by Waves Audio

A special final word goes to NX Virtual Mix Room. I spend a lot of my time working on sound on the go on my laptop, and the fact that a mix sounds totally different on headphones to anywhere else has always been a problem. NX Virtual Mix Room simulates a studio space inside your headphones, giving you a much more realistic picture of what the piece you’re working on actually sounds like. So it’s been a game-changer for people like me who do a lot of work on headphones rather than in the studio.

Laurence Colbert

Up to now I’ve been using the sound design tools that come with Ableton, from the built in Audio and Midi Effects to the Max for Live program/patches.

Even the basic processes that can be applied in an audio clip (pitch, warp, gain, x speed or / speed, reverse, etc) within Ableton can lead to interesting ideas, whereas using a Max program such as Granulator II can turn a sound into something completely different – musical or textural.

I’m looking to work more outside the DAW box though, and currently one of my favourite sound design tools outside of Ableton Live is PaulStretch. As a standalone piece of software, it never fails to throw up something interesting and workable.

Laurence used the Ableton suite of effects for this piece for our Prison Songs project:

Granulator II was used for this piece from Oslo, Norway:

Jeff Dungfelder

I create all of my music in Logic Pro by Apple, and the sound design tool that I keep going back to over and over would be “Space Designer”, a convolution reverb effect (a sampling reverb) that comes with Logic Pro.

Space Designer

One consistent thing that I do in all of my music is to take sounds and change them into something else. Nothing is ever straight forward in my tracks. “Space Designer” is my go to tool for adding reverberation (multiple delays and simulated reflections) and ambience to my recordings. With its on-board impulse response synthesis you can create completely unique effects. It always seems to add that special something to my sounds.

Lector Vocoder by Waldorf

In addition to Space Designer, lately I have been also using the “Lector Vocoder” by Waldorf. You can hear how I used Lector and Space Designer in my Cities and Memory track “Calle”. I took the field recording of an organ grinder street musician by Joao van Zelst (from the famous Plaza de la Constitucion in Mexico City) and turned it into something totally different.

As the effect fades out towards the end of the track you can hear the original field recording slowly come in (enhanced a bit with Space Designer). I really like the way Lector turns any incoming signal into new sounds with endless possibilities. The analysis filter bank splits the incoming audio signal into as many as 100 frequency bands, while the integrated 16-voice synthesizer (or an external source) provides the input signal for the synthesis filter bank.

Whether it is robotic voices you want, rhythmic pads, the resonant ringing of bells, or just a new way of using an audio clip to create a new world, Lector for me seems to be a great tool. It opens up my imagination.

Richard Fair

I have three main players in my arsenal for sound design. Ableton Live, Audacity and Reaper. Each offer me something the others don’t while at the same time simplifying my tasks.

On a sound design project, I would usually begin in Ableton Live with a keyboard loaded up – a simple piano. What I like so much about Ableton Live is that once I’ve got something I’m pleased with I can explore how it sound associated with other instruments.

I tend to use Audacity for any final touches and tidying up. I also find it useful for adding metadata to the sound file.

If I’m creating something more ‘built’ like a radio programme or feature, I use Reaper to build up the tracks and mix with additional effects if need be.

Ian Haygreen

I process the field recordings using either Audacity or my DAW, but sometimes both. My DAW is LMMS, which is a free Linux piece of software. It comes with a vast array of effects: I can’t fault the Linux DAW since I can do quite a lot with it, and I think the lack of resources forces me to be more creative with what I have.

Alex Hehir

Iris 2 by Izotope

In my all time greatest plugins ever, as the results are often so inspiring and unpredictable. I love how you can layer samples, mix with waveforms and then play instantly.

The spectral filtering enables me to pinpoint interesting frequency areas and with plenty of modulation options to shift and evolve the sounds.

Here it is in action in Alex’s piece from Seville: 

Omnisphere by Spectrasonics

I use the granular synth engine of this monster of a instrument! I always put field recordings through this first and like Iris it can often lead to new and exciting directions.

Here’s the tool incorporated into a reimagined sound from Morocco:

Manuel Guerrero


Since my work on the field recordings doesn’t require a lot of editing – about audio design – in the tracks assembled on the final reimagined sound, Garageband’s graphic interface is a really good option to do the work related to cut and paste (like collage), panning experiments for stereo systems and some simple cleaning and equalizing processes.

Being really intuitive and simple, it’s a great option even for people that aren’t totally involved in sound design or – in my experience – visual artists that are starting in sound design.

It could be taken as an amateur tool for sound design, and I’d agree, but often in my projects, having a lot of options, plugins, etc. is a problem when you need specific things.


Audacity is my ‘old reliable’, when Garageband is insufficient. Audacity allows you to work with tracks with a full length of an hour or above, and have a great plugin library and effects for specific purposes, like isolation or noise reduction.

I usually work with it when I need to do some fixes on the frequency of a track.

All my collaborations for Cities and Memory have been made with these tools, but a special one is  “Warwick Avenue to Periferico Oriente”, where I explored and learned a lot of possibilities for panning as a medium to build space in sonic terms.

Andy Lyon

DDLY Dynamic Delay by Izotope

This is a delay effect which has 2 delays which can be analog or granular and are independent of each other. Where this delay stands out from others is a threshold control which splits the signal based on frequency, so only bass sounds can be sent to a granular delay or only transients get the delay effect for example. You can use filters on each delay too. I really like it because of the complex sounds that you can create which you can’t do with a full signal delay.

Here’s DDLY in action in Andy’s piece for The Next Station:

Incipit by Inear Display

This is a recent release so I haven’t had chance to use it on a submission yet but it’s another very capable delay effect. It has 3 separate effect layers of pitch shift, delay and amp controls which can be routed in series or parallel with extensive modulation options. This means it is capable of a wide range of delay effects from a dub type delay to modulated textures. It can produce some pretty extreme effects.

Fracture XT by Glitchmachines

This is very new, in fact I’m still writing the review for my blog! It’s a development of the free Fracture effect which has a granular processor, buffer and delay effects. It also has a very cool patchable modulation matrix – drag and drop virtual wires – which uses four LFOs for modulation which can feed several modulation parameters simultaneously. It can produce some brutal glitch effects and I’m sure will be one of my go to effects for the foreseeable future.

Frostbite by AudioThing 

This is a multi-effects plugin featuring feedback (delay), ring mod and freeze. You can select signal paths based on possible combinations and switch effects in and out as required, It’s a very flexible effect for many different types of sound, capable of producing anywhere from metallic sounds to drones and cinematic soundscapes.

Mark Taylor

Three pieces of software I still use on a regular basis come from Camel Audio (sadly no more updates for me as they were bought out by Apple last year and I’m a dedicated PC user).

Camel Space
A well designed, intuitive GUI fronts this very flexible and powerful multi effects unit. Just a quick look through the main page will show any sound designer its potential:







I’ve used it to some extent on many of the pieces I’ve created for Cities and Memory, but it played a particularly important role when sculpting the dreamlike sound stage for ‘Sax in the City – The Lonely Busker’:

Reverb // Stereo Delay // Auto pan // BP filter (ongoing LFO style modulation of various settings that ‘push’ and ‘pull’ at the city sounds)


Another great GUI leads the way into a wonderful hybrid synth:

Alchemy features additive, spectral and granular synthesis + a very capable virtual analog engine. You can morph or cross fade between sources via those 8 superb ‘remix’ pads. You can import your own samples from SFZ, WAV or AIFF files.

A wide range of analog modelled filters are included, in addition to a rack of high quality effects. The extensive modulation system is extremely easy to use.

‘The Space Below’ was created using Alchemy:

I loaded up 4 different small chunks from the original field recording
and then edited them using granular and spectral techniques. An additive synthesis layer was weaved into the mix to create the mysterious melodic motifs.

In Reaktor 5 I use a lot of the more unusual granular samplers, but perhaps the weirdest one of all is…

Metaphysical Function

The name hints at the unexpected peculiarities you are going to find within this one + the GUI s hardly straightforward at first glance:

MF constantly generates sound from the moment it’s opened, and at first seems pretty useless for general sound design. Start to experiment with a few of the presets and you begin to understand how it all works and how much potential for sound mangling it actually contains!

The key to controlling MF’s unique sound lies with the 32 automatable faders, which control a variety of parameters, including the amplitude and pitch of the oscillators, and the settings of the FX units.

I used several instances of MF (loaded with fragments of the original field recording) to generate the opening sounds for ‘Music in the Castle of Heaven’:

Robert van Riel

In 2016 I have mostly been working with Ableton Live 9, and some Max for Live sound effects and devices. But usually, the ‘regular’ Ableton effects will work fine for me.

For my melodic clips, I still use my iPad and some synthesizer apps, especially Thor (Propellerheads), iLectric Piano (IK Multimedia), Gadget and Module (both by Korg).

Effects on those melodic lines are mainly from the DFX app and AltiSpace.

For instance, in this Cities and Memory piece “Laura, joking on Edgware Road”, I used 7 audio tracks:

  • The field recording of Edgware Road ticket hall, unaltered.
  • Sampled pedestrians from the field recording, unaltered.
  • Sampled voice, calling: “Laura”, edited in Ableton using Convolution reverb and PitchDrop.
  • Sampled voice, calling: “Oh, you’re joking”, edited in Ableton using EQ Eight, Multiband Dynamics and Convolution reverb.
  • Two piano tracks (iLectric) with reverb from AltiSpace and several effects from DFX, one track edited in Ableton with EQ Eight.

Tim Waterfield

Cakewalk by Sonar

This has been my main DAW for over ten years and it has gone from strength to strength since they moved to the monthly updates.

Celemony by Melodyne Studio

This is an amazing tool that is great for sound design and messing with audio. I just love the way you can mess with the pitch, tempo and timbre of the audio right down to an individual note in a chord.

Tantra by Dmitry Sches 

This is a rhythmic multi effect that is great for getting new ides going.

Wow:2 by Sugarbytes

A great filter plugin that has a big selection of presets to help get ideas started.

ValhallaPlate by Valhalla DSP

I just love everything about Valhalla reverbs I use them on everything!

You can hear all of these effects on Tim’s Cities and Memory pieces from 2016 below: