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The best sound design tools of 2017

It’s been an end-of-year tradition at Cities and Memory to ask some of our most frequent contributors to tell us which are the best sound design tools, plugins, effects and instruments they’ve been using most over the previous 12 months.

Following on from our roundups of the best sound design tools of 2016 and 2015, and the best free sound design tools, we’re pleased to present this year’s finest, according to our contributors:

Cities and Memory

Analog Strings by Output

A fusion of beautifully-sampled strings with analogue synths to create some wonderful sounds fusing the best of both – what’s not to love about that? Output produce some incredible stuff, and they came up trumps again with this one, which you can hear on our piece reimagining the swifts of Ostuni, Italy:

Fission by Eventide

A fascinating plugin that allows you to separate out the transient and tonal parts of a sound and apply effects to them separately, which allows for the creation of some quite extraordinary sounds. This plugin can do some unique things to your sounds – here it is in our examination of Brexit in Broadstairs, UK:

Doubler by Waves Audio

A lovely little plugin for thickening up your sounds in various ways by layering and doubling them – it can really add warmth and depth to your mix, as well as being used for harmonising vocals and so on. Here it’s been used to thicken up synths and reverby string lines to fill out the mix in this piece from Rome, Italy:


Andy Billington

Teenage Engineering OP-1

“Pretty much my ‘go-to’ hardware when I want to take the sheen off something, pitch it down and add grit or turn a simple field recording into a drum kit!

“This small but perfectly formed synth and sequencer goes as deep as you want to. I have owned one for 3 years and I am still finding different workflows and patterns when I use it.

“It has been used on pretty much every recording i have submitted to the Cities and Memory project.

“In particular my reimagined memory piece ” A trip into the Past (Holy Cross)” is a good example of where you can take samples and layered sonics. This is dense, thick sound painting.”

Hear it in action:

Logic Pro 8 – AU Pitch

“Standard package content as part the of old Logic Pro package – used on everything Solo1 has ever done and deployed across all Cities and Memory projects as standard.

“There is something sublime about this little corner of Logic Pro 8 that captured my attention. It is not flash, it certainly is not pretty but inside my approach to writing electronic music it is always deployed.

“Every year I promise to myself to RTFM but i seem to have stalled in this corner of Logic Pro 8.

“Used to pitch up and down Google Translate Samples and add some swerve to pads on the reimagined memory piece “The History of Zagreb.”

Hear it in action:

Alan Bleay (Arclite Productions)

Crystal by Green Oak

“First up is my “go-to” sound fx/design software synth. This has been a staple of my production for many years and it is free!

“This is a fantastic tool for shaping sound: the layout and skins are really easy to edit and perfect for making bizarre patches which are really easy to automate in most DAWs.

“On my Bahn train reimagining at about 0.19 the analogue helicopter noise was generated from this:”

Melda production effects plug-in collection

“There’s also a free version – a great collection of effect tools for shaping sound and again if you really go into it the automation in your DAW it really gives you so many possibilities to move the dynamics of the music around.

“On the Bahn train mix there is a rising comb filter effect that starts at about 0.12:”

Hear them in action:

Stuart Bowditch

Samplr app

“I have recently stripped my creative set up down to just a few tools, one of which is the Samplr app which I have installed on an iPad mini. I love this programme as it is very tactile, gestural and has a strong visual aspect which helps you to understand what is happening.

“I find that the limited amount of on board effects is helpful as it forces you to become more creative in how you play with the sounds. Likewise, the small sample size that it seems to be able to load helps to focus on making a more critical selection of source sound.

“I have used Samplr in several workshops with people of all ages and it provides instant results enabling participants to become quickly engaged with texture and noise as opposed to more ‘traditional’ music making.

“As well as having used it in extensively my last album Southend Objectified it has been useful in helping create several of my Cities and Memory contributions including Another’s Commuter’s Eyes (Fulham Broadway).”

Hear it in action:

Ian Haygreen


“At the moment I’m using Reaper which I recently acquired. Before I was using LMMS which had its limits. I’m still finding my way around Reaper but so far I’m fairly impressed with what it can do.

“I’m not using any VSTs for Cities & Memory projects at the moment, only the inbuilt effects. I do use Audacity occasionally for editing purposes.

“My latest Cities and Memory piece, Ludomania, is the first one I’ve done completely on Reaper.

“Some of the inbuilt effects I’ve used are:

– Avocado glitch
– Tonifier
– Paranoia mangler
– Floaty delay
– Delay pong
– Delay varlens
– Moog24db
– Resonantlowpass
– Tonegate
– ReaVerbate
– RealEQ”

Hear them in action:

Alex Hehir

Moog Multimode filter

“A stunning musical filter with a very cool sequencer built in. I have used this on loads of my productions of late and can be heard manipulating the field recording of rioting sounds in Athens (as part of the Politics and Protest project). It actually inspired the entire piece!”

Hear it in action:

Ableton Simpler

“My ‘go-to’ one sound sample player. Putting the warping technology inside this little beauty has turned it into one of my most used devices for instant playability. I used it on “Falling Gongs” to repitch and play a sample of just a single bell sound!”

Hear it in action:

Andy Lyon

Hollyhock 3 by Usine Sensomusic

“Hollyhock 2 has been my DAW of choice for a while. Version 3 brings a whole host of improvements to workflow and ease of use. This is a unique DAW that is designed for live performance and live recording. It has a host of samplers, granulators and groove tools that provide inspiration for creating many of my songs. It is a fully modular system that offers virtually unlimited possibilities for sound design and manipulation and it also supports VSTs.”

Hear it in action:

Dust by Soundmorph

“Dust is a sample-based granulising synthesiser which uses real time particle simulation. It can produce sounds anywhere from ambient, drone, cinematic to robotic / glitchy. It offers extensive controls and modulation options yet is easy to use and it sounds fantastic.”

Hear it in action:

Spec Ops by Unfiltered Audio

“This is an awesome effect, although it is quite difficult to explain how it works. Essentially it splits the sound into frequency bins, applies geometry (pitch shift, slide and stretch) and then 3 effects from a total of 36. It has powerful modulation options and can produce anything from fattening up weak frequencies, subtle movement, destroying basslines to adding glitchy polyrhythms.”

Ultratap by Eventide

“This is part of Eventide’s H9 Signature series and a multi-tap delay effect that can produce not only great reverb and delay effects but also more unusual glitchy and swell type effects.It emulates hardware controllers with an innovative ‘ribbon’ control. You set the minimum and maximum values for a number of parameters and use the ribbon to morph between them.”

MangledVerb by Eventide

“This is another of Eventide’s H9 Signature series and has a very similar look and feel to Ultratap. It is a reverb effect with distortion that can produce subtle ambiences, huge spaces, distorted sounds, metallic sounds and swirling effects. It also has the hardware emulation feature using the ribbon to control a number of parameters.”

“All three of the plugins above were used on the Bolivian Salt Flats (Andrulian reimagining). The glitchy effect on the vocals was produced by Ultratap.”

Hear them in action:


Ableton Live

“The main tool we used for our recordings with Cities and Memory was Ableton Live. When starting our work on these pieces, we decided to take a very straightforward approach to our treatment of the field recordings, using only looping and layering of different parts of the samples, and in-program manipulation, challenging ourselves to create something textural, keeping discernable elements of the original sound, without any outside elements, and keeping it simple, using Ableton almost like a sequencer/multitrack tool.

“Ableton Live provides a wealth of possibilities; we’ve used it for many years and find it does everything we need. We are able to customize and layer effects, even just basic things like compression and reverbs and chorus, into very deep multi-faceted sounds whilst keeping our workflow very simple.”

Hear it in action:

Mark Taylor

Novation Nocturn MIDI Controller

“I attempted something totally new for me with this track – 100% ‘live’ real-time mixing of various parameters via a MIDI controller linked into separate Reaktor modules.

“The opening section (up to the sudden change at 2:08) is almost entirely created from fragments of the original field recording – all automated ‘live’ in two Reaktor modules via the Novation Nocturn MIDI controller.

“The Nocturn is very easy to use with each knob, button and slider automatically linking into the most commonly-used parameters. If you need to access different ones… it takes just a few seconds!”

Hear it in action:

AKG 2000B Microphone

“This is my ‘workhorse’ microphone…it’ll record almost anything well! 100% reliable when I need to get good quality clean recordings ready for further editing and manipulation.

High sensitivity / Very low noise floor on that cardioid capsule.
High SPL capability means it can be used for extremely loud sound sources.
Exceptionally smooth frequency response across the board.

“During the creation of “Spirit of the Prayer Wheel” it was used to record myself playing a singing bowl.

“Opening section: you can hear the bowl being played in the traditional way – around the rim with a wooden mallet – a rich, resonant sound that is notoriously difficult to record…the 2000B handles it effortlessly.

“Final section: you can hear a more rhythmic performance where I tap on the edge of the bowl with a couple of smaller wooden sticks.”

Tim Waterfield (Karhide)

Presonus Studio One 3

“This year saw Gibson close the door on Sonar which has been my favourite DAW for over ten years. This has meant a search for a new DAW and Studio One was my choice. It is simple and quick to use and has some nice tools built in that I am still learning.”

iZotope Neutron 2

“I was a little sceptical about this one but after using it for the last few months I have found that it has been used on all the tracks I have been working on. The analysis tools are great at suggesting a good starting point when mixing.”

iZotope RX6

“I have been using this for noise reduction and repair of audio but it can also be used to mangle sound!”

Audio Damage Kombinat Tri

“Great multiband distortion from Audio Damage that can be subtle all the way up to total annihilation.”

Audio Damage Replicant2

“This is a buffer effect that is great for mangling audio and has been recently updated by Audio Damage.”

Hear them in action:

Richard Watts

Logic Pro X

“I’ve been using Apple’s Logic Pro for a number of years now. The big advantage with it is that it has a large collection of plugins. For a fairly complex DAW it’s also relatively easy to use, though you can get a bit lost in its library of sounds if you’re not careful.

“The Space Designer and Delay Designer plugins are great fun to use and you can create some really interesting delays and reverbs.

“The latest upgrade to Logic Pro X included the Alchemy synth which is an amazing sample manipulation synth. It has a huge library of sounds that you can manipulate to your heart’s content. It is also very easy to add your own samples to use as a basis for sound design.”


“Whenever I start a new project I always start with Audacity to edit and chop up the field recording first. The beauty about the software is that it’s very quick and easy to use. It is also very good at things like noise reduction.”

Hear them in action: