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The best sound design tools of 2018

sound design toolsAs is our Christmas tradition, every year we present a guide to the best sound design tools and production tools that our artists around the world have been taking inspiration from to create a world of sound in 2018.

Following on from our previous editions (read the lists from 2017, 2016 and 2015), here are the sound design tools of the year – and in each case a piece from Cities and Memory in which you can hear them in action!

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Andy Billington

Scanner Vibrato (Logic Pro)

I have used Logic Pro 8 for the last ten years and seem to find one or two new things to obsess about each month. Scanner Vibrato (Scanner Vib) is an odd-looking pretend wooden box with a number of vibratos to choose from. A basic chorus, stereo left and right rate option are all controlled by basic dials – it has a limited range of presets, but do not be put off.

The “Blur Vibrato” preset is beautiful and I smother everything in it to add warmth, sustain and movement to the most basic of samples. Live keyboards and guitar sit nicely hot wired through this thing.

I am sure new versions of Logic offer better and wider ranges but I am sticking with Scanner Vib certainly well into 2019.

Used to heavenly effect in “Cities of the Red Light”, as part of the Sound Photography Sound Project in 2018.

Hear it in action:

Cities and Memory

Ostinato Brass (Sonokinetic)

This was a year in which I got heavily into reverb-drenched brass sounds, and Ostinato Brass was one of my favourite tools to achieve this effect. It’s got some fantastically-rich recorded sounds, and is adaptable enough to give you a lower and higher layer of sounds that can either be synced or played separately, creating beautifully full sounds. Here it is in a piece based on a protest recording from Cairo, Egypt.

Hear it in action:

Brauer Motion (Waves)

A neat little too that adds lots of interesting stereo motion options to your tracks, from auto-panning to all kinds of crazy movement effects. It’s become a go-to plugin for subtle or dramatic placement and movement of samples and parts within a composition for me. Here you can hear it used subtly to keep the sound of a bird’s call circling around the listener in our piece “Infinite Nightingale”.

As an added bonus, towards the end of this piece you can also hear an instance of Ostinato Brass adding some depth behind the string pads.

Hear it in action:

Jeff Dungfelder

Logic Pro X (Apple)

In Logic Pro X by Apple, I regularly use the extensive suite of software effect plug-ins built into the application. Effects categories include both insert effects and processors. Because you’re free to use almost all plugins as you see fit, there are few restrictions on the use of effects anywhere in the signal path. Most effects can be used in mono, stereo, dual mono, or surround channels. Logic Pro X also provides a number of dedicated surround plug-ins.

Effects categories cover essential studio processors, such as compression, gating, limiting, equalization, and metering utilities. Both vintage and modern style compressors are emulated, making it easy to attain the sonic characteristics you need. A comprehensive collection of reverb, delay, and modulation effects are available to enhance your productions. Among these are the unique ChromaVerb, and the sophisticated and highly configurable Delay Designer and Space Designer plug-ins.

In my Cities and Memory track “Saltus” I started off with a hydrophone field recording of shrimp, that I multiplied, manipulated and distorted using these effect plug-ins. This track features the Atonal Machine, Tanked Bass, 5th Dimension, Triplet Tick Tock and Spring Theory effects. I like to take one audio sample and repeat it in multiple tracks. In each track I will use different effects, with the tracks overlapping each other in random places. A lot of the sounds I create are born out of this element of chance. I move the field recordings around until I discover that special combination of sounds that creates something new. For me the effects built into Logic Pro X are a great tool in creativity.

Hear it in action:

Rob Knight

Teufelsberg Reverb (Balance Audio Tools)

One of my favourite plugins is a Reverb from Balance Audio Tools. Teufelsberg Reverb is a impulse reverb captured and created in the infamous Berlin NSA surveillance tower which is made up of six different IR reverb sounds.

In “The Siren Call”, I used it on the location recording of the waves. It’s not that the original sounded needed reverb, it’s just the added dimension and feel the reverb brings to it.

I am also parallel processing the Waves into Logic’s built-in Space Designer reverb to create the drone-like texture. Space Designer itself is actually very good for creating abstract patterns and drones but if you want massive, deep reverbs with a real sense of depth then do check out Teufelsberg, or actually please don’t and I will just keep it to myself! 🙂

Hear it in action:

Galaxy Tape Echo (UAD)

My next choice is one of the superb UAD plugins. I use the SSL G Buss compressor as well as the Pultec and Fatso plugins a lot, but my favourite is the Galaxy Tape Echo. This was originally branded as a Roland Space Echo, but got a rebrand and a tweak and become the Galaxy Tape echo and it is just fantastic. I used it on “Caesium” running as a parallel process on the piano loops that also go through a separate AUX running an EQ and the Teufelsberg Reverb as mentioned before. It is really brilliant on piano, can give some really subtle modulation and it just makes any piano part more interesting.

Hear it in action:

Ableton Live

My final choice is actually Ableton Live. It has some great effects built in, including a phrase looper that I used on “Between Two Worlds”, the first track I wrote for Cities and Memory. I took the original recording of a church organ and loaded into the basic sampler in Ableton and then cut up and played it back from Push, their controller for Live.

I played the different samples back from Push into a live recording and then processed the track using the built-in FX including a 16-bar looper which gave more structure to the repetition but still made it seem random. I truly don’t believe the track would have been the same if I had written it in Logic.

To paraphrase Einstein, If you constantly approach writing a piece in the same way you will always end up with the same results, so changing your DAW can truly make you approach writing a track in a totally different way… and frankly way out of your comfort zone!

Hear it in action:

Andy Lyon

Palindrome (Glitchmachines)

I was very lucky to be part of the testing team for Palindrome and also to have designed some of the presets. It’s a four-slot sampler with a graphic display split into four quadrants. Each quadrant represents a sampler and you draw a path between them and Palindrome seamlessly morphs between the samples as the path is followed.

It offers extensive automation and modulation options and can create atmospheric, percussive and unusual experimental sounds. Because you can load your own samples it offers virtually unlimited potential.

Hear it in action:

Blackhole (Eventide)

Blackhole is a phenomenal reverb from Eventide Audio. Rather than model physical spaces, it creates virtual spaces that could never exist in reality. It can create a huge range of effects including soundscapes, vast spaces and special effects but it can also be subtle too. It is designed for live manipulation with its innovative ribbon control that allows you to set parameters for the controls and transition between them and a hotswitch feature that allows you to switch between different presets.

Blackhole has a gravity control that allows you to invert the decay time and coupled with other controls such as mix, size, modulation depth / rate, feedback and pre-delay, live manipulation can yield some very interesting results.

Hear it in action:

Michael Parker


This is an open source program (and now AU plugin) that can slow down and stretch sounds to extraordinary lengths, creating vague abstract textures from simple sounds.

PrimalTap (Soundtoys)

This is an old style delay with freeze function and multiply – it means I can grab short samples of sound and detune them to create very low textures and rhythms from very short pieces of source material.

Hear it in action:

Mark Taylor

Omnisphere 2 (Spectrasonics)

I used a new editing environment for the Cities and Memory piece ”Death and The Violin: Revenge of the Busker” – the synthesis capabilities of Omnisphere 2. I’ve owned and used it for a few years now, but this project gave me the chance to delve more deeply into its sound design side.

All the sounds came directly from five samples cut from the original field recording:

– VIOLIN 1: 8 seconds of bowed violin
– VIOLIN 2: different 8 seconds of bowed violin – chosen to link harmonically with V1
– PIZZICATO: 4 seconds of plucked violin
– PEOPLE 1: 4 seconds of background noise (no busker)
– PEOPLE 2: different 4 seconds of background noise (no busker) – overall containing different balance of frequency content to P1

Many ‘normal’ sound design techniques were involved here, there and everywhere – EQ, compression, filtering, reverb, chorus, delay, ADSR etc., but the dramatic changes came mainly from two Omnisphere modules:


Harmonia is a bit like an old Harmonizer, but it is much more flexible and has a lot more depth to its editing capabilities – it’s built into Omnisphere’s oscillator as a polyphonic synthesis component, and is not just an audio effect. It adds four additional oscillators to each layered sample. Since each layer has its own harmonia section, it can add up to eight additional oscillators per patch.

Granular Synthesis

If you don’t know, granular synthesis is a powerful method of fragmenting chunks of sound into very small bits of audio called ‘grains’. Since each grain can have its own duration, amplitude and envelope, they can create a layered ‘soundscape’ of overlapping tones – goes way back to the composer Iannis Xenakis who first conceptualized granular synthesis in the 1970s.

Omnisphere contains a fully implemented set of granular controls – sound sources turned into grains can be manipulated independently by altering their pitch, duration, ADSR envelope and position in the stereo field. Up to eight voices of granularity are available per sample layer, 16 per patch, and all can be automated independently via the modulation matrix.

Hear them in action:

Tim Waterfield (Karhide)

Cakewalk (Bandlab)

After the disappointment of Gibson closing the door on Sonar there was some good news in 2018. Bandlab bought the code from Gibson and hired old Cakewalk staff and released Sonar as Cakewalk by Bandlab for free and have been releasing updates most months. This is the DAW I feel most at home in so it’s great it’s back!

Ultra Analog VA-2 (Applied Acoustics)

Lovely virtual synth that I’ve been using for lots of bass, organ and pad sounds.

Dubstation 2 (Audio Damage)

Update to the original Dubstation plugin with a bunch of new features and a great vibe. This is my go-to delay.

Verbsuite (Slate Digital)

Over the past few years I have grown to love the Valhalla reverbs but this year I’ve started to move over to using Verbsuite which is based on a number of legendary reverb units. It just sounds good!

Thorn (Dmitry Sches)

Thorn is a pretty easy to use virtual synthesizer but what I love about it is the built in glitch and arpeggio features that let you quickly build interesting sequences.

Stereo Savage (Plugin Boutique)

Great plugin for when you need to place a sound somewhere in a stereo mix or make something mono.

Hear them in action:

Simon Woods

Cakewalk (Bandlab)

I find it difficult to choose as I tend to use different tools on different projects, but there is one that is in everything I do – the DAW Cakewalk by Bandlab (formerly Sonar). Why Cakewalk? The simple answer is that I’ve used the many versions since Pro Audio 9 – I’ve become so used to using it that to learn a new DAW would be very difficult (especially at the age of 58!).

Altiverb (Audio Ease)

The ‘In the Woodlands’ piece for Cities and Memory featured a lot of percussion both real and synthetic. All were recorded in my studio and, quite frankly, sounded like they had been – a very sterile sound. I needed a reverb/ambience of a woodland, and this is where Altiverb came in. The library of impulses is superb, and lurking amongst the Sydney Opera House, Hoover Tube and Bob Marley’s Sarm West Bathroom was Austerlitz Forest – perfect! It brought life to the woodland.

Hear it in action:

Codex Wavetable Synth (Waves)

‘Crosby Men’ was made from one sound of me hitting one of the Antony Gormley statues with a piece of driftwood. The subsequent sound was mangled with many filters, but the Waves Codex Wavetable synth managed get some musicality out of a basically dull hit of wood on solid metal (on a very windy day).

Hear it in action: