Get Smart: Creating "Keyboard" Pads with Guitar

July 8, 2014
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Keyboard players often ask me how to get a convincing guitar sound with keyboards, but few guitarists ask how they can sound more like a keyboard—maybe because they’re already playing the instrument keyboard players want to sound like! Yet guitars are great for sound design. You can sample a guitar tone and/or texture to make something interesting that you can drop into songs as needed. Here’s an example: Creating a sustaining, keyboard-like pad sound. This is particularly easy to do with a hex output-guitar, but as these are still relatively rare, try the following…

[1] Insert six audio tracks in your DAW. Choose a chord to play, and then record each string of the chord individually in its own track. (Note: an E-Bow works great in this application.)

[2] Cut off the beginning of each attack (the part with the pick noise) to create a more keyboard-like characteristic. Add a short fade-in if there’s a click. Then, trim the clip ends to the same length. You’ll probably have five to eight seconds of sound before the sustain deteriorates.

[3] Most DAWs have a time-stretch algorithm. For maximum sustain, use it to stretch each clip as long as practical. (Because the sound is relatively simple, I can stretch up to 400 percent with the iZotope stretch algorithm in Cakewalk Sonar). If your DAW lacks a good time-stretch algorithm, zplane’s élastique plug-in (VST, AU, RTAS) is excellent.

[4] For even more sustain, copy the clips and cross-fade them, one after another, about every second or so (Fig. 1) until the sustain is as long as desired.

[5] Now, get creative with signal processing. Distortion gives a more synth-like timbre, and flanging each string independently at different rates sounds pretty amazing, as does applying phasing and/or reverb.

[6] Once there’s a cool sound, bounce all the clips together into a single, stereo clip.

Note: You can record additional chords for a full octave of pads, but if your DAW has a quality pitch-shifting algorithm, you can probably cheat. Simply copy the existing clip twice, and then transpose one copy up a semitone, and the other down a semitone. (A semitone transposition does virtually no damage to audio quality, but the sound will suffer if you transpose too far out of range.) You may even be able to get away with transposing a single chord to cover an octave if you’re willing to tweak the transposed copies with EQ. This way, you can compensate for the extra brightness that happens when you transpose up, and the extra dullness when transposing down.

Now you have an octave of pad sounds you can drag into a project whenever you need a sustaining background pad that serves the function of a keyboard, but that has the organic, evolving sound of a guitar.

Craig Anderton has played on or produced more than 20 major label releases, mastered hundreds of tracks, and written dozens of books. Check out some of his latest music at youtube.com/thecraiganderton.

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