Your ear is keenly interested in a sound’s initial transient—probably because back when we were grunting and crawling around, it was important to know whether that rustling in the grass was just the wind or a saber-toothed tiger hungry for a dudeburger. Transient Shapers—part of the dynamics processing family—affect only a sound’s transient—the initial burst of energy, like a string pluck. These processors can affect how you perceive a sound, while minimally altering the sound itself.
The transient shaper’s Attack control is key. Turning this up creates a snappier, more prominent attack, and turning it down softens the attack (Fig. 1). There may also be a Threshold control, which determines a minimum level at which the Attack control affects the sound.
The Sustain or Weight control is equally important, because it determines what happens after the initial attack. More weight increases the post-transient level, which produces a fatter sound. Less weight decreases the level, which thins out the sound somewhat (Fig. 2). Other transient-shaping processors add variations, such as another control to shape the decay, or timbre controls that affect various frequencies differently.
Some transient-shaper plugins include a “loo k-ahead” function. This lets them analyze transients before they occur, and therefore do preparatory shaping before the transient becomes audible. But no processor can look into the future, so tracks must be delayed prior to playback so the Transient Shaper can look ahead, and then play back the processed sound. Fortunately, most hosts do this automatically, or have a “Phase Delay Compensation” option that lines up the tracks. The downside is the delay may increase latency. The fix is to render the track with the effect so it turns into a standard audio track. Then, you can bypass the effect to eliminate the delay, but still keep it handy to make changes later.
Although most people think of using transient shapers on drums, guitar and bass are great candidates for transient shaping due to their percussive nature. Here are some representative applications.
ALTER GUITAR IN THE MIX WITHOUT CHANGING LEVEL
Softening the attack makes the guitar less prominent, and reducing the weight thins the guitar sound, as well. Emphasizing the attack makes the guitar stand out more.
REPLICATE VINTAGE COMPRESSOR “SNAP”
Fig. 2—Native Instruments’ Transient Master is a basic transient shaper with Attack and Sustain controls.
The goal of most compressors is transparency, but a lot of older compressor stompboxes added a “snap” to the initial attack transient that was almost like an exaggerated tube amp sag. You can emulate this with a little bit of attack time, then increasing the weight to sound more like a compressor’s fat attack.
ACCENTUATE PALM MUTING
Muted guitar parts can stand out if you turn up the Attack control to emphasize transients. Reducing weight somewhat accents the attack, and increasing the weight produces a meatier muted sound.
REDUCE PICK NOISE
Some high-gain distortion emphasizes pick noise to the point of distraction. Adding attack time can reduce pick noise dramatically, giving you a smoother distortion sound.