SEPTEMBER 28, 2023

Sound Selection: Creating a Sonic Palette

Sound Selection 1862x1040

In music production, writing music is a given. Yet, there's another element that often goes overlooked: the timbre, texture, and tonal quality of the sounds you select. This process in music production, known as sound selection, is the unsung hero of many iconic tracks and the secret sauce behind the unique flavor of countless artists and entire genres. It's what gives a piece of music its distinct character and sets it apart in a crowded musical landscape. In this article, we'll explore the art and science of sound selection, how you can incorporate it into your music production practice, and tips for improving your sound library navigation.

If you're looking to spark creativity with new sounds, follow along with Pro Tools to access an expansive collection of samples, loops, instruments, and effects tailored for creators like you. Let's get started!

VIDEO: Pro Tools: Get Inspired

What is Sound Selection in Music?

Sound selection is the process of choosing specific sounds, effects, instruments, or samples that fit the vibe, mood, and direction of a musical piece. It encompasses everything from picking the right drum kit, bass line, and synth tone to deciding on the ambient background noises or vocal chops. The goal? To create a cohesive soundscape that captures the aesthetic you want to create.

Sound selection usually happens during the pre-production phase of music production and beat making. It acts as the blueprint for the rest of the creation process. By ensuring every sound is purposefully chosen and aligned with the project's vision, artists and producers set themselves up for a smoother transition into production and post-production phases. This attention to detail in the early stages often results in a more polished and resonant final product.

Why is Sound Selection Important?

Sound selection is pivotal in music production because it defines the overall aesthetic and feel of a track. It’s not just about choosing sounds; you're crafting an identity, setting the stage for the narrative you want your music to tell. By artfully blending sounds from various genres or pulling from a diverse palette, producers can invent entirely new subgenres or distinctive sonic signatures. This blending not only makes a track memorable but also sets the stage for innovation in the ever-evolving world of music.

Aside from helping to carve out a unique aesthetic, the sound selection process also plays a key role in ensuring clarity in your mix. When elements complement each other, there's less likelihood of frequency clashes, making the mixing process smoother. Additionally, curating the right sounds can help convey emotions, themes, and narratives more effectively. It's not just about technical precision; it's about creating an auditory experience that remains memorable. In essence, mastering sound selection is a step towards ensuring your productions don't just sound good, but they evoke feelings, create atmospheres, and establish your unique brand in the world of music.

How to select sounds for a song

One of the best ways to select sounds for a song is by listening to tracks in your favorite genre and identifying the sounds, instruments, and effects that align with your taste. You can then search for similar sounds in your DAW sound library or recreate them yourself using sound design techniques.

VIDEO: Sounds in Pro Tools

In this section, we'll walk you through actionable steps, turning sound selection from an overwhelming task into a process you can easily repeat. Let's dive in.

1. Take Inspiration from Reference Tracks

Start by finding a reference track that achieves everything you want out of your work. Reference tracks are songs from other artists and producers with a similar sound you want to achieve. They provide a clear direction, establish a benchmark for quality, and spark ideas when inspiration feels out of reach. When working on sound selection, having a reference track is like having a North Star, guiding you towards the desired sonic landscape. By analyzing these tracks, you can dissect their structure, identify the instruments used, and understand the mix's depth and space.

When using reference tracks for sound selection, try making note of the following:

  • Genre: Every genre has a unique aesthetic. Try comparing and contrasting sounds between genres to understand how sound selection sets genres apart.
  • Instrumentation: Identify the specific instruments used. Are there any unique or unconventional instruments that stand out? How are they layered together?
  • Timbre and Tone: Notice the tone of each instrument. Is it warm, bright, gritty, smooth? How does the chosen timbre contribute to the song's overall mood? Don't be afraid to whip out an EQ plugin to see where every sound lives in the mix; you can organize the sounds by frequency.
  • Rhythmic Elements: Focus on the percussive and rhythmic sounds. Are they sharp and punchy or soft and laid-back? How do they interact with melodic elements?
  • Spatial Placement: Listen to how instruments are placed in the stereo field. Which sounds are centered, panned left/right, or occupy the background/foreground?
  • Sound FX: Take note of any effects applied, like reverb, delay, distortion, or modulation. How do these effects enhance or transform the original sounds?
  • Dynamics: Notice the volume levels of different elements. Which instruments or sounds are prominent at various sections of the track? How do dynamics change throughout?
  • Transitions: Pay attention to how one section transitions to another. What sounds or effects aid in these transitions?
  • Mood and Emotion: Reflect on the emotions the track evokes. Can you attribute these feelings to specific sound choices?
  • Harmonic Content: Identify the chord progressions and melodies. Even though this is more about musical content than sound selection, understanding the harmonics can guide sound choices.
  • Innovative Elements: Are there unique sounds or production techniques that stand out? Perhaps a peculiar sample or a sound design technique that's intriguing?

2. Build Your Sample Library and Instrument Selection

Here's where things get fun! As you dissect reference tracks, start browsing through sound libraries and virtual instruments to find textures, rhythms, or tonalities that resonate with your vision. As you listen and take notes, curate your favorites so you have a selection of suitable sounds ready once you to jump into your DAW.

Here are steps you can follow in building your library of sounds:

  • Collect Samples: Over time, amass a diverse collection of samples—from drum loops to ambient textures. Online marketplaces, field recordings can be great sources, or your digital audio workstations' in-built libraries.
  • Invest in Virtual Instruments: Virtual instruments (VSTs) can bring a rich diversity of sounds, from orchestral strings to vintage synths. Many producers start with free versions and then graduate to premium ones as their needs evolve.
  • Organize Your Library: It's not enough to just collect sounds. Organizing them in a logical and accessible manner will speed up your workflow. Categorize based on instrument type, mood, or even specific projects.
  • Regularly Update and Curate: As you grow as a producer, your taste will evolve. Regularly revisit your library, adding new sounds that inspire you and phasing out ones that no longer serve your evolving style.

Find Sounds Faster with Soundbase in Pro Tools

Pro Tip: Don’t spend too much time browsing for sounds—You can optimize your sound library navigation with Pro Tools' Soundbase. This intuitive tool streamlines your sound library navigation, letting you search, audition, and insert loops or sound files directly into your sessions in the least amount of time. Its tagging system simplifies the hunt for that ideal sound, tailoring results to specific projects or genres. Plus, with third-party content support, you can effortlessly merge other sound libraries, benefiting from the same efficient tag and audition framework.

VIDEO: Pro Tools Quick Tips: Searching and Auditioning Loops

3. Choose Sounds That Work for Your Production

Once you have great sounds ready and organized, you can choose the ones that work for your project. While it's tempting to use every cool sound you stumble upon, the key is to select sounds that complement, rather than clash, with your production. Here are some tips to keep in mind while choosing sounds for a song:

  • Avoid Frequency Masking: When two sounds occupy the same frequency range, they can mask each other, making it hard to distinguish either sound clearly. Choosing distinct, complementary sounds helps avoid this, ensuring every element in your track can shine without unnecessary interference. Try to ensure each sound occupies it’s own space in the frequency spectrum. Remember, less is more, focus on the essentials.
  • Mixing Begins with Sound Selection: A common misconception is that mixing is where you fix any sound issues. In reality, the mixing process is made infinitely smoother when you begin with well-chosen sounds. The right sound from the outset requires less EQ, compression, and other processing.
  • Consider the Song's Emotion and Feel: Every sound has an emotional impact. A harsh synth might be perfect for an aggressive track but could feel out of place in a soft ballad. Always ask if the sound supports the emotion you're trying to convey.
  • Test Sounds in Context: Soloing a sound can be misleading. Always listen to how it fits within the arrangement. Does it enhance the mix, or does it muddy it?
  • Simplicity Can Be Golden: Sometimes, less is more. Instead of layering multiple sounds, see if one perfectly chosen sound can carry the part. This minimizes potential clashing and creates a cleaner mix.

Stay Inspired with Monthly Bonus Content

With Pro Tools, you're not just getting a DAW—you're unlocking a vast universe of sound. Whether you're on a subscription or hold a perpetual license, Pro Tools equips you with an ever-expanding library to keep your sound fresh.

Sonic Drop_Inner Circle 852x532

Inner Circle: Elevate your sound palette by claiming over $2,500 worth of top-tier plugins, sound libraries, and more. Dive into this treasure trove and discover tools that resonate with your unique style.

Sonic Drop: A monthly collection of loops and samples, crafted by multiplatinum artist and Avid sound designer, Matt Lange. These collections offer an array of samples, loops, and presets to enhance your productions.

VIDEO: Noise Engineering Modular Motifs Pro Tools | Sonic Drop

4. Compare Sounds to Your Reference Track

Finally, compare your sounds to the reference track to see how close your sound selection matches your end goal. Don't be afraid to return to the drawing board and experiment with new sounds if things aren't right.

Alternatively, you can learn sound design to help you get the right sound. Sound design is more than just an artistic skill—it's a strategic tool in sound selection. When you understand the fundamentals of sound synthesis, you can easily modify presets to align with your vision. Instead of sifting through endless libraries, you can mold existing sounds or even create your own from scratch. A solid grasp on sound design means you can fine-tune or reverse-engineer any sound to fit your needs. For instance, see how Matt Lange transforms a simple saw wave into a Trance-ready synth using SynthCell in Pro Tools in the video below.

VIDEO: Pro Tools | SynthCell: Making Trance Plucks

Find Your Sound

As you improve the way you select sounds, you'll have no problem picking the right samples and instruments to bring your ideas to life. But never turn your nose up at experimentation! While sound selection helps you define your project's aesthetic, genre, and mood, that doesn't mean you shouldn't try something new. Try combining sounds from different genres: the chord progressions of House music, the drums of Trap, who knows what you’ll get!

Some of the best songs came to be by thinking outside the box. Sound selection builds your foundation, but it's up to you to fine-tune as your creativity soars. Download your free copy of Pro Tools Intro to start experimenting with sound today!

Download Pro Tools Intro for Free
  • © 2024