Ryan Lott: Discovering Hidden Sounds in Prepared Piano (Video)

+ This exclusive video lesson is presented courtesy of Ryan Lott’s course, Designing Sample-Based Instruments. Sign up to inject a new dose of creativity into your music with custom-built virtual instruments.

Article premiered by 344 Audio Blog

Ryan Lott is a composer, songwriter, and the band leader of Son Lux. As a composer, he’s worked with dance companies like Ballet de Lorraine, National Dance Company of Wales, and BalletX, and his film scores and arrangements include The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (2014), Paper Towns (2015), Mean Dreams (2017), Looper (2012), and most recently, Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022).

In his new online course, Ryan Lott: Designing Sample-Based Instruments, Ryan shares an incredible amount of detailed insight with regards to his sound and instrument design process, and how he captures original tonal and textural sounds to create custom, virtual, playable instruments which he then uses to build the foundations for his songs, film and dance scores, and audio-visual live shows.

More than anything, Ryan’s process reflects the endless possibilities inherent to using sound design as the starting place for “musical” composition, as opposed to the assumption held by so many producers that sound design exists solely as an additive or  supplemental element to an audio production or film treatment already in progress.

Today we get to share with you the newly released video (above) from Ryan’s course, first premiered by our friends over at the 344 Audio blog, that explores which elements he prepares for in creating new sounds and which he leaves up to chance; as well as how he mediates between those mindsets in practice.

Working on a Hunch

The practice of designing virtual instruments allows for so much discovery and introspection — two things that can lead to significant artistic growth. One good way to tap into that is to articulate a creative theory early on, and then prod or test it throughout your process, taking the time to reflect on the ways in which your expectations are met or the things that surprise you.

In this segment of the course, Ryan’s hunch is that if he can record three variations on the same piano note (we see him capture these notes in another lesson in his course), through sampling he’ll be able to turn that into a “wavering pitch” phenomenon, giving his virtual sample a lilting, emotive quality.

In the above video, as we see him play the pitch back in a chord dyad, you can really hear that emotionality come to life. Ryan describes the effect as almost like the sound is searching.

“There’s so much information just in that single sound.”

Playing a Performance

Ryan also talks about how making an instrument using a sample can be a “surreal experience,” because it involves listening to and then re-contextualizing an already played performance; with all its quirks and asymmetries intact.

You’re essentially creating a new way to perform an existing performance, which is an awesome thought. You’re able to respond to your original performance as a performer, creating opportunities for serendipity to occur.

Ryan says one of his goals in designing sample-based instruments is not only to have something that responds actively to him, but that he can respond to as well. For him, “imbuing chance into your programming is the key to that.”

“When you layer that contour with itself, playing back at a different speed, you’re inevitably getting a lot of chance interaction. There’s an ongoing variability.”

Embracing Happy Accidents Through Chance

In another instance within this video, Ryan shows us how something small and unintended can become a source of sonic inspiration. He takes a closer look at a “squeak sound” that was achieved by accident on one of the piano’s strings during recording.

Because this sound is made of such a high frequency tone, we see him work through a hunch that playing it back at a slower speed might reveal something “invisible” hiding within the sound itself. Ryan prints the .wav file and imports it into Kontakt, mapping it up to C7 so he can utilize the lower registers of the keyboard to unveil what’s hiding inside the sample sonically.

Upon playing it back we see him visually excited to discover that the resulting sample produces a windy, breathing flute-like synth tone, which he describes immediately as “a rainy sound.”

This tiny experiment proves that even a veteran producer or sound designer as experienced as Ryan Lott can be delighted and surprised to discover totally new and unheard sounds, time and time again, by relying on chance encounters in his process and making sure to embrace happy accidents with an open-minded approach.

If you enjoyed this article, please check out 344 Audio’s ultimate guide to audio post-production344 Audio is an Audio Post Production studio in Manchester.

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, recording and production, composing, beat making, and more on Soundfly, with artist-led courses by KimbraCom TruiseJlinKiefer, and the new Ryan Lott: Designing Sample-Based Instruments.

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