Granular Primer: Part 1

Making teh granulard clouds

Making teh granulard clouds

Granular tools for sound have become so ubiquitous that they are available to anyone, and often we are using granular algorithms in our software without even realizing it–for time stretching, or pitch shifting for example.  I found this magical tool back in the day as a teenager when Audiomulch was free and running on windows 95, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since.  Since I have a lot to say about this subject, I’m going to break this subject up into a few posts, so stay tuned for upcoming blogs.

A grain envelope with a sine wave.  The sinewave is amplitude modulated (multiplied) by the envelope.

A grain envelope with a sine wave. The sinewave is amplitude modulated (multiplied) by the envelope.

The basic building block of granular synthesis and effects is simply an envelope and a sound source.  The complexity of granular sound comes from throwing large amounts of control data at them; the shape of the envelope, how often it is triggered, and the parameters of the sound source.  The many different styles of granular synthesis come from controlling various parameters of the envelope, the sound, and the way the envelope is triggered.

I personally view granular synthesis and granular effects as essentially the same thing, though some might disagree.  With synthesis, the difference is that the sound for each individual grain is often tailored in a very specific way to achieve certain results, whereas the effect version of granular generally just grabs audio from a delay line.  Granular effects can be just as intricate however, and have complex control data for every specific grain.  There aren’t very many great granular synths on the market, and for the most part effects are the most practical thing for everyday use in the studio.



When describing granular synthesis, part of the definition used is often that each grain must be fairly short–less than 100 or 50 ms.  I think this is an arbitrary limitation however, and I like to apply granular techniques sometimes to grains that are up to 10 or 20 seconds long, even.  In this following track, I used statistical techniques to add the occasional very long grain that was slowly pitch shifted upwards, creating a sort of barbershop pole frequency glissando effect.

Granular Risset Flute MP3 download

There are two main categories of granular sound, synchronous and asynchronous.  Synchronous granular synthesis is when the grains are all spaced evenly apart in time. It is used for things like VOSIM, which I explain here:

VOSIM for the Masses

or for FOF, which is a type of granular formant synthesis.  It’s also used for things like time stretching effects and pitch shifting–the Reaktor sampler modules (besides the basic interpolation samplers) seem to use synchronous effects.  Most of the sampling effects in Kontakt, for instance, are based on the same concept, but with higher quality sound.  Synchronous granular sounds can be achieved with just a few grains at a time, or even just one, and is much more processor efficient than the asynchronous type.

Synchronous grannies on top, asynchronous grannies on bottom.

Synchronous grannies on top, asynchronous grannies on bottom.

Asynchronous granular synthesis is how “cloud” type effects are achieved.  Here, the time between grains is different and often randomized between a certain range.  Also, many more grains are usually present, up to 100 or more at a time depending on your computer and the software, though 20-40 usually does the trick for me :).  Pitches of the grains are often randomized, resulting in blurred atonal and noisy effects, and delay times, panning, and amplitude and just about anything else can be tweaked and randomized, usually.

Just about any granular tool can easily use synchronous and asynchronous methods, but it helps to keep them conceptually separate, as they are better for different things.  Asynchronous granular synthesis generally smooshes the sound and kills the transients, and blurs the hell out of things.  But this is great for effects like big harmonized reverbs, or huge sounding spatialization.  Asynchronous is better for more clean sounds, for tight fast effects, and for things like pitch shifting, or amplitude modulation sounds, or comb filter type sounds and popping, buzzing noises, formant sounds, etc.

Well, I think that is about as much as your average joe would read in one sitting, so I’ll be back with more soon.  Here are some good granular tools for mac/pc.  I know there’s tons of great granular software coming out on mobile, but i’m not hip to it unfortunately, though borderlands for iOS looks amazing.

Granular tools:

Argotlunar is currently the best granular effect out there, in my opinion, and it’s free!  Crazy!  It is amazing and I highly recommend it.

Hadron:  A very nice, and free, granular synthesizer

Granite by New Sonic Arts:  A nice granular sampler with a great automation recording system.  Mostly good for textural sounds.

This plugin used to be free, and called KTgranulator.  :(  Now it’s commercial and it’s called saltygrain.  It’s based on the audiomulch granulator.  Very good though.

Might as well just use audiomulch instead :)

Melda Multiband Granular:  I want to get this but haven’t had a chance.  It comes highly recommended.

Soundhack Bubbler is a cool granular delay:

Reaktor has a whole panoply of mind blowing granular plugins.  I’ll post some of my granular effects for Reaktor in some upcoming bloggages.

I’m only linking to stuff that I think is worth using.  But here’s some more links for the adventurous.


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