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Granular Synthesis: Turn Sound from Basic to Beautiful

Written by Sam Elsley

May 17, 2024
Granular Synthesis: Turn Sound from Basic to Beautiful

Written by Sam Elsley

May 17, 2024

The click of a pen by itself? A boring sample. But run through granular synthesis, that same pen sample can transform into a song lead, a shimmering soundscape, and all sorts of new, beautiful instruments.

It’s this nearly limitless potential that makes granular synthesis so useful for musicians, sound designers, and anyone working with sound, especially if you’re struggling with new ways to take your production.  

Think of this as a quick-start guide. No getting bogged down in the weeds of granular synthesis, just the information you need to know what it is, how it works, if it deserves a spot in your workflow, and how to get started.

What is Granular Synthesis?

Granular synthesis is a sound design technique that breaks down an audio sample into small pieces, or “grains”, and then reconfigures these grains to create new sounds. 

Picture running your sound through a digital woodchipper. The resulting spray is your original sound chopped into hundreds or thousands of micro sounds, which you can alter in all sorts of ways.

A deeper dive into granular synthesis with our long-time collaborator, Zdrewe.

How Does Granular Synthesis Work?

For the depth of sound it can produce, granular synthesis works in a relatively simple way: 

You run your original audio file through a granular device, which slices your file into grains on the millisecond scale—often, but not always, between 10 – 250 milliseconds. 

You can then manipulate these grains in all sorts of ways through parameters like:

  • Grain Size: Controls the length of individual sound grains; smaller sizes create more staccato sounds, while larger sizes produce smoother textures.
  • Grain Shape: Determines the envelope of each grain, affecting how grains fade in and out (e.g., smooth, sharp).
  • Pitch: Modifies the pitch of the grains, allowing for shifts up or down.
  • Spray: Adds randomness to the starting point of each grain, increasing texture and complexity.
  • Width: Adjusts the stereo width, making the sound more mono or stereo.
  • Reverse: Reverses the playback of grains, adding variation and unpredictability.
  • Detune: Slightly shifts the pitch of grains to create a richer, chorus-like effect.
  • Delay: Adds echoes to the sound, with feedback controlling the number of repeats.
Granular synthesis parameters inside of Lunacy’s multi-effects plugin, BEAM.

Who Is Granular Synthesis For?

Granular synthesis is useful for musicians, sound designers, and anyone experimenting with sound, really. 

But depending on what you want, you may want real-time granular processing instead of granular synthesis.

The two often get lumped together, but there is a significant difference in the feeding of the original audio:

  • Granular synthesis processes fixed audio (ex. recorded vocal loop)
  • Real-time granular processing processes incoming audio (ex. live piano playing)

This may seem like a small difference, but it can affect how you produce. 

Prefer a non-real-time process where you can manipulate your sound at the pace you like (i.e. bedroom producer)? You probably want granular synthesis. 

Looking to manipulate sounds live and get immediate feedback (i.e. live performer)? Real-time granular processing might be a better choice. 

What Can You Make with Granular Synthesis?

Granular synthesis breaks down samples into micro grains you can arrange and manipulate in nearly limitless ways. So, what can you make with granular synthesis? Many, many things, but you commonly see it used for: 

Ambient Textures

Sometimes you’re going for more of a feel than a melody; granular synthesis is your friend here, helping you create lush, ambient tones or droning atmospheres from something as simple as a single piano key. 

How to create ambient textures with common granular synthesis parameters:

  • Size: Set the grain size to be relatively large. This creates smoother transitions between grains and a more fluid sound.
  • Shape: Use a gentle, rounded shape for the grain envelope to ensure each grain fades in and out smoothly.
  • Pitch: Slightly detune the pitch for a more ethereal effect, avoiding extreme pitch shifts to maintain a cohesive sound.
  • Spray: Increase the spray parameter to randomize the starting point of each grain, adding texture and complexity.
  • Width: Set the width parameter higher to create a wider stereo field, making the sound more immersive.
  • Delay: Apply delay with moderate feedback to add depth and space to the sound.

Looking for more ways to create atmosphere in your sound? Don’t miss our guide on impulse responses.

Evolving Plucks and Pads

Build pads that overlap and evolve over time for smoother, more organic sounds. This can lend to a more relaxing sound by blending everything together or more tension as your pads evolve.

How to create evolving pads with common granular synthesis parameters:

  • Size: Set the grain size to be medium to large This allows for a smooth and continuous texture, essential for evolving pads.
  • Shape: Use a rounded shape for the grain envelope to ensure each grain fades in and out gently, maintaining a smooth sound.
  • Pitch: Modulate the pitch subtly over time. This can be done using an LFO or manual automation to create slow pitch variations that add movement to the pad.
  • Spray: Increase the spray parameter to introduce randomness in the grain start points, adding texture and variation without becoming chaotic.
  • Width: Set the width parameter higher to create a wide stereo field, making the sound more expansive and immersive.
  • Reverse: Occasionally reverse some grains to add interesting backward textures and variations.
  • Detune: Slightly detune the grains to add a rich, chorus-like effect, enhancing the evolving nature of the pad.
  • Delay: Apply delay with moderate feedback to add depth and create evolving echoes that contribute to the pad’s movement.

Glitchy Effects

Mr. Robot, Social Network, any documentary about AI: these soundtracks have a distinctly digital, glitchy feel to them—use granular synthesis to follow in their footsteps. 

How to create glitchy effects with common granular synthesis parameters:

  • Size: Set the grain size to very small. This creates choppy, stuttering sounds characteristic of glitch effects.
  • Shape: Use sharp or percussive grain envelopes for more abrupt changes.
  • Pitch: Apply extreme pitch modulation. Rapidly change the pitch for a chaotic effect.
  • Spray: Maximize the spray parameter to randomize the starting point of each grain.
  • Width: Keep the width moderate to maintain focus on the glitchy texture.
  • Reverse: Frequently reverse grains to add unexpected variations.
  • Detune: Apply significant detuning to create a dissonant effect.
  • Delay: Use delay with high feedback to create repeating glitches.

Time Stretching and Pitch Shifting

Stretch your sound longer, change its pitch without altering its tempo, and warp your sound in other time-related ways such as reversing. You’ll often find dedicated parameters for changing a sample’s size, pitch, and other time qualities.

New or Refreshed Sounds

Create something musical out of the most ordinary sounds or add a fresh spin to old sounds on your hard drive. There’s no one way to do and comes from experimenting until you hear what you like. 

Getting Started With a Granular Synth Plugin

So, those are the basics of granular synthesis—but what about the actual tools you need to get started?

Depending on your DAW, you might already have what you need. 

For example, Ablelton has a stock plugin called Granulator. There’s also Logic’s Alchemy and FL Studio’s Fruity Granulizer.

But these focus on granular synthesis in isolation; there’s a new generation of plugins that allow you to combine granular synthesis with all sorts of other sound design techniques. 

Granular Synthesis + Filters + Convolution Reverb = Endless Possibilities

Picture everything you can do with granular synthesis, add in the option for even more transformation through convolution reverb and filters, and you have our multi-effects plugin, BEAM.

As shown by sound designer and musician, Dash Glitch, in the video below, you can combine BEAM’s Space (convolution reverb), Grain (granular synthesis), and Filter nodes to:

  • Add rhythm and glitchiness with customized trans gates
  • Transform ordinary sounds into beautiful, versatile soundscapes or instruments
  • Add magical, otherworldly quality to your sounds with shimmering reverbs
Hear the possibilities with BEAM’s Space and Filter nodes.

The best part is that these examples are just the tip of the iceberg; working with all three of the plugin’s nodes, the possibilities within BEAM are nearly endless.

Learn more about how BEAM transforms your sound.

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