How do producers manipulate the sound of instruments?

Hello! I’m new to producing music and want to learn more about manipulating the actual sound of an instrument. I’ve heard of things like sound design, synths and timbre, but I’m not exactly sure where to begin. Basically, I’m interested in learning how to adjust the physical sound of an instrument and hopefully being able to direct what kind of emotion it conveys. I was hoping y’all could give me some guidance about what topics I should look into, how I should approach learning more about this or how to think about manipulating the sounds of instruments.

no short cuts brah <3

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also don’t ignore music theory, a little goes a long way in dance music and you can defo direct emotion with it


Thanks! So do you think synthesizers is what I should start looking into? Or is there an even broader topic that synths would be under?

Im bit confused, its late here and I’m baked but I linked you to a source about programming synths and then said something about music theory. I highly recommend both. ? : ) ?

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I guess what I’m asking is if synthesizers are THE way producers manipulate sounds of specific instruments or is it just a sub topic of manipulating sounds n general… and if it is a sub topic, what would is the broader topic?

I mean you are either generating audio or working with a recording? I’m not sure you can go broader than that.

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Ok, so if I’m understanding this correctly, you can either create a sound from scratch (synths) or manipulate a sample or instrument that already has a sound. Does this sound right? If it is, then would you use the same tools to do either? Or are there different techniques/approaches for both of them respectively?

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I’m honestly feeling a little trolled at this point but I’m high af now so I’m going with it. Yes you are correct, that is the very very basics of it…but typically no samplers (recorded audio) and synths (generated audio) are somewhat different tools but there are exceptions when you do a deep dive…


just fyi if you aren’t trolling I’m sorry but I’ve been doing this for a while and what is “basic” for some is probably a given me for at this point

And for what it is worth, after concentrating on synthesis for a long time I frankly like working with audio/samples more–working with samples may seem more basic on the surface but it is really just as deep as synthesis.

Some of my first exposure to electronic music was sample based hip hop in the mid 90s. and these days we can do amazing things with a few basic samples.

sorry, I see you trying to reply but I can’ stfu. I’ll stop and let you speak

LMAO I promise I’m not trolling haha Im just slow af and ask a lot simple questions… thanks for responding to them btw this is a huge help… last question I promise lol Would you mind giving some examples or an example of universal techniques/concepts/approaches/tools people use to edit recorded audio and generated audio?

Ouf man. That is a tall order. Frankly if you want to work with either audio or a synths I highly recommend investing in a mid-level hardware sampler or analog substractive synthesizer (Analog only because they tend to have a knob/button per function but that is probably a little advanced sounding at the moment). You could also go software, but I found that I learned a lot more and lot more quickly when I worked with a hands on instrument.

It is a deep dive brah. But well worth it. I’ve spent over a decade chasing the beats I love the most and I’m not there yet but the journey is worth it.

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Thanks man! I will def look into those.

Feel free to check back if you have questions. Picking a piece of hardware can be a confusing process. A lot of us around here have lots of experience with popular machines. Check into the The Original Hardware Megathread if you need advice for physical instruments.


Ok… @YoungCapone so I read the whole thread… it seems you are a newbie to music in general? … @relic as usual is being a very helpful Guru… you should listen carefully to his advice.

My take… jumping into synthesis without some basic music theory and understanding of how to play at least a bit on a keyboard is daunting… so… while you are twiddling knobs and patching cables take a break now and then and learn a few scales, some chords and the cycle of fifths.

There’s another thread on this forum where you can find the ravenspiral book on theory … or you could google it…

Most importantly… learn to play an instrument!

When I was a kid my Grandfather bought a canoe for Grandma for her birthday (yeah right!) and my cousin bought a book on “how to paddle a canoe” He was practicing in the family room with an imaginary paddle when Grandpa said “take that book with you in the canoe … throw the book in the water and grab a real paddle and try not drown yourself…”

Oh… and once you learn how to make some cool sounds… learn to record them and the how to mix a recording… there’s another whole big world in manipulating sound with a DAW.

Have fun! Looking forward to hearing some of your explorations. :sunglasses:


Start with the basics - physics and math! (just a lil bit, I promise) All sound, literally everything we hear, is made up of waves. A sine wave is just that basic up and down wave you see everywhere. How big the wave is top to bottom is how loud it is (amplitude) and how fast it is (how close together those high and low parts are) determines the pitch (frequency). You’ll see people talk about A440 - that’s an A note at 440 Hz. Hz is Hertz, which is just how many times that wave is repeating a second.

So you’ve got a sine wave repeating a certain number of times a second. It looks and sounds like this:

Pretty boring, eh? But - literally every sound everywhere can be deconstructed to a bunch of sine waves. How? Because when you play two waves together they add and subtract (technically called wave interference). Add the exact opposite of a sine wave (a cosine wave) to it and you get zero, nothing, silence. Add two different sine waves together and you get the sum of their peaks and valleys (I’m obviously simplifying here), but it’ll sound different than just a basic sine wave. Add a sine and a square wave and you’ll get a sort of half-way thing between them, because some parts are adding to the wave and some are subtracting.

(ignore all the math in there - if you add all the waves up top, you get that wave on the bottom!)

That’s how synths work - they use oscillators that make waves of different kinds, and add them together and do cool stuff with them. Some really cool stuff, but in the end it’s just manipulating those basic waves. Most synths have multiple oscillators so you can add two sine waves, or a sine and a square, and offset and mess with them in interesting ways. It’s just adding up the stacked waves and what comes out is what you hear. They also have basic controls for how quickly the sound ramps up and goes away, by changing the amplitude of the wave.

What about real instruments? Those are waves, too (it’s all waves), but they aren’t just basic up and down, they’ve got lots of little peaks and valleys and whatnot in each wave. Out in the real world, most things that vibrate (and again, that’s all we’re talking about - hearing things vibrate and make waves) have overtones. That means when, say, a guitar string makes a wave, it also makes a bunch of other little waves at higher and quieter frequencies that all add to the sound, so it’s not that basic eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee you get from a perfect wave. They’re more complex, but they’re still waves, up and down in a cycle, with lots of little bits thrown in adding to the color of the sound. They look like this:

See how it’s still going up and down, up and down? It’s still a wave that happens over time, but it changes over time and gets all crazy. Pretty much any acoustic sound (as in non-electronic…tuba, drums, guitar, screaming, beating on a can, etc) will look a bit like this, because it’s got a lot more going on than just a basic wave. Also, those extra bits are part of what creates timbre - it’s what lets your brain differentiate between a guitar and a piano and a flugelhorn and a voice, because they each have their own little additional bits that add to the color.

So a guitar string vibrating at 440Hz is the same note as a sine wave at 440Hz is the same note as someone singing at 440Hz…but they all sound different. And so here’s (finally) the answer to your question: You manipulate real instruments the same way you manipulate synths, because they’re all just waves - you add or take away parts to them. EQ plays a specific wave over the top of your instrument or synth or sample, and either adds or subtracts that part out (remember, waves add and subtract when played together!) A delay or reverb just grabs a chunk of that wave and copies it over a bit. Compression smooshes the amplitude (volume) of the wave so it doesn’t jump up and down as much, and on and on…

Do you need to know all this to make music? Hell no, plenty of people make awesome sounds without ever knowing a bit about it, but most people that deep dive into production have a good idea of how and why they’re adding an effect and how it’s manipulating their output, and a basic understanding of this stuff, even if it’s just intuitive.

Best place to start? Get any ol’ DAW, open up whatever synth they have and start messing. Bonus points if you throw a frequency analyzer on there so you can see how the waves jump around. Won’t take long to go ‘oh, if I add a sine and a square wave I get this thing, and it sounds like this’. Then import or record some instruments or people talking and mess with it and see what’s happening.


@1roomstudio has solid advice on the process, just learn a little bit at a time as you can. A couple other things that helped me. When working with songs get in the habit of working them until you can call them “finished” even if you don’t love them. A lot of new producers make the mistake of never finishing anything then when the have the skills they spend a bunch of extra time trying to figure out how to call something done. Additionally, a decades long friend of mine who taught piano for years said that for adults she recommend you start by learning about chords as apposed to scales. When I did that I was shocked how music theory opened up to me. I make house and techno, notably not harmonically complex much of time and more about timbre and groove, but learning how chords worked just taught me a ton.

Also defo listen to @Artificer, solid advice there too!

So true @Artificer and such an elegant way of explaining it…

Good point @relic The two hardest things about producing a piece of music: figuring out what you are doing… and finishing it… all the stuff in the middle is easy and fun.

And remember @YoungCapone once it’s finished… if you don’t like it… the delete button is your friend. Don’t waste your time into the future re-listening to something you already know you don’t like. Now that it’s out of your system… you are free to move on to better things.

Now go make some noise :boom::violin::notes::zap::drum::musical_keyboard::headphones::sunglasses:

so many ways. what instrument are you starting with?