Part 1 of this series was a bit dry, so in this article, we’re going to build a hammered dulcimer while learning about different parts of tension. Since this is part two, I’m going to assume you already know the basics of how Tension’s excitator works.
What We’re Making
We’re going to attempt to synthesize a hammered dulcimer, which happens to be one of my favorite instruments. The sound is beautiful, exotic, and can easily be worked into electronic work because of its otherworldly feel. Like nearly all acoustic instruments, it’s extremely hard to synthesize, but Tension makes it pretty easy to get close.
If you’re not familiar with the sound of the hammered dulcimer (known in the Middle East and India as the santur/santoor), SoundCloud has you covered:
Notice the differences between these different dulcimers. Some of them are more dampened, others brighter. The second sample seems to be played with heavier hammers on a duller dulcimer, while the third sounds a bit tinny without the rich resonance of a larger dulcimer. It’s possible to build this variation into your instrument by mapping parameters of Tension (particularly Damping on the Excitator and the String section) to Instrument Rack macros, but in this tutorial we’re just going to focus on Tension.
Let’s get started!
Step 1: The String
We’re going to start by modifying the String section of Tension, which we didn’t look at in the last episode.
This section has four parameters, marked in green, and two key modulators, marked in orange. We’ll be changing all of them to make the strings on our dulcimer.
First, we’ll want to change the Ratio, which sets the relationship between the decay and the release of the sound. For a hammered dulcimer, we want a relatively quick attack, but a long sustain after you let go of the key. At 100%, there is almost no sound after the MIDI note release. At 0%, there is a very long decay. 2% should do for our hammered dulcimer.
Decay sets the total decay time, or how long it takes the string to come to complete silence. I set it to 55%, because the default 75% seemed a bit too long, especially when playing scales quickly (which is fun to do on a dulcimer).
Increasing the Inharm parameter makes the upper partials of the string’s sound more out of tune. Unlike theoretical strings, real-world strings aren’t perfectly harmonic, which means the overtones are a bit out of tune. In certain dulcimers, this effect can be extreme. It gives a pseudo-chorus sound, and definitely contributes to the exotic timbre of the instrument. I set Inharm to 75%, which seemed just about right for a dulcimer.
Damping controls how much the string dampens itself. This is the most obvious difference in the three dulcimer samples above. The second sample is clearly more dampened than the other dulcimers. Though this could have something to do with the way the sound was recorded, or the hammers used to play the dulcimer, my guess is that it is a difference in the instrument’s strings.
Anyway, a higher amount on the damping control lets the upper harmonics ring more clearly, resulting in a brighter sound. This is a bit unintuitive, but think of it like you are “opening” the dampers by turning up the parameter. Be careful though: I recommend avoiding values that are too high. In the real world, all strings are dampened somewhat. A value around 92% works for our patch.
We’ll come back to the Key sliders later. If you haven’t noticed, we’re playing our hammered dulcimer with a plectrum. It sounds pretty boring:
Time to change that!
Step 2: The Hammer
A dulcimer walks into a bar and asks for a drink.
The bartender says, “Sorry, man, I won’t serve you anymore. You’re already hammered!”
That’s a joke I made up just now. Hopefully I will never have to rely on my comedic genius to make a living.
Anyway, now we’re going to work with the Excitator section of Tension to make a more genuine-sounding dulcimer. If you listen to the patch played with the plectrum, it will sound kind of unexciting, kind of just like a weird guitar. The quality of the hammer puts a bit more spice into the sound.
First, change the Excitator to Hammer. You’ll notice a pretty dull sound. We can clear this up a little by increasing the Damping parameter on the Excitator, allowing the strings to ring more. Set it to 94%.
Next, change the Mass to 30% and the Stiffness to 75%. Now we have a sufficiently bright sound:
Step 3: Sensitivity and Expression
The sound is still a bit lifeless, so we’ll make it more expressive by adding in velocity and key sensitivity.
First, dial down the velocity parameter to 17%, and change the velocity sensitivity slider below it to somewhere between 5-6. You’ll have to calibrate it to the keyboard you’re playing on, since MIDI keyboards have different weights, making it easier or harder to make loud sounds.
We can make the Mass and Stiffness parameters velocity sensitive. I changed the Mass slider to 6.23 and the Stiffness slider to 4.92, but play with them to make sure you’re getting the sound you want. Now our instrument sounds like this, a bit more dulcimer-y:
The sound does still have a distinctly synthesized feeling in the lower registers, though. This is something we can easily remedy with Key sensitivity. Set the Key slider under Position high, around 6. The Key slider under Mass should be negative, as you’ll want heavier hammers to hit the lower notes (of course, this is not perfectly accurate to a real dulcimer, where you use the same hammers for the whole instrument). I set it to -1.5. The Stiffness should be positive, around 1.5, so that the higher notes sound a bit less ringy.
Down in the String section, set the Damping Key slider to around 0.16 so the lower notes are damper. The Decay key slider can be set negative (I put it at -0.11) so the higher notes are a bit shorter.
Step 4: Fine Tuning
To round out the sound, we can change the Position (I put it at 19%), and add a little Reverb (700 ms decay, 33% wet). I’ve also lowered the volume on the patch to -12 dB so it can be more easily inserted into a track. With all our velocity sensitivity tuning, the sound often clips. Lowering the global volume of Tension fixes this.
And finally, we have a pretty okay dulcimer sound!
Of course, we’re not done. There are many other parts of Tension we haven’t touched yet, and modifying some of this could make our dulcimer sound a little better. We’ll improve on the sound next time, especially using the Body section of Tension. Save the patch and I’ll see you next time!