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Sound Dumplings: a Sound Collage Workflow

Most of the music I produce doesn't use any samples. I'm not prejudiced against sample-based workflows in any way; I just like the challenge of doing everything in SuperCollider, which naturally encourages synthesis-only workflows (as sample auditioning is far more awkward than it is in a DAW). But sometimes, it's fun and rewarding to try a process that's the diametric opposite of whatever you do normally.

Two things happened in 2019 that led me to the path of samples. The first was that I started making some mixes, solely for my own listening enjoyment, that mostly consisted of ambient and classical music, pitch shifted in Ardour so they were all in key and required no special transition work. I only did a few of these mixes, but with the later ones I experimented a bit with mashing up multiple tracks. The second was that I caught up to the rest of the electronic music fanbase and discovered Burial's LPs. I was wowed by his use of Sound Forge, a relatively primitive audio editor.

Not long into my Burial phase, I decided I'd try making sample-based ambient music entirely in Audacity. I grabbed tracks from my MP3 collection (plus a few pirated via youtube-dl), used "Change Speed" to repitch them so they were all in key, threw a few other effects on there, and arranged them together into a piece. I liked the result, and I started making more tracks and refining my process.

Soon I hit on a workflow that I liked a lot. I call this workflow sound dumplings. A sound dumpling is created by the following process:

  1. Grab a number of samples, each at least a few seconds long, that each fit in a diatonic scale and don't have any strong rhythmic pulse.

  2. Add a fade in and fade out to each sample.

  3. Use Audacity's "Change Speed" to get them all in a desired key. Use variable speed playback, not pitch shifting or time stretching.

  4. Arrange the samples into a single gesture that increases in density, reaches a peak, then decreases in density. It's dense in the middle -- hence, dumpling.

  5. Bounce the sound dumpling to a single track and normalize it.

The step that is most difficult is repitching. A semitone up is a ratio of 1.059, and a semitone down is 0.944. Memorize those and keep doing them until the sample sounds in key, and use 1.5 (a fifth up) and 0.667 (a fifth down) for larger jumps. It's better to repitch down than up if you can -- particularly with samples containing vocals, "chipmunk" effects can sound grating. Technically repeated applications of "Change Speed" will degrade quality compared to a single run, but embrace your imperfections. Speaking of imperfections, don't fuss too much about the fades sounding unnatural. You can just hide it by piling on more samples.

Most sound dumplings are at least 30 seconds long. Once you have a few sound dumplings, it is straightforward to arrange them into a piece. Since all your sound dumplings are in the same key, they can overlap arbitrarily. I like to use a formal structure that repeats but with slight reordering. For example, if I have five sound dumplings numbered 1 through 5, I could start with a 123132 A section, then a 454 B section, then 321 for the recap. The formal process is modular since everything sounds good with everything.

Sound dumplings are essentially a process for creating diatonic sound collages, and they allow working quickly and intuitively. I think of them as an approach to manufacturing music as opposed to building everything up from scratch, although plenty of creativity is involved in sample curation. Aside from the obvious choices of ambient and classical music, searching for the right terms on YouTube (like "a cappella" and "violin solo") and sorting by most recent uploads can get you far. In a few cases, I sampled my previous sound dumpling work to create extra-dense dumplings.

The tracks I've produced with this process are some of my favorite music I've made. However, like my mixes they were created for personal listening and I only share them with friends, so I won't be posting them here. If you do want to hear examples of sound dumpling music, I recommend checking out my friend Nathan Turczan's work under the name Equuipment. He took my sound dumpling idea and expanded on it by introducing key changes and automated collaging of samples in SuperCollider, and the results are very colorful and interesting.

If you make a sound dumpling track, feel free to send it my way. I'd be interested to hear it.