Understand this often-misunderstood processor, and your tracks will benefit greatly
By Craig Anderton
Transient Shapers are interesting plug-ins. I don’t see them mentioned a lot, but that might be because they’re not necessarily intuitive to use. Nor are they bundled with a lot of DAWs, although SONAR is a welcome exception.
I’ve used transient shaping on everything from a tom-based drum part to make each hit “pop” a little more, to bass to bring out the attacks and also add “weight” to the decay, to acoustic guitar to tame overly-aggressive attacks. The TS-64 has some pretty sophisticated DSP, so let’s find out how to take advantage of its talents.
But first, a warning: transient shaping requires a “look-ahead” function, as it has to know when transients are coming, analyze them, filter them, and then calculate when and how to apply particular amounts of gain so it can act on the transients as soon as they occur. As a result, simply inserting the TS-64 will increase latency. If this is a problem, either leave it bypassed until it’s time to mix, or render the audio track once you get the sound you want. Keep an original of the audio track in case you end up deciding to change the shaping later on.
TS-64 TRANSIENT SHAPER BASICS
A Transient Shaper is a dynamics processor that modifies only a signal’s attack characteristics. If there’s no defined transient the TS-64 won’t do much, or worse yet, add unpleasant effects.
Transient shapers are not just for drums—guitars, electric pianos, bass, and even some program material are all suitable for TS-64 processing if they have sharp, defined transients. And it’s not just about making transient more percussive; you can also use the TS-64 to “soften” transients, which gives a less percussive effect so a sound can sit further back in a track.
There are two main elements to transient shaping. The first is an input stage that detects transients, while the second is the “shaping” stage that acts on the detected transients. There’s also a fairly conventional output stage with metering that lets you match gain between the bypassed and active states.
Like other dynamics processors, the TS-64 analyzes the input signal and applies gain changes to alter the transient’s characteristics (and in some cases, the signal immediately following the transient) rather than the entire signal.
BASIC TS-64 SETTINGS
Let’s look at how the TS-64 controls affect the sound. Remember too that any of these can be automated, so the type and degree of transient shaping can change dynamically.
The Threshold control sets a level above which transients are affected. The TS-64 doesn’t process transients below the Threshold level, so a 0 dB setting basically has no effect. An “LED” lights to indicate when a transient exceeds the Threshold level.
The Attack control goes from 25% to 400%, with settings under 100% “softening” the transient, and settings over 100% adding a harder edge. However, note that settings that are even slightly over 100% can make a big difference—tweak carefully.
Regarding how the “hardening” works, consider a signal with a slight attack. The TS-64 adds significant amounts of gain during the attack time, thus giving the illusion of shortening the attack time—but what’s really happening is that the lower levels of the attack are made much louder. Because of that, another caution is that increasing the Attack percentage can also increase the output, thus causing clipping. Monitor the level setting to make sure that any additional percussiveness comes from the TS-64, not from overloading the output.
WEIGHT AND DECAY
These interact, so you’ll need to go back and forth between them to find the right sound. (Note that the TS-64 parameters are mapped automatically to the ACT controls on the V-Studio controller, which makes it easier to tweak the sound).
The Weight control can add “punch.” For an analogy, consider the Minimoog’s envelope: no matter how fast the attack and decay settings, there is a period of about 20-30ms where the envelope is as maximum level. Setting a short time on an ADHSR envelope’s hold parameter can produce a similar effect. So, with the TS-64, the more you turn up Weight above 100%, the more it adds a sort of “hold” time to the attack. Settings below 100% “thin” out the sound. You can think of this as similar to compression that occurs only immediately after a transient.
Three versions of the same transient. Left to right: without processing, with Weight at minimum (“Thin”), and at maximum (“Fat”).
The screen shot makes it easy to see what’s happening. The left transient has no processing. The middle one has minimum Weight; note how after the initial cycle, the waveform level drops off dramatically. This gives a fast attack/fast decay sound. The transient to the right has Weight up full, which is why the two cycles after the initial transient are considerably louder. The result is a “big” attack sound.
The Decay control increases gain during the end of a sound’s decay. Compared to compression, turning up Decay would be like having a compressor that affects only signals below about –12dB. Like the Attack and Weight controls, Decay extends from 25% to 400%, with settings below 100% acting more like an expander, and settings over 100% bringing up the signal as it decays. Note that this can be very helpful when trying to control bleed or room ambience with multi-miked drum setups; unlike a conventional expander, the TS-64 has additional transient-shaping controls that give more options.
INTO THE TIMBRE
Clicking on the Timbre button adds two more controls: Weight Timbre and Decay Timbre, which interact with the Attack and Weight controls.
These controls seem simple, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. The Weight Timbre control adds multiband compression-type thinking, because the Timbre button splits the signal into three bands (low, mid, and high), using linear-phase filtering. Turning the Weight Timbre control determines which band will get the most weight (e.g., with the Low setting, the low band gets more weight than the mid and high bands), but note that there is a continuous morphing from low to mid to high. So, “in between” settings allow Weight to apply to more than one band at a time.
The Decay Timbre control acts similarly, but applies the multiband concept to the frequency ranges subject to the Decay control.
For a kick that really rings, try these TS-64 settings. Note that the Output level has been adjusted so that the output meters don’t clip.
The TS-64 screen shot shows some suggested settings for a big, ringing kick sound. Here are the control settings:
Threshold: -31.2. Of course, this depends on the level of the drum track. I set it so the TS-64 would trigger on all but the softest kick hits.
Attack: 138% strengthens the attack.
Weight: 255%…yeah, baby! We’re talking corpulence here.
Weight Timbre: A setting of -43.2 makes the kick’s lower frequency component sound fatter.
Decay: 199.2% extends the kick decay out, which is the main component of the ringing effect.
Decay Timbre: To keep the sound as “fat” as possible, the Decay Timbre control restricts the additional decay to the kick’s low end.
But what if you want to thin out the sound, and turn something like a rock snare sound into something tighter and more suitable for dance music? The TS-64 can do that too; here are some control settings that work for me.
The snare on the left is unprocessed; the one on the right has been tightened via the TS-64.
Threshold: Set this for whatever worked best for you in the previous example.
Attack: 343.4% really makes the initial transients “pop.”
Weight: In conjunction with the next control, 130% gives a little extra weight in the high end.
Weight Timbre: This is set to maximum (High), which helps give the tight, present snare sound used in a lot of dance music.
Decay: A setting of 28.3% shortens the decay tail.
Decay Timbre: Setting this to the mid area (25.7%) tightens up the decay in a very obvious way.
TRANSIENT SHAPING AND SYNTH BASS
Along with drums, synth bass is another instrument that’s well-suited to the TS-64. Try these settings with a bass sound that’s a little too “sharp” for your tastes, and they’ll help extend and smooth out the decay.
Threshold: Set for the most consistent bass triggering.
Attack: 119.7% gives a little extra definition.
Weight: 290% is a good amount of weight to add to the mids.
Weight Timbre: Set this around 7. Adding weight in the mids gives the sound more “meat.”
Decay: 194.5% extends the decay tail.
Decay Timbre: Setting this to full low (-100) adds a deep, round low end.
SLOWER TRANSIENTS, TOO
Being able to “smear,” as well as accent, transients is another useful TS-64 application: You can take a percussive instrument like tambourine with a huge initial transient, and turn it into something that sounds more like a shaker or maracas. The key to the sound is turning Attack under 100%, but how you adjust the other parameters is also important.
The TS-64 isn’t just about emphasizing attacks, but de-emphasizing them as well. By the way, you can find out how to modify the TS-64 skin at the end of this post.
The following settings make a tambourine less percussive, and de-emphasize the highs.
Threshold: You’ll probably need to set this fairly low to catch all the tambourine transients..
Attack: 65% softens up the transient considerably.
Weight: 179% can add a heftier low end.
Weight Timbre: Set this to –100, and you’ll lose the tambourine’s high “edge.”
Decay: 25% pretty much removes the tambourine’s sustaining “rattles.”
Decay Timbre: Like Weight Timbre, setting this to full low (-100) de-emphasizes the highs in favor of a “rounder” sound.
TO SHAPE OR NOT TO SHAPE?
Don’t make the same mistake that people make with loudness maximization: the TS-64 can produce a very dramatic effect, but if you make the kick more punchy, then you’ll probably want to make the snare sound punchy too, but then the toms seem weak by comparison so you want to make them more aggressive…
My take is that transient shaping works best with sounds that need to “punch” and stand out more, but don’t benefit from traditional dynamics processing or EQ. For example, with synth bass, you can always boost the treble to bring out the existing transient more, but the shaper can actually change the actual transient shape. This can give a more organic quality to a synthetic-sounding FM bass, or take an organic bass sound and make it sound more electronic.
Automation is also important, because “all attack all the time” can get fatiguing. Automating the Attack and Decayallows an entirely different type of dynamics compared to compression—one that, for better or for worse, is well-suited to today’s heavy-handed mastering techniques that pretty much obliterate dynamics based on level changes. By having dynamic changes based on timbre, it’s possible to convey some sense of dynamics even with really squashed recordings.
Finally, like many other Sonar instruments, you can customize the TS-64’s skins. Go into your VSTplugins folder, then look for the Transient Shaper folder. Its Resources sub-folder includes .BMP files of the effect backgrounds, meter colors, etc. For my own setup, I increased the contrast of the TS64’s background and colorized it red, making it stand out more. I also changed the Timbre and Detect “LEDs” from yellow to green—the skin is the second one down in the screen shot. Have fun!