A Live ‘crocodile’

Alligator logo

Alligator is the name of one of the new sound effects in Reason 6. Its a so called Triple filtered gate; it splits an audio signal into 3 separate parts and then applies filters and effects onto these parts. The sound is played in parallel but the three gates are turned on and off using a specific rhythm, thus creating a very unique sound effect.

To get a better understanding of what this is all about just take a look at the official introduction movie:

Now… I think the sound effect as a whole is pretty impressive, but the more I think about it, the more do I become convinced that Live 8 (with Max for Live obviously) should be able to do this as well. And so I decided to start a new project…

Mimicking Alligator basics

Now, before we go on we need to understand the basics of Alligator. And to make things a little bit more complicated: I don’t own Reason 6 nor do I have any intention to upgrade my version of Reason 4. Not because I think negative about Reason, quite the contrary, but because Reason 6 is overkill for the things I do. Another problem is that you can’t easily use different Reason versions side by side, otherwise I would have considered using a Reason 6 demo.

But… No reason to despair. The micro tutorial is pretty extensive, we can download the Reason 6.5 manual and well; obviously we want to make an alligator-like effect, I have no intention to try and come up with a close as possible copy. First; that’s impossible because you’d always lack the major routing capabilities which Reason provides. And second: I’d rather copy the basic setup and then apply features which are specific for Live.

But first things first; let’s take Alligator “apart” to see how it works and then look into setting these details up in Ableton Live.

Three different channels

For starters; the incoming sound is split into 3 different channels after which several effects can be applied on each channel. I guess it should be obvious for Live users: the best way to set this critter up is by using an audio effect rack. That way we can simply add 3 different chains to process the sound.

Alligators filter section.Alligator has a filter section and a an effect section. The filter section (as can be seen in the movie) basically consists of a low, band and high pass filter which can control elements such as frequency cut-off, resonance, lfo modulation and filter envelope amounts.

Nothing too daunting; Live’s Auto Filter should be perfect for this job since it supports all three different filter types.

The effect section

The alligator effect section in close up.So, what have we here… According to the tutorial we have 3 different effects: overdrive distortion, phaser, and delay.

Also nothing too daunting here, but we do need to carefully pick the Live audio effects which we are going to use.

First the distortion. Although my first pick would be the Amp effect I quickly decided against it because although Amp would give a nice effect it also relies a little bit on the Cabinet part. So instead of using Amp I decided to go for the Overdrive effect instead. A relative simple effect which is fully aimed at creating distortion.

The last 2 effects should be obvious enough; for the phaser section we’ll use Live’s Phaser effect and the delay will be handled by the Simple Delay effect. While it might be tempting to use more extensive delays such as the Filter Delay I decided against this because these also apply bandpass filters on their own and we don’t want that.

After all; all three audio chains will process a specific band (high, mid and low) so there is no need for extra band filtering.

Next…  Volume and panning. Well, that is the easiest part because Live provides a volume and panning control on a per-chain basis in the effect rack. So we don’t have to do anything special for that.

Then there’s the dry channel. Should also be easy enough; we’ll just add an extra chain to our effect rack but without placing any audio effects in it. The rack provides panning and volume so we should be all set now.

Well…  not exactly.

The Envelope sections

This is what makes Reason so extremely appealing to me; the attention the Propellerheads spent on the details. While details may sound small enough don’t forget that something small can often have big effects.

When you glimpse at the Alligator effect screenshot its very easy to miss (I did) but there are two important envelope sections which also have their effect on the way the sound is processed.

The Amp envelope section (which can be found at the lower left corner of the Alligator) provides the ADR controls (Attack, Decay & Release) for the volume whereas the Filter Envelope (bottom mid section) provides ADR controls for the filter section. But only if you set the envelope dial to a positive or negative value.

Here’s where our first problems start. Setting an envelope for the filters shouldn’t be much of a problem perse, but Live’s auto filter only provides an Attack and Release; but no decay.

Second problem is the amplitude envelope. In an effect rack the sound comes in and doesn’t follow any envelopes.

Third problem is the “ducking” which you can apply on the dry signal. This isn’t mentioned in the micro tutorial so I looked it up in the manual instead. Ducking applies the Amp envelope to the dry signal, but in reverse. So; with a “high” Amp envelope the dry signal gets lowered in volume.

Now the first problem (no decay) isn’t a big issue. But the other two could have an effect on the sound. Although its relatively easy to build something of our own using Max for Live (‘M4L’) we should keep in mind that M4L will also cause a little latency. The obvious question here is how much and if that latency could affect the envelopes.

Gate control

Last but certainly not least we need to setup a way which makes Live turn the separate chains on and off again. While we could use the chain selector its really not well suited for this purpose, simply because you’d always be stuck with static patterns. While that won’t be a problem perse there is also the issue of variation to keep in mind.

Alligator can control the gates through means of an LFO. You won’t be able to set that up if you resort to using the chain selector.

As such this is where we want to use M4L since that will allow us to program this part and add all the variety we want. While there maybe a little delay here and there I think it might very well be neglectable. Either that or we’ll simply have to tune our device a little bit more.

Don’t forget: we want to build a Live-Crocodile, not an exact replica of Reasons Alligator.

And on that subject…  Another good reason to use M4L is the simple fact that a Live audio effect rack ‘only’ has 8 macro controls. However our filter section alone already requires 9 different controls (ignoring the envelope control for now). Then there’s the effect section which needs another 15 extra controls.

Summing up the first part

This is work in progress so I’m going to spread it out on several parts. That allows me to write up my experiences while also saving me some time to actually do something 😉

A first rough sketch of the Live Crocodile effect.

Here you see the first rough approach of the Crocodile effect. The different effects are in place and all that’s left to do is to design the M4L patch which will provide the gate control as well as the interface which you can use to tune the effect (filter and effect control).

But that’s for next time!

I hope I got you curious about this project, if so please let me know.

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