More experienced users of dynamics processors—compressors and expanders—know that besides their more traditional, corrective applications, they can be pressed into service as creative tools as well. For example, a common trick would be utilizing the Attack & Release controls to change the relationship between the attack transient and the decay portion of drum notes—for a range of effect more or less equivalent to adding or removing damping from the drums prior to recording. But using traditional dynamics effects this way can be more than a bit tweaky, and is dependent on the degree of compression being applied. People often wish they could apply the kind of control to the attacks and decays of notes in an audio recording that they would have with a synth’s or sampler’s ADSR. Well, that’s where transient shapers come in.
A transient shaper is a specific class of dynamics processor that provides dedicated envelope control for manipulating the Attack and, usually, the Decay/Release of individual notes in an audio recording, without the need to apply any compression as part of the effect. It is just like adding an ADSR—or more accurately, an AD or AR Envelope Generator—to an audio track, and they normally don’t require any advanced skills or knowledge of compression parameters. Typically, you simply dial up the amount of transient snap and decay boom you want for the beginnings and ends of notes, respectively, although some Transient Shapers also offer more advanced features, like multiband operation, which can allow for more specific manipulation.
So what can these handy dynamic toys do for you? Here are a few applications for Transient Shapers in mixing and processing.
By far, the most common application for Transient Shapers would be manipulating the envelopes of drums. They can work well on both individual drum tracks (where obviously you’d have the most control) and full kits as well (where some of the multiband units may let you apply different degrees of processing to the different kit pieces).
Here are some individual drum tracks in Logic X—kick, snare, and that—each being run through an instance of Logic’s own (included) Enveloper plug-in, a basic transient/decay shaper. In this plug-in (unlike most) you do have a Threshold control (reminding you that this is, after all, a dynamics tools), but for the Enveloper to provide its normal dedicated attack and release control without any concurrent compression, that Threshold should be kept at its minimum setting at all times (except possibly for noisy signals with heavily processed decays—that’s why it’s included). The main action comes from the two sets of Gain and Time controls, for note Attacks and Releases, respectively. For the Attack transients in the signal, it’s a simple matter to dial up either greater snap (Fig 2A) or reduce an already-too-strong transient in the audio, for a gentler attack (Fig 2B). Naturally, Gain sets the strength of the effect, and Time determines the duration of the build up (Attack) or drop-off (Release). Gain settings would be made to taste; typical Times might be around 10–20 milliseconds for Attack, and anywhere from a few hundred milliseconds to a second or two for Release. In Enveloper, a simple graph visualizes the changes you’re applying to the envelopes of the notes.
Audio Example 1—Drums: Unprocessed (4 bars); with their Attacks pumped up, as in 2A, above (4 bars); with their Attacks mellowed out, as in 2B, above (8 bars):
If you were processing a full kit, a Transient Shaper that offers multiband operation might be the best choice—dialing up different settings in the different bands could afford a little better control over the individual drums and cymbals. For example, here’s Wave’s Trans-X processor, in its multiband version, Trans-X Multi, being applied to a stereo recording of a full drum kit with kick, snare, and that. Here, the Range control sets the amount of processing, with positive values adding transient impact and snap, and negative ones subtracting it, for a softer attack. There’s an additional Sensitivity control which lets you apply the processing across the board (higher settings), as with Enveloper (and many others), or only to louder signals (lower settings), for a more dynamic application of the effect.
Fig 3 Tweaking individual drums in a full drum kit track with Waves’ Trans-X Multi multiband transient shaper
As you can see (in Fig 3), different Range values have been applied in different bands—I added some thump to the kick and tightened up the hi-hat by applying (different) positive Range values in the low- and high-frequency bands, and mellowed out the snare (for a subtly softer, fatter sound) with a negative Range setting in the midrange band (where the snare lives). You can hear the results in Audio Example 2.
Audio Example 2—A full drum kit track (kick, snare, that) with the individual drums processed (more or less) independently via the different bands of the Waves Trans-X Multi multiband transient shaper plug-in, as per Fig 3 (4 bars each—Trans-X Out, then IN, Out, IN)
Transient Shapers can also be used to good effect on bass tracks, again, as an alternative to traditional compressors. You could add or subtract sustain without bringing up as much of the finger/fret noise as with regular compression, and careful use of the Attack control can potentially make a bass part played with a pick sound like it was played with fingers (reducing the transient level, with just the right Time/Duration setting), or vice-versa, adding enough pick-like snap to a more mellow fingered-bass performance (increasing the transient level, again, with just the right Time/Duration setting), helping the notes to “speak” (cut through) more clearly in a busy mix.
Fig 4A Changing a fingered bass into a pick-bass sound
Fig 4B turning a pick-bass part into a fingered bass (4B)
Audio Example 3—Turning a tight pick-bass part into a looser, thicker, more sustained “fingered” bass sound:
Synth up your tracks
Used creatively with keyboards (like acoustic and electric pianos), transient shapers can pull a basic piano sound either into new-age territory (a more mellow wash), with softer transients and longer releases, or impart a little tack-piano feel, simulating the sound of hardened hammers (stronger attacks, optionally shortened releases).
Audio Example 4—A regular piano sound; then washed-out with softened attacks; the original piano sound again; then punched up slightly with sharper tack-piano-like attacks:
Depending on the range of effect allowed in a particular processor, you can even pulls a sound into synth-like territory, with more extreme settings.
Best of both worlds
Of course, Transient Shapers can be used in conjunction with standard compression, with each processor handling different aspects of the sound—dynamic range controlled transparently by the compressor, and more controlled, specific tweaks made to the notes’ envelopes with the dedicated transient/decay device. There are plenty of these useful processors out there, including a number of well-established freebies, so even if your DAW doesn’t include this handy type of effect, you should have no trouble digging one up, and becoming the master of your (transient shaping) domain.