So Are the Grains of Our Lives

Well, here we are at the end of week three. It’s been a somewhat frustrating month so far, with me wishing that I had a few more songs in the can, but I’m not unhappy with my overall output. I am, however, feeling like I may have reached the end of the ambient arc, or at least want to try doing things that may be a little less listenable, but which give me an opportunity to try out some new techniques or approaches.

I have been fascinated with granular synthesis since I first learned about it in the late 90s. In short, granular takes a sound, breaks it into tiny bits (grains), and then plays them back in some other way. Some of the options include changing when the grain plays, how fast or slow it plays, and changing its pitch.

My first use of granular on a track was in the late 90s. The track, A Single Step (which finally appeared on my 2017 album, 42403) is a fairly straightforward piece featuring bodhran, some synth percussion, and horn and string samples, all supporting a recording from NASA. Even back then, I was playing with evolving noise as a texture underneath prettier things. About nine seconds into the track, there’s a metallic sound that comes in and descends. While it isn’t overly prominent in the mix, you can pick it out every now and then – it runs almost the entire length of the track and finally fades out around 15 seconds before the end.

  1. So Are the Grains of Our Lives Ray Toler 2:52

The noise itself is fine, but it’s more how the noise was created that I think is interesting. I had found a freeware program named “Th0nk” from AudioEase. You pointed Th0nk at an audio file, then went away for 10-20 minutes (or more!) while it chewed through the file and spat out a much longer audio file that had been granularized. There were no settings and no control over what happened to the audio or how long the resulting file would be. The intent was to find some interesting new moments that could be sampled and made into new instruments, but I loved the output all by itself.

What’s really amazing is that the source audio I fed it was about five seconds of the chorus from another of my songs. It took five seconds of audio and stretched it out (and up and down, and forwards and backwards) to almost five minutes! I can actually hear some of the little moments (like me inhaling or the attack of a drum hit) in the noise, but only because I know the original material.

Granular is extremely identifiable, and a little can go a very long way. It’s easy for it to become grating or to make things sound gimmicky. I have newer tools these days, the most musically useful of which has been the granular engine component in Omnisphere, but I also have some that are much closer to Th0nk in their attitude. They’re not about making things pretty. They’re about messing things up. At times the results will be pleasing, and other times they will be indistinguishable from static. So today, I wonder what would happen if I made an entire track using nothing but granular-synthesis-derived sounds?

Noisecore is a thing, and there are apparently people who really dig it, but I’m not one of them. For that reason, I didn’t use some of the more radical tools (or at least that I haven’t figured out how to tame yet), instead focusing on the ones that do more with rhythm and tonality. Some of them used internal loops of grains, and others turned grains into loops. There’s a large degree of randomness involved in all of it.

There’s not a ton to describe in the production – most of what you hear was generated by the tools, and I did some shaping, but not a whole lot. I did play things in to lock everything into appropriate notes or scales, but this piece is slightly more machine than man. The main repeating motif you hear is an example of me picking through about two minutes of audio to find an interesting bit of musicality and then manually looping it. The beat is made of up “large” grains from a longer drum loop. Sometimes that grain just plays the drum, and sometimes you’ll hear it stutter or buzz as the grains are shortened or retriggered.

The bell sound and the “train whistle” that appears in the middle are from Omnisphere. Finally, the arpeggio that appears after the whistle is from Cycles, which not only is using granular for the main sound, but also using granular approaches to which notes are being played.

This piece is interesting to me from a technical point of view, and I think it’s musical enough that I don’t mind letting it run, though I did keep it under three minutes because it had said all it was going to say without a lot more work on my part. It’s certainly within the range of so-called “Intelligent Dance Music” (IDM) I’ve purchased from artists like AFX, Autechre, or Squarepusher, so I don’t hate it, but it’s not exactly my style. It was a fun experiment, though.


  • Beat: Glitch Machines Cataract
  • Other synths: Glitch Machines Polygon, Cycles, Omnisphere
  • Effects: Output Movement, FabFilter Pro-R
  • Mastering: Ozone 9

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