Bored with making presets for instruments, one sound designer decides to make presets for ambient reality – and you can learn from the results.

“Scapes” is a multi-year, advanced journey into the idea that the synthesizer could sound like anything you imagine. Once you’ve grabbed this set of Ableton Live projects, you can bliss out to the weirdly natural results. Or you can tear apart the innards, finding everything from tricks on how to make cricket sounds synthetically to a veritable master class in using instruments like Ableton’s built-in FM synthesizer Operator. The results are Creative Commons-licensed (and of course, you can also grab individual presets).

The project is the brainchild of sound designer Francis Preve. Apart from his prolific writing career and Symplesound soundware line, Fran has put his sound design work all over presets for apps, software (including Ableton Live), and hardware.

As a result, no one knows better than Fran how much of the work of making presets focuses on particular, limited needs. And that’s too bad. The thing is, there’s no reason to be restricted to the stuff we normally get in synth presets. (You know the type: “lush, succulent pads” … “crisp leads…” “back-stabbing basslines…” “chocolate-y, creamy nougat horn sections…” “impetuous, slightly condescending 80s police drama keyboard stacks…” or, uh, whatever. Might have made some of those up.)

No, the promise of the synthesizer was supposed to be unlimited sonic possibilities.

If we tend to recreate what we’ve heard, that’s partly because we’re synthesizing something we’ve taken some care in hearing. So, why not go back to the richness and complexity of sound as we hear it in everyday life? Why not combine the active listening of a soundwalk or field recording with the craft of producing something using synthesis, in place of a recording?

Scapes does that, and the results are – striking. There’s not a single sample anywhere in the four ambient environments, which cover a rainy day in the city, a midsummer night, a brook echoing with bird song, and a more fanciful haunted house (with a classic movie origin). Instead, these are multitrack compositions, constructed with a bunch of instances of Operator and some internal effects. Download the Ableton Live project files, and you see a set of MIDI tracks and internal Live devices.

You might not be fooled into thinking the result sounds exactly like a field recording, but you would certainly let it pass for Foley in film. (I think that fits, actually – film uses constructed Foley partly because we expect in that context for the sounds to be constructed, more the way we imagine we hear than what literally passes into our ears.)

You wouldn’t think this was internal Ableton devices – not by a longshot – but of course it is.

And that’s where Scapes is doubly useful. Whether or not you want to create these particular sounds, every layer is a master class in sound design and synthesis. If you can understand a cricket, a bottle rocket, a rainstorm, and a car alarm, then you’re closer not only to emulating reality, but to being able to reconstruct the sounds you hear in your imagination and that you remember from life. That opens up new galaxies of potential to composers and musicians.

It might be just what electronic music needs: to think of sound creatively, rather than trying to regurgitate some instrumentation you’ve heard before. This might be the opposite of how you normally think of presets: here, presets can liberate you from repetitive thought.

I’ve seen this idea before – but just once before, that I can think of. Andy Farnell’s Designing Sound, which began life as a PDF that was floating around in draft form before it matured into a book at MIT Press, took on exactly this idea. Fran’s scapes are “tracks,” collaged compositions that turn into entire environments; Farnell looks only at the component sounds one by one.

Otherwise, the two have the same philosophy: understand the way you hear sound by starting from scratch and building up something that sounds natural. Scapes does it with Ableton Live projects you can easily walk through. Designing Sound demonstrates this on paper with patches in the free and open source environment Pure Data. As Richard Boulanger describes that book, “with hundreds of fully working sound models, this ‘living document’ helps students to learn with both their eyes and their ears, and to explore what they are learning on their own computer.”

But yes – create sounds by really listening, actively. (Pauline Oliveros might have been into this.)

Designing Sound | The MIT Press

Sound examples

A PDF introducing Pure Data (the free software you can use to pull this off)

But grabbing Scapes and a PDF or paper edition of Designing Sound together would give you a pairing you could play with more or less for the rest of your life.

Scapes is free (only Ableton Live required), and available now.

For background on how this came about: THE ORIGIN OF SCAPES [TL;DR EDIT]

  • Polite Society

    Someone please get Peter to name the presets for their new plugin/synth please.

  • Polite Society

    That example was excellent, the only things that gave it away were the repetitiveness of the footsteps, they sounded fine to begin with but by the end they’d become hypnotic, ironically needing some random scrapes and possibly some swing, and the car horns being identical the second time. it’s funny what jumps out at the brain as not being quite right in this context.

    • Francis Prève

      Actually, Adam Neely has a fantastic video that covers the topic of the innate sense of rhythm that all humans exhibit. It’s short enough to get the info – and his explanations are really engaging. (link below).

      The footsteps aren’t quantized, but they *are* looped. From there, I added a touch of sample-and-hold LFO to the pitch of the steps, retriggering with every note event so that the sound of each is slightly different. This enhances the illusion.

      Additionally, the project notes include a reference to the fact that you can make the walker sound “tipsy” if you move the position of the steps slightly. More than that and the illusion breaks again – because people really *do* walk rhythmically.

      • Polite Society

        Nice, thanks for the reply! I’ve seen a couple of Adam Neely vids, but I feel like it’s time for a subscribe. I’m starting to feel like i want to recreate it to experiment with how far it can be pushed, these things fascinate me.

        • Francis Prève

          Pretty much every Neely video includes a “whoa” moment. Enjoy! 🙂

      • Max

        The loop is to short. 😉
        Everyone says it sounds to fake, live with it.

        • Max

          And there is no Doppler effect “as the person walks pass” soundobjects.

          • Francis Prève
          • Max

            lol, I know how Doppler works, that’s why I complained there isn’t any 😉
            The car horn sounds always exactly the same, but the person keeps on walking there is no change (in loudness) or in pitch 😉
            I mean the person is not running at 50 miles per hour but subtile changes would maybe sound less like let’s drop some instant sound fx here.

            If you double the loop size you gain nothing.
            Play it all the way through, don’t be so lazy.
            That’s so simple to do &_&

          • Francis Prève

            1. The Doppler effect is imperceptible at walking speeds, which is why the crosswalk passing has no shift.
            2. You presume that the car and siren are passing the walker. If their distance remains roughly the same (i.e. 0.5 km ahead of the walker, moving an indeterminate distance across the horizontal axis, as one example) there will be no Doppler effect.
            3. Do you really want to argue this type of minutiae about a downloadable piece of art? Seems weird to me. Js.

          • Max

            As soon as I move my head a little, look left, look to the right, I get all kinds of weird fx …

          • Francis Prève

            That’s called “phase”.


            I think we’re done now. Cheers.

          • Max

            All I do is offering constructive criticism,
            but you are not interested in that,
            maybe the other readers are.

          • Max

            If the footsteps weren’t so loopy I may not have noticed the rest 😉

          • Max

            No it’s more than phase, I get different reflections from the buildings around;)

        • Francis Prève

          *too (x2)

  • Max

    I like that kind of artificial nature sounds.
    I did spend forever tweaking a resonant filter and noise to sound like ocean waves and birds.
    The “footsteps” are to repetitive, it works for a few sec and than it starts sounding like a metronome.

    • Max

      The only way I found to make the ocean waves work was to play chords for 5 minutes per hand into the sequencer … 😉

      • Max

        Birdsong from Filter works very well too
        I had the window open and the birds outside tried to talk to the synthesized sound coming from the speakers lol

  • Chad Eby

    I can’t seem to get to … hugged to death?

    • Francis Prève

      Ha. Actually the site was pretty overwhelmed yesterday – *and* Dreamhost had brief DDoS attack, which was fixed quite quickly.

      Everything’s working now 🙂

      • Chad Eby


  • This is just one of the most incredible things I ever heard (of). With a bit of tweaking and effects, it could really come off as the real thing! There’s so much power and possibility still untapped when t comes to synthesizing sound. Thanks for sharing with us!


  • Max

    BTW. The book – the hardcover costs the same as the eBook, so I am not buying it.

  • Waiting Music

    When I first got my MI Braids, I decided making a bunch of nature sounds using the Braids as the only sound source. Check it out