Review: Little Boxes by echo | collective
We are still firmly in the month of March which as you all well know is “Intersection of Sound Design and Music” month here on Designing Sound. Today we are talking about Little Boxes from echo | collective. From the horse’s mouth:
“Little boxes is a curated collection of four unique sound sets designed to compliment one another sonically and texturally. These textures move from acoustic to electroacoustic to analog synthesis. The tonal palette of one instrument fits like a puzzle piece into the sound of the others. Each deeply expressive, these instruments compliment each other in both musical and sound design contexts. All of these instruments were miked or directly recorded in MONO, providing for thick, punchy recordings. The Kontakt instruments break the sounds into stereo however, and push the source material much deeper into its potential.“
I find this set of sounds to be wonderful and fascinating. So many sorts of beeps, buzzes, chimes, tings, warbles and zips that feel to have an almost endless spectrum of possibilities. Four different “boxes” make up the five different sets of sounds in this library. My favorite is the Optical Theremin, which contains a wonderful patch “Far Out Synth” that I fell in love with immediately. It has a very calm, soothing and etherial feeling to it I can’t get enough of. However, as much as I would love to go on and on about the many musical aspects of this library I decided to focus this review on using these sounds for sound design specifically.
Commonly in sound design, musical knowledge and tools plays a very large part of the process. When I first heard the menagerie of sonic expressions in Little Boxes I knew that it would be perfect as base material for User Interface sound effects. UI sounds let us know very quickly if something good or bad has happened (and sometimes if nothing has happened at all). Due to this function; UI sounds typically have inherent musical principals in them to quickly put forth the information in an understandable manner. Intervals of a Minor 2nd or Perfect 5th between very similar sounds could differentiate a “forward” and “back” or between an “accept” and “deny”.
So once I got ahold of Little Boxes I decided to use it as a “UI SFX Day” to create a good amount of base material that could be used/abuse/added to for UI sfx in future projects. Good friend and audio Wwizard Ben Crossbones gave me the idea when he was speaking about over-used telemetry:
“…spend one weekend a year creating new “high tech HUD computer” sounds because you know you can’t go a year without a project calling for them.”
With that sagacious wisdom I set out to explore the wonders of Little Boxes for myself. I went through all of the Kontakt instruments and recorded in Reaper anything that sounded like something. I decided to use the Kontakt instruments instead of only dealing with the samples directly because I felt I would get a better overall feel of the flexibility of the product. I can say that the sounds I found therein are wonderful, varied, and potentially very useful. For this article I was able grab 33 different base sounds to which are below (with a little tune underneath using the “Far Out Synth” patch. Sorry, I couldn’t help it!).
I recorded each performance in Reaper as MIDI and then “Rendered Track With FX”/“Bounce In Place” and then did a bit of light editing/EQ. Then I simply bounced/rendered the sections out and made sure to give them names that include “UI” as well as something related to their Kontakt patch name so that I could go back and revisit the instrument if the sample I had made was not close but not exactly what I needed sonically.
From the many instruments included in the library these are the ones I tagged early in the review process as potentially really cool for UI sorts of SFX. You may notice that these are quite a few instruments but this isn’t even a majority of the different Kontakt instruments!
-Far Out Synth
– Single Crack
– Techno Piano
-Ebow Pad Shimmer
-Reverse Shimmer LFO Modwheel
-Baby Robots First Harmonica
-Digital Rubber Band Party
-Baby Computer Loves You
-Short Layout II
I believe *all* instruments in the Kontakt patches (or simply the samples themselves) would/could/will be useful in a sound design capacity but you will have to find that out yourself! The “Full Collection” version of Little Boxes is $55 which nets you 96k/24 bit recordings and the Kontakt instruments. The $30 “Limited Collection” gets you simply the sounds at 44k/16 bit. I cant imagine anyone getting the Limited Collection when for an $15 dollars you get so much more in audio fidelity as well as the Kontakt instruments. I was fortunate enough to get a change to ask the good people at echo | collective some questions about Little Boxes:
Designing Sound: Can you talk a little about what was recorded for Little Boxes and why did you chose the hardware you did?
echo |collective: We chose four devices that we feel compliment one another when used together. We were also careful to cover all of the bases from acoustic to electro acoustic to full on synthetic. Mostly though, we picked these boxes up because we really thought they sounded cool.
The four boxes are:
an earthquake detector – a stringed instrument that hangs on the wall with little wooden balls that bounce off of the strings during an earthquake
a Folktek Microgarden – a hand built electroacoustic box that consists of little patches of guitar strings poking through a copper plate and amplified with a guitar pickup and built in effects
an MFO weird sound generator – a pretty simple DIY analog synth
a Dementia Labs Optical Theremin – another DIY box, this one is a theremin with a light sensor as a modulator
We’re always bringing new toys in, and out of all of the stuff that we listen to, we found these four to really stand out sonically.
As an example, the folktek microgarden is intriguing because it really has a unique design concept. Its a stringed instrument, but the strings are only attached at one end, so the plucking and strumming sound very different from traditional stringed instruments. It really blurs the line between acoustic and electric. It even blurs the line between performance musical instrument and sound design prop noisemaker. We highly recommend people to check out the actual instrument available from folktek.
The collection really evolved over the course of putting the library together, with certain other instruments being considered and then pushed out during the curation process.
DS: Any favorites from the library?
ec: Everyone that worked on the project had their own favorites, and we all approached the sounds from different perspectives – ranging from purely music composition places to purely sound design mentalities. Much of our work crosses these boundaries so it felt natural for us to explore an echo | collective project that does the same thing.
Rene loved the microgarden because it has a great tonal quality that he uses to enhance some of his more clicky mechanical based design. Its also has this killer midrangey feel to it that fills in some of that space around UI elements like camera clicks.
Evan built a lot of the Kontakt patches, and of those he’s already found some favorites for some of our in-house composition work. He loves the earthquake detector textures in those instruments because they’re really gorgeous and unique. He’s also very into the “far out” patches that were built from the optical theremin. The kontakt patch bent it into something that sounded much more like a traditional analog synth.
Brad was surprised that the overall aesthetic ended up feeling reminiscent of some early Raymond Scott stuff. The character of the sounds really had this retro eq style and some natural pitch warp things that had a cool instability to them.
DS: Whats on the horizon for echo | collective?
ec: The biggest immediate change we’ve been doing is building out our Kontakt UI more thoroughly. We have an update coming soon for all of our existing products that will upgrade the skin and overall interfaces on the Kontakt side. We’re also building and adding more Kontakt patches for those products.
We’ve got several new projects in the works that vary pretty widely in scope, and we’ll be expanding out both into more immersive interfaces and into some pretty intense surround recordings.
I definitely recommend echo | collective’s Little Boxes library for musicians, sound designers and anyone who can’t get enough of synths. This set contains some great retro sounds, great future-y sounds as well as some that defy a temporal description. A review copy of Little Boxes was provided to Designing Sound by echo | collective. It was tested using Kontakt 188.8.131.5216 as a virtual instrument inside both Reaper and Logic Pro 9.