In recent years many new producers have made the decision to use presets throughout all of their productions instead of synthesising their own unique sounds due of the daunting thought of having to delve yet even further into the dark depths of their plugins.
Whilst using presets is a really good way to learn a synths features, it doesn’t really help you to discover the power of your synth or properly learn its functions.
Using presets is only ever going to give you one type of sound, which is the sound that everyone else has as well! Making your own presets is another way of helping to make your track unique and stand out from other productions.
To help you get on your way, we have put together some useful synth programming and sound design tips which will change the way you approach sound design and synth programming.
Although it will be tempting to just dive straight in and start tuning oscillators and tweaking parameters, first sit down and think about the noise you wish to make. It can be beneficial here to have some basic wave theory. Write down the amplitude, envelope and sonic characteristics of your sound over time. Then think, what is the best way to create that sound? Doing this can help you choose which sort of synthesiser to use, the type of synthesis and also give you an idea of types of oscillator and filter to use to shape the sound as well as any potential modulation options.
As a square wave has a hollow tone, due to only containing odd harmonics, it makes a good starting point for synthesising woodwind instruments, as well as creating that infamous deep house bass sound often created using fm synthesis. saw waves on the other hand, lend themselves to a much smoother tone and also contain the most amount of harmonics. which makes them very bright & particularly good for emulating string-like instruments or creating massive super saw style EDM leads.
Finally we have sine waves which are very pure and don’t have any harmonics. These are really good for creating sub basses and adding body to sounds. Triangle waves are similar but with extra harmonics.
Another thing to consider might be how the tone of the instrument changes over time, and how you can make that happen with the filter and filter envelope section. For example if we filter down our super saw EDM lead and play it as a chord with a fast decay on the filter envelope, we can create deep chord stabs.
STATIC VERSUS MOVEMENT
There are very few sounds in the natural world that are completely static. Most real sounds will have a fair amount of modulation and movement in one shape or form. It’s important to bear this in mind when creating sounds to avoid making them sound unnatural or static. Some good tips are to get to grips with any modulation options you may have. This usually comes in the form of auxillary envelopes and LFOs. Usually there will already be an auxiliary envelope assigned to the filter cutoff frequency, but in many occasions there will also be a second and possibly a third aux envelope which can be assigned to any parameter within the plugin.
Useful parameters to automate can be, pitch, resonance, amplitude. Drive or feedback. Make sure you explore as many of the different options that are available to you as you can. We also have LFOs or low frequency oscillators. Similar to envelopes, LFOs can be assigned to most parameters within a plugin and you will usually be able to choose different LFO waveforms as well as rate and whether or not you want to sync the LFO to the tempo of the track or have it re-trigger every time a not is pressed. as well as these two main parameters we also have velocity, pitch bend, the modulation wheel and aftertouch, if your midi device allows it. Get these controls assigned to useful parameters of macros within your synth!
DETUNING OSCILLATORS & VOICES
We can also add richness, depth and analog character to a sound by adding in more oscillators and detuning them. We only have to detune them by small amounts from 0 cents up to around 20 cents for some pretty large detuned sounds. We can also do this by using the unison mode built in to many synthesizers. This effectively increases the number of voices (try to think of this as instances of the plugin in parallel) and then we can set the detuning amount which will detune all of these voices apart from each other by a selected amount of cents.
If we are using wavetable synthesis such as Native Instruments Massive, we could add further movement by modulation the different wavetable positions slightly with multiple LFOs.
As well as detuning we can also beef up our sounds by using extra oscillators to add in extra notes. For example adding a sine oscillator in an octave or two below will greatly increase the low end body of the sound. Or we can add in an extra oscillator pitched 7 semitones up for a n open fifth, this is particularly useful for strings and pads. To turn this into a triad we can add a further oscillator in at 3 semitones for a minor third or 4 semitones for a major third giving us our minor or major triad.
Try this method out and then place a low pass filter set with a low cutoff. Add a filter envelope with no sustain and a fast release and moderate decay and your well on your way to a nice deep house chord stab. From here you can just add a little reverb and delay and it’s pretty much ready to be used straight within s track!
MULTI LAYERED INSTRUMENT RACKS
This technique is fairly advanced, but if you know your way around a sampler and have some studio hardware or an instrument that you’d like to record, why don’t you sample it in as a multi layered instrument. Normal instruments often have a few samples that will get time stretched up and down the entire length of the keyboard. This means that you will lose the quality of the sample as you play notes further away from the original pitch. To combat this we can use a device such as Ableton’s sampler to record our instrument at as many different pitches as possible, then use the key mapping and chains to set these notes to their appropriate key. This now gives us a much more accurate instrument across the keyboard.
If we would like to make our instrument sound even more realistic, such as a drum kit we could also record all of our different hits at different velocities. Using velocity mapping we can program our sampler so that a different sample will trigger depending on how hard a key is pressed. This is a fairly simple task to achieve using software such s Native Instruments Kontakt.
LAYER LAYER LAYER
To make your sounds less boring and to add another depth and dimension to your sounds, try layering your instruments on top of each other in parallel. Each instrument can contribute a slightly different timbre and shape which will sculpt a more complex sound overall. This can either be done by using separate midi tracks and feeding them the same midi information by setting they’re ‘midi from’ in the I/O section.
Or this can also be achieved by grouping instruments together into an instrument rack then chaining them in parallel.
Ideally you want your sounds to sound different in tone whilst sill complimenting each other. Be prepared to have to do some EQ to get them to sit nicely together.
A slightly unorthodox but interesting way to program new sounds is by the concept of manipulating happy accidents. To do this get a rough sound that you like then map as many possible parameters to your midi controllers as you can.
Once you’ve mapped the controls, set up some form of midi loop so you can hear the content that your going to be manipulating. It’s wise hear to have a selection of notes from different octaves as well as different note lengths for variation.
Now drag this loop out to give you 10-15 minutes of recording time. Hit record and get automating!
Try to set yourself a challenge to create as many different and diverse sounds as you can within the allotted time slot. It often helps to program a simple beat or use the metronome at this point. Once we have finished recording we can then set the loop brace to cycle through small chunks of our recording and we can then save the sections of automation that we like the most. We can tweak these clips further so they sound perfect before finally resampling them to audio and saving them to our custom sample library.
FX AND SOUND SCULPTING
Effects are a large part of a sounds overall characteristic so effects processes and their order in the FX chain should not be overlooked. Try to use FX creatively in a sound design manor. When something sounds good, resample it be save it to your custom samples folder and categorise it. Remember many FX have a lot more than just one use. Compressors can be used to bring out punch in a sound, to raise or attenuate decay, to flatten a sound or even just to add some character and colour to a signal. Delays can be used as a normal delay however we can also use them to create a wide stereo image using the Haas effect which is where we delay one of the stereo channels by a small amount to create a millisecond time difference between the left and right channels resulting in a wider perceived stereo image. Choruses can be used to thicken up a sound as well as enhance the stereo image, smear transients and also push a sound back further into the mix.