Sound design with synths
The sampler is a key weapon for designing sounds with audio files, of course, but the synthesiser is arguably even more powerful due to the fact that you can create almost any sound in your head, entirely from scratch. Due to the huge number of presets supplied with a synth, you might never need to delve into synthesis – but by knowing how to create your own sounds, you’ll develop your sonic identity as a producer and fill your tracks with sounds that are 100% yours.
Whether you’re a music production veteran or a synthesis noob, the first thing you should do with a new synthesiser is initialise it, then build up a few bread-and-butter synth patches from the ground up. Not only will you train your sound-design muscles in general, but this’ll help you understand how that particular synth works – you’ll quickly identify its idiosyncrasies in comparison to its peers.
When synthesising synth patches, it’s tempting to create sounds in isolation, but this won’t give you a feel for how the patch will work in a piece of music, making it tempting to make each patch as full-frequency as possible. In this case, it’s a good idea to lay down a basic drum beat, then craft your synth patches in context – perhaps build up each synth element of the track from scratch (bass, stabs, chords, pads, etc), then save each patch once you’re happy with how it all works. A great way to sharpen your synth-programming skills is to recreate iconic or interesting sounds from commercial tracks you like. Aside from exploring new genres and sounds, deconstructing other producers’ patches will help solidify specific synthesis techniques which you can then add to your own bag of tricks. Someone online – be it on YouTube, Reddit or a forum – has probably outlined how to do it, so you can gather some knowledge before diving in with a suitable synth.
As most synths are jam-packed with oscillators, features and effects galore, it can be tempting to think you have to get every section involved. Often, though, the most compelling patches are devilishly simple. Rather than feeling you have to switch on every section, challenge yourself to craft cool sounds with the minimum amount of features.
Another great way to push your synthesis abilities is to design a multi-element patch that can, in theory, form the basis of an entire track. For example, if your synth has a self-oscillating filter, sequence sharp downwards filter sweeps to create a punchy kick; use a synced LFO to program a noise hi-hat; and place a stabby synth ‘snare’ on beats 2 and 4 of the bar. You get the idea!
Designing a synth patch can be likened to a house of cards: one wrong move and the entire sound can fall apart! Every small tweak often makes a significant difference to the overall patch, and this is especially true with FM synthesis due to the complex interactions of operators. This is why you should save your preset as soon as you’re happy with it, even if you’re planning to continue with your tweaking.
Your synth’s filter plays a huge part in a patch’s overall timbre, and will usually have some kind of effect even with the cutoff fully open. For this reason, you should always try out different filter types as you design a sound. If your synth has two or more filters, you should also play around with various serial and parallel configurations.
LFO modulation is one of the easiest ways for you to inject movement into a static synth patch. This doesn’t have to manifest as overt wobbling, either – often, an extremely subtle amount of modulation can dial in that near-imperceptible effect you need.
When going further with synth modulation, you should try altering the rate of an LFO with another LFO or modulator. This speed-shifting control signal will add a sense of randomness and evolution that will keep things like filter sweeps and pitch drifting interesting over time.
By knowing how to create your own sounds, you develop your sonic identity