Sound de­sign with synths

Future Music - - FEATURE -

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.

Sim­ple so­lu­tions

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

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