Creating your own sounds from scratch is one of the best ways to master the complex and occasionally daunting art of synthesis. Mark Cousins throws away the presets.
hile it’s easy enough to comprehend the mechanical building blocks of a synthesizer – the ﬁlter, envelopes, oscillators and so on – it’s much harder to understand how to successfully combine these ingredients to create a ﬁnished sound. All too often, a ﬁrst attempt at sound design involves a few tentative tweaks to an existing preset or blindly adjusting parameters until something sounds ‘right’ – often leading to a sound that lacks both character and deﬁnition. By contrast, the skill and experience of a good sound designer enables them to draw on a palette of key sounds and effects, each of which can be ﬁnetuned to match the musical objective in mind. If you want more of a creative say over the sounds you make with your synthesizer, therefore, there’s help at hand. In this feature we’re going to highlight the three defining sound categories that a synthesizer can be used for – namely, bass lines, pads and lead sounds – offering practical guidance, techniques and tips on how you can create these sounds using the software or hardware you have at your disposal.
the skill of a good sound designer enables them to draw on a palette of key sounds and effects.
We’ve also rounded up what we feel to be the best tools in their particular category, enabling you to expand your set of sound-design tools in an informed and effective way. Rather than tying the techniques to a specific model of synthesizer, we’ve tried to keep the scope and application of the techniques as broad as possible to cater for the many and varied synths out there. And with many synthesizers sharing common features, you should find that the majority of the techniques described are transferable between different devices (although, of course, the precise results will inevitably vary to some extent). Although we’ve tied certain techniques in with a sound category, it’s also worth remembering that they can be applied in any number of applications, so it’s well worth experimenting to see what you can achieve. MTM
■ Mark Cousins is a composer of production music for BMGZomba. His work has been used on BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five.
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Of course. you’ll also want to experiment with resonance. Although you can use envelope modulation over the entire range of the filter. each marginally out-oftune with one another. but remember to account for the space it consumes in the mix. almost subsonic lines. though. it isn’t always beneficial to use all of them in the sounds you create. The classic Moog bass sound. almost buzzy output of the oscillators. At low cutoff settings. Although simple. Extra resonance at low cutoff settings can add bass energy to a patch.Studio Technology
Producing the deepest. It’s also worth using a sub-oscillator tuned an octave below the first and set to either a square or triangle wave to give extra depth to the patch. To make this filtering effect more dynamic you’ll need to apply some form of envelope modulation – usually with a fast attack and medium decay setting to give the note some shape at its start. Given the raw. leaving the bass to sit neatly at the
The ﬁlter section forms an important part of many bass sounds. though. square. it’s no surprise that it’s become one of the most effective ways of ﬁlling out the low end of a track. Along with cutoff.
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. A filter often forms an important part of the character and interest in a bass sound. triangle. it’s worth keeping the depth relatively subtle.
bottom.musictechmag. for example.
Are three oscillators always better than one?
Although your synth might have two or three oscillators.
Use your synthesizer’s unison feature to achieve an impressively big-sounding bass line. Try to keep your choice of waveform confined to one of the four main types – sawtooth. large amounts of resonance can actually add bass energy to the patch. Remember. which stacks multiple oscillators to create a particularly rich and powerful effect. Even a small amount of resonance can be a useful ingredient as it helps to make any filter modulation (in this case. tightest bass sounds
iven the frequency range a synth can extend down to. considered amounts. the filter is essential for removing excessive upper harmonics that can clutter a mix. Using a large number of voices combined with heavy detuning certainly creates a roomfilling bass sound. The two principal ingredients of a good bass sound are some well-chosen waveforms and inventive use of the filter to bring depth and movement to the sound. single-oscillator sounds can often be surprisingly effective – as demonstrated by Roland’s distinctive TB-303 Bass Line.
principal ingredients of a good bass sound are well-chosen waveforms and inventive use of the ﬁlter.
TECHNIQUE Effectively combining oscillators
Going all-out for power and impact is the so-called ‘unison’ bass sound. the sound of the TB-303 tends to cut through a mix where other layered bass sounds would add further complication. to fine-tune the mix of your sub-oscillator – this extra depth is often best deployed in small. The ‘soft beating’ effect created by the tuning brings power and warmth to the bass sound. but it’s important that other sounds in the mix don’t also make too much use of the unison feature or they will detract from its effectiveness as part of the bass line.co. which is useful for deep. Despite having only one oscillator. often blends two or three oscillators set to a sawtooth waveshape. With greater amounts of resonance. with the number of stacked oscillators defined by the voice count. coming from the envelope generator) more noticeable. it’s often good to mix-andmatch your approach to get a sense of colour and diversity in the music you produce. Deciding on the number of oscillators to use has a big effect on the end results – and as always. you’ll start to experience radical differences to the sound based on the ‘average’ filter cutoff. pulse – so the sound is clear and distinctive. Most software synths feature some form of unison control. which usually places the synth into monophonic playback. by adding more oscillators you can increase the relative warmth (and depth) of the bass.
but not so much that it becomes too dominant. Based on the same sound engine as Predator. Now turn your attention to tuning the three oscillators: finely detune the two sawtooths and place the square wave an octave below them.
STEP-BY-STEP Synthesizing your ﬁrst bass sound with Reason 4’s Thor
OSCILLATOR SETUP Working from an initialised Thor patch. set up three analogue oscillators – two set to a sawtooth waveshape and the third set to a square waveshape.musictechmag. Use a snappy envelope setting. SubBoomBass has a twooscillator subtractive architecture. the deeper you go the better it is to use a purer waveform. In the context of a bass line. alternatively. Given its relative purity. Based on a variation of wavetable synthesis (like the original PPG Wave). square and pulse – brings its own flavour to any sound you’re trying to create. Like a sawtooth wave. triangle. NI’s Massive is a great source of aggressive.
CHARACTER BUILDING With all three oscillators routed to an instance of Low Pass Ladder Filter.
ENVELOPE MODULATION Now add some envelope modulation (ENV) to the filter. Rob Papen SubBoomBass. having three oscillators and a 24dB filter. as its upper harmonics won’t interfere with the other low-mid information existing in the track. The pulse wave. Massive produces some unique sounds that bridge the worlds of analogue and digital. Configure an accompanying envelope setting with a fast attack and a quick decay and release. however. keeping the amount relatively subtle (51. used on countless records in the early 80s. By comparison.uk
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www. more powerful sub-oscillator to a sawtooth bass sound.
Waveforms deﬁne the principal qualities of your sound. Now reaching its second revision.Studio Technology
BUYER’S GUIDE – BASS LINE SYNTHS
Arturia MiniMoog V. Arturia’s MiniMoog V is faithful to the original Moog. possibly leaving room for a deep kick drum to sit beneath it. As a general rule. a square wave has a healthy collection of harmonics. Native Instruments Massive. so it’s important that you make a considered selection rather than just randomly combining waveshapes. Add just enough resonance to introduce some extra character. £171 2Twenty2 0845 299 4222 Given some of its more aggressive digital traits and a powerful unison mode. you can use it as a sub-oscillator on an existing bass sound made from any one of the other waveshapes. Use a faster envelope and more modulation to create a filter click at the note’s start. contemporary bass sounds that can fill out the bottom end of a track. as well as bringing new features that extend what you can achieve with this synth. (which is closely related to the square wave) tends to sound increasingly nasal as you decrease the pulse width. or for use on busy sequencer-driven bass lines. although the second oscillator can draw on tuned percussion samples to add bite and percussive interest to its output. the pulse wave is a sensible choice if you want the bass to stay in the low-mids. a sawtooth wave tends to eat up large amounts
Understanding why the right waveform is the most important ingredient
of ‘frequency space’ in the mix – which is fine if you want it to be dominant. While an inexperienced synthesist will often turn to the most alluring waveform – the rich and buzzy sawtooth – it’s interesting to note the uses for the other waveform types and how these impact on the bass sounds you can create with them. for example. While this isn’t so useful when it comes to creating powerful bass sounds. Rob Papen’s SubBoomBass is well worth closer examination given its unique slant towards the subsonic end of the mix. but with a distinct hollow sound to it. almost ‘angular’ sound and can also be interesting when used as a richer. The MiniMoog’s charm was down to the powerful sound it produced. start experimenting with the cutoff frequency (FREQ) and resonance (RES) to bring a darker timbre to the bass. it provides a powerful. the triangle wave is great for deep bass lines that sit at the bottom end of a mix. a good dose of filter modulation and a touch of resonance for a sequencer-driven bass line. £89 Time+Space 01837 55200 If you’re a serious fan of bass. in this case). £171 2Twenty2 0845 299 4222 The original MiniMoog is a classic synth for bass lines. but less beneficial if you want it to take a more supportive role.co.
TECHNIQUE Waveshape lowdown
Each of the four key waveform types – sawtooth.
Combining different synthesis methods is a good way of creating layered sounds. but how do you do this to best effect? The key to success here lies in creating distinction between the layers. This characteristically dark sound is completed with a
slow-moving envelope (slow attack and release settings combined with a healthy amount of sustain) and a touch of vibrato on one oscillator applied from an LFO. it’s interesting to note that many of the classic string pad sounds from the 70s and 80s made extensive use of devices like Roland’s Dimension D chorus unit and the Electro-Harmonix Small Stone phaser pedal. Once you’ve established your two filter types. Arguably. there are plenty of other approaches you can take. for example.
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www. as an arbitrary layering of elements only ever creates a muddy and ill-defined sound.co. Here. slightly thinner variation on the sawtooth pad. In the case of Camel Audio’s Alchemy. it’s often easy to contrast different elements – a warm pad generated by a sawtooth oscillator combined with some ‘textural’ noise (like breathing or E-Bowed piano strings) added in a sample-based layer. including granular synthesis (this is another great way of adding texture) and FM or additive synthesis (for its ability to create harmonics that fall outside the conventional harmonic series). This was originally used on one-oscillator synths to replicate the ‘beating’ effect of two oscillators outof-tune with one another. To increase the pad’s relative warmth and width. for example). while the high-pass filter is modulated by a slowly undulating LFO.uk
. it’s often beneficial to add a touch of stereo chorus as well as plenty of reverb so that it sits firmly behind other instrumentation in the track.
Although the sawtooth pad forms a good starting point. could be modulated by a gentle ADSR envelope. Another good layering technique is to try to pick contrasting sound elements. this might be further enhanced by selective filtering. slightly detuned (usually by no more than 4–6 cents either way – just enough to add some warmth) and heavily ﬁltered using a low-pass ﬁlter. One is to use pulse width modulation (PWM). Another approach is to stack several pure waveshapes (usually triangle and/or square) and try to create an organ-like pad sound using the principles of additive synthesis.
Although the sawtooth pad forms a good starting point. but it also forms a useful.
Adding depth and interest to your pad with further layers
If you’re a little more adventurous. Again. the coarse tuning of each oscillator is vital. A quick and easy way of creating a sense of space and distinction between the layers is to use different filter types – a low-pass filter combined with a resonant high-pass filter. Otherwise.
Additive synthesis techniques involve stacking two or more simple waveshapes tuned an octave or so apart. bringing width. perhaps using a low-pass filter on the sawtooth pad element and a high-pass filter to accentuate the top end of the samples. Indeed. The low-pass filter.
TECHNIQUE Layering sounds
To create texture and interest in a pad it’s often beneficial to layer several different elements. you can also explore the possibilities offered by layering the different qualities of contrasting methods of synthesis. front-to-back depth and a sense of harmonic structure to your music. this can all be done within the same patch.Studio Technology
How to create sumptuous textural pad sounds
ood pad sounds form an instant ‘musical ﬁller’ for your tracks. there are plenty of other approaches you can take. it’s also important to create some subtle differences in how these filters change over time. If your synth supports multiple filters this might be possible to achieve in the same patch. the most well-used synth pad sound is created from a combination of two or three oscillators set to sawtooth. each fulfilling a different sonic objective. as each effectively forms one of the harmonics from the harmonic series. stack two separate instances on two adjacent MIDI channels and change each sound accordingly. whereby the width of a pulse wave is modulated by an LFO. On a S+S synthesizer (Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere.musictechmag. for example.
Rather than simply defining a conventional ADSR curve. Be sure to apply plenty of low-pass filtering to make the sound much darker. Try using a 1/16th sawtooth LFO. Omnisphere excels at pad sounds. using Layer B as a subtle addition to Layer A. As with the original. In particular. for example. you can apply the envelope to less conventional parameter destinations – the density of ‘granularity’ applied to sample. you might also want to apply some effects using the FX section.
FILTER PLAY In Layer B we’ve selected one of the more abstract Soundsources – the Tesla Coil Synthesizer – to provide texture for the pad. you can combine several sine wave operators (FM-speak for oscillators) to create an additive pad. routed to the amplifier and filter cutoff to make the pad pulse in time with the track.
TECHNIQUE Modulation for movement
Using tempo-sync’ed LFOs and envelopes to make your sound groove
Any sound that doesn’t change over time instantly becomes ‘sterile’ and uninteresting to the ear. £171 2Twenty2 0845 299 4222 The original Prophet 5 was a classic polysynth from the 80s and a great source of warm synth pads.
BUYER’S GUIDE PAD SYNTHS
Native Instruments FM8. digital sound of Yamaha’s original FM-7. these complex envelopes enable you to create a 16-step pulse effect (just like the tempo-sync’ed LFOs) but with the additional interest of a variable depth and curve for each step. Arturia’s Prophet V is faithful to the original. Spectrasonics Omnisphere. or the amount of ring modulation. so you can set the rate in musical divisions (1/8th.
www. Omnisphere is a rich and diverse software synthesizer that includes a wealth of sample-based content as well as a powerful DSP engine. as well as apply a high-pass filter to emphasise the character-imparting noise elements in the Soundsource. some synthesizers – Native Instruments’ Massive and Spectrasonics’ Atmosphere are just two examples – also feature tempo-sync’able rate-level envelope generators. for example. which is why tools such as LFOs and envelope generators are so important when you’re creating a pad sound. but also brings further interest in the form of a re-creation of Prophet’s innovative vector synth. creating an analogue/ digital hybrid effect. especially when routed to less typical destination parameters. Patched through to filter cutoff. Also.
IN EFFECT Balance up the two layers with the mix control. Of course. you can keep the effect fairly subtle by changing the relative depth of modulation. the Prophet VS. £171 2Twenty2 0845 299 4222 Designed to replicate the cold. A comprehensive effects engine and flexible modulation routing completes the package.uk
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. To add yet further depth and interest. followed by an instance of the Retroplex delay. with the slower LFO creating additional undulating movements. Going a stage further. Native Instruments’ FM8 is a distinctly more versatile and interesting beast. as well as a gentle Amp envelope with a gradual attack and slow release. enabling you to preserve the ‘pad-like’ qualities of the original sound but adding in a suggestion of movement. alternatively. £299 Time+Space 01837 55200 As the name suggests.
Complex envelope generators enable you to add movement and animation to your pad sound.Studio Technology
STEP-BY-STEP Layering pad sounds in Omnisphere
CHOOSING A SOUNDSOURCE In Layer A load a string-like Soundsource – in this example we’ve selected the OB-8 PWM Big Strings from Omnisphere’s library. for example) rather than in Hertz. In this example we’ve applied a phaser. We’ve also added a little granularity to the layer. you can add an exciting level of animation to the sound. As you’d expect. for example). either using inspiring combinations of raw subtractive waveshapes and its textural ‘psychoacoustic’ sample content or via its unique granular synthesis capabilities.co. but you can also create superwarm pads by switching the operators to sawtooth waves and applying the built-in lowpass filtering to great effect. Arturia Prophet V. try combining two sync’ed LFOs running at two different speeds (1/16th and 2 bars. The key thing to remember is to think about how the sound should evolve over time – this could be something as simple as a gradual change of volume combined with a slight vibrato (applied by an envelope and LFO respectively) or a more complex modulation that radically changes the pad in time with the track. The two synths layered work wonders on pad sounds.musictechmag. Most synthesizers enable their LFO to be sync’ed to the host’s tempo. for example.
Some synths – like Arturia’s Jupiter-8V – even enable you to embed distortion in the signal path of the synthesizer.
amounts of this harmonic ‘grunge’ can push a sound to the front of a mix.uk
. try two additional techniques. You’ll need to keep the filter open. Add vibrato with an LFO as well as small amounts of glide between notes. the specific effects you have access to can vary tremendously between different synthesizers – some might provide little more than a splash of delay and chorus.co. All of these possibilities add extra colour to the synthesizer’s output as well as providing a more up-front sound that helps push the patch to the front of the mix. which tends to be a defining part of an instrument’s ‘expression’. although it’s worth controlling the depth using a mod wheel so that the vibrato can be faded in over the duration of a note.
Distortion is a great way of producing an aggressive lead sound. Vibrato. Another approach is to try to make the sounds as expressive as possible – try to add the same levels of expression that might be heard in a violin or vocal performance. Delays.Studio Technology
Aggressive. you might need to opt for something harmonically richer (a square wave or a sawtooth wave. for example. is a good starting point. on the other hand. You’ll need to think about the use of modulation. using techniques like distortion (either within the synth itself or via a plug-in). it might be worth exploring the addition of phasing or flange as these can bring an additional sense of movement and colour. although if the track is busier. while others provide a comprehensive set of FX algorithms and various patching options. therefore. Failing that. FM and oscillator sync. Some of the more flexible software synths – like Native Instruments’ Massive or Arturia’s Jupiter-8V – enable you to embed distortion in the signal path of the synth. for example). If you want to keep your lead sound at the front of the mix. However. maximum sustain and a quick release. An interesting solution. or some aggressive bit-crushing after a dark lowpass filter setting. adding a little ‘analogue crunch’. On a softer track. If you’re trying to create a powerful contemporary lead sound. Reverb and delay add a spatial dimension to your patch. You might also consider applying soft portamento between notes to replicate the natural slide between notes that occurs with a ‘real’ instrument. flange and phasers are useful ‘fattening’ tools and primarily tend to be used on pad sounds where this is of most benefit. avoid the blurring quality of reverb. Even small
Think carefully about the use and control of pitch in a lead sound. between the oscillators and the filter. particularly in respect to pitch. If this waveshape still isn’t cutting through. whereby you stack multiple versions of the same oscillator. try the Unison solution. it’s worthwhile
How to improve your sound with additional effects
exercising a degree of caution with the application of reverb. is to opt for a relatively simple sound – almost akin to a pure waveshape – that attracts your attention through brazen presence rather than any particularly deft use of modulation or complex layering. this is why a sine wave can be highly effective. ring modulation.
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www.musictechmag. If your lead sound has plenty of high-frequency energy. it’s well worth exploring options in relation to distortion.
TECHNIQUE Synth effects
In many ways. an effects section should be regarded as a vital part of any synthesizer’s sonic architecture – often they’re just as important as more traditional modules like a filter or an LFO. sitting the sound in some form of acoustic space. although it’s worth reserving its use for a few key sounds rather than applying it to multiple synth lines. One is to add even more harmonic information.
opt for a sound that attracts your attention through brazen presence rather than deft use of modulation. although small reverbs can add a subtle sense of space without making the sound recede too greatly. with any enveloping set to act as a simple organ-like ‘gate’ – quick attack and decay. though. mix-slicing lead synth sounds
ore than any other patch you create with a synthesizer. all slightly detuned. applied via an LFO. a lead sound needs to cut through the mix and demand your attention. Chorus.
with the rise in pitch on oscillator A now creating an timbral sweeping effect as the waveform is retriggered by oscillator B
www. Pulse and Q synthesizers produced by Waldorf in the late 90s. for example. FM synthesis varies the pitch of a destination oscillator (called the carrier) using another oscillator running in the audio spectrum (called the modulator).
CUTTING OFF Leave cutoff at its highest setting and set the Env Amt to 0 so that the filter envelope doesn’t affect the filter. Arturia’s Origin is the culmination of ten years’ experience developing some of the most well-respected software synths. Ideally. the architecture is easy to understand. As with all Roland classics. The result is an output that contains harmonics based on the sum and difference of the two oscillators. this means that two separately pitched oscillators will produce an output with a complex series of overtones. any number of synthesizers can deliver some exciting and extreme sonic textures that are impossible to achieve elsewhere. A self-resonating filter – where the resonance is pushed so hard the filter begins to self-oscillate – is often a fundamental ingredient in many extreme sounds. £2. it’s still well worth injecting small doses of FM using the more rudimentary FM features found in software synthesizers like Reason’s Thor. than the original SH-101. Next. In short.musictechmag.
Techniques such as FM synthesis enable you to create some unusual bell-like harmonics that are a useful contrast to traditional subtractive waveforms. which is a great way of creating bell-like sounds or abstract synth effects. £349 Hand in Hand 01752 696633 Having disappeared for a few years. the SH-201 is an impressive beast. shifting metallic pads or chunky synth bass. This extreme ‘audio frequency’ modulation is carried through to two other key synthesis techniques – ring modulation and FM (frequency modulation). the Jupiter 8. the speed is as fast as 100–200 cycles per second rather than the 3–4 cycle used for vibrato. Rather than modulating amplitude. This ‘slaves’ its pitch to oscillator B.co. Waldorf Blofeld. Arturia Origin. Waldorf is back with its latest take on the hardware synth – the Blofeld. Under the bonnet. or an ARP oscillator – which can be patched together to create your own sounds. we first need to configure the pitch of oscillator A to be controlled by the filter envelope. £519 Roland 01792 702701 The Roland SH-201 follows in a long line of affordable synthesizers produced by Roland. including the Juno 106 and original SH-101 from the 80s. If the speed of the LFO’s then modulated by another component (another LFO. activate the Sync control on oscillator A. Blofeld has plenty of muscle behind it and sounds every bit as good as the MicroWave XT. Blofeld is worth a closer look. By itself. which presents the same signature sound in virtual form. You can achieve this in the Poly-Mod section by raising the Filter Env amount and selecting Freq A as the destination. the result is additional harmonics. Given the processing power involved.Studio Technology
BUYER’S GUIDE HARDWARE SYNTHS
Roland SH-201. or an envelope generator) the results are even more complex and interesting to the ear. it’s no surprise that Origin has two TigerSHARC processors. with the precise qualities of the harmonics based on both the tuning relationship between the two oscillators and the relative amplitude or strength of the ‘modulator’ oscillator.uk
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. the sine-like qualities of self-oscillation aren’t particularly interesting.
SLAVE DRIVING With the pitch sweep in place. for example. adjust the envelope. Although you’ll need to turn to something like Native Instruments’ FM8 to fully explore the potential of FM synthesis. The pitch of oscillator A should now sweep up and down. Despite its small size. but add a fast-moving LFO – forcing the pitch to oscillate wildly – and the results become far more distinctive. Again. no sustain and medium release. Also look out for Largo. the LFO should be capable of being pushed high enough so that it enters the audio spectrum range – that’s to say.
STEP-BY-STEP Creating an aggressive sync-sweep lead sound with the Prophet V
PITCH MATTERS For the oscillator sync effect to be noticeable.
TECHNIQUE Extreme sounds
Exploring the sonic limits of sound design
Pushed to the limit. being much closer to that powerhouse 80s synth. If you’re a fan of hard-hitting sounds. setting a slow attack and decay.141 2Twenty2 0845 299 4222 More than just a hardware synth with knobs on. Ring modulation principally involves modulating the amplitude of one oscillator with the output of another. Origin’s architecture is based on the ‘modular’ components of Arturia’s software synths – albeit a Moog filter.