Get under the bonnet of your synth and stop relying on those presets with the sound-creator Joe Stachowiak's top tips…
HOW TO DESIGN YOUR OWN SYNTH SOUNDS
Hello again young apprentices! Back for more? My first 'Synth Secrets' article (read it here if you missed it) introduced you to the idea of programming and tweaking presets. Now it's time to take things to the next level and learn the secrets behind making specific sounds! So, fire up your synth and get ready to give these sounds a go for yourself. If you're a first timer then it would also be a good idea to listen to my sounds to check that you're keeping up with me. Ready? Then let's begin...
As explained in part 1, if you start with a sine wave, you give yourself a blank canvas. However, for richer sounds, you'll need more harmonics to play with, so first activate two square oscillators. Balance them equally and make sure they're not sync'd as we don't want it to sound too digital. Detune the second oscillator so it's seven semitones higher than the first to give a simple yet pleasing harmony effect.
Next, adjust the overall amplitude envelope so that the sound slowly swells in and then tails off with a long release. If you get it right, this single step should already give your sound a noticeable pad-like quality.
Add some chorus to thicken the sound up and add a splash of reverb. Reducing the low-pass filter cutoff will give it a more natural quality and adjusting the filter envelope will result in a more natural swell. You could even split the signal between two separate filters on the right and left channels and apply slightly varied settings to the cutoff for a wider stereo image.
Finally, add a splash of LFO modulation to taste. Try a subtle triangle wave to modulate pulsewidth and a sine wave to modulate pitch and you’re there!
Here's how my pad sounded:
Next I’m going to talk you through how to make a dark moan-type sound, inspired by artists such as Noisia, Spor, Bad Company and Ed Rush and Optical. Begin with two digital waveforms and take the second down by 48 semitones to get some real low end. Also detune it a bit so that it isn’t fully ‘musical’. Tweak the amplitude envelope to add some natural movement and then ramp up the saturation to filth it up!
Adjust the cutoff of a low-pass filter so that the bass elements become the main focus of the sound and then adjust the filter cutoff so that it’s different from the amplitude envelope. I set the filter envelope’s attack at almost double that of the amplitude envelope’s. This adds another layer of interesting movement to the sound.
Add a little frequency modulation to the signal and adjust the filter resonance until you get a nice full sound from the notes that you’re going to play. Then set a large voice mode on the Unison feature of your synth to really give the sound a huge presence. Add a hint of ring modulation, then add some subtle LFO modulation to the pitch and filter cutoff, then use an EQ to get rid of any unwanted harmonics… and that’s it! Techy moan done!
JUMP UP BASS
This type of sound has become very popular in modern music, particularly in Dubstep, Electro and a sub-genre of Drum’n’Bass known as ‘Jump Up’. It traditionally has a pure bottom end that quickly swells to incorporate unusual harmonics, making it excellent for energetic dancefloor tracks.
Load up a wavetable consisting of a saw and pulse wave (triangle waves also work well for this kind of subby bass sound), adjust it so that the output is a mix of the two, then add a square sub-oscillator. If your synth doesn’t have a sub-oscillator, take a square wave and detune it so that it’s an octave lower than the main sound.
Use the envelopes to add basic movement. With this type of sound the length of the attack and decay will depend on how long the notes in your melody are. You want to aim to get a prominent rise and fall in the sound. If the attack and decay are too long, the full sonic movement will be cut short when the note ends. If the attack and decay are too short, you’ll get a click-type sound as soon as the note is played, followed by a long period of sustain.
The filter section is perhaps the most important stage of creating this sound. Use a low-pass filter so that the sound retains a deep, warm characteristic and adjust the cutoff so that you are left with a very thick sound. Setting the filter envelope so that it closely matches the amplitude envelope will give your sound a prominent swell that then fades out, but it is likely that it still won’t sound very ‘in-your-face’. To achieve this, you need to play your melody over and over while tweaking the resonance and cutoff. If you use your ears, you should eventually hit some magic settings that suddenly bring the sound to life with a punchy, bass-like character.
Now you’ve got your big bass, add a third digital oscillator with some interesting harmonics. Pitch it up by 22 semitones and detune it a little. The effect will only be subtle but it should add a slight non-musical characteristic to the sound that makes it more interesting. By routing it through the same filter, this will gel the harmonics of this higher frequency waveform in with the existing bass and mid components of the sound.
To finish off, add some ring modulation and a subtle LFO that modulates the pitch of the oscillators and then add some external EQ and compression to help it sit better in the mix.
DO IT YOURSELF
So there you have it! These are just a few examples of some of the sounds you can create. However, to take things even further, one of the best tips I can give to anyone who wants to learn more about programming is to load up a few presets that you like on your own synth and then strip them back to their raw elements. Take off all modulations, remove any filtering, remove all effects and all tuning until you are simply left with the pure waveforms that form the basis of the preset.
Listen carefully to how each thing you strip away affects the sound. Once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll soon learn what you lose from your sound when you take out certain settings. It’s then a case of performing this process in reverse to create your own sounds from the ground up and adding your own personal twists! Happy twiddling people and don’t forget to share your sounds online!
CHRIS' TOP 5 SYNTHS OF ALL TIME
We asked our Musical Director and self confessed synth addict, Chris Orchard, what his favourite synths of all time were and this is what he said...
1. ROLAND JUPITER 8 – Pure analogue greatness! Awesome sound and beautiful looks make this an all-time classic.
2. ARP 2600 – Another analogue monster with a sound to die for.
3. SCI PROPHET 5 – The first polysynth with patch memories and a complex, gritty sound. Lives on in the Prophet 08.
4. PPG WAVE – One of the earliest digital synths, this opened up whole new avenues of sound creation.
5. FAIRLIGHT CMI – Brought sampling to the (very rich) masses.
Want to program your own sounds but don't know what synth to get? Check out my recommendations, and also feel free to leave comments and ask questions...
• KORG KRONOS - The Kronos bowled us over with its nine synth engines and ultimate playability. This is what we call a Synthesist’s synth! The Kronos is available in three different sizes so click the links below for more information on each:
Spectrasonic’s flagship soft synth is packed with powerful features making it simple to create complex, evolving sounds, pads and filmic effects.
DAVE SMITH INSTRUMENTS POLY EVOLVER
With four oscillators per voice and a heap of digital and analogue waveforms to play with, this is a sub-two-grand must-have. Trust me, this one sounds absolutely huge and has a completely unique character!
This modern synth has some huge sounds and cool performance features and will take all the knob-twiddling you can throw at it!
It might be small but this is a true analogue synth for £169, full of analogue character, with a built-in drum machine and it’s huge fun to play with!
An affordable virtual analogue synth with 512 sounds, 256 patches, 49 full-size keys and a Pro Tools-compatible USB/MIDI interface.
This bundle is absolutely loaded with professional instruments and effects. As well as products such as Absynth, FM8 and Reaktor, you get the mighty Massive soft-synth. This is my go-to software for big bass and leads in my studio! In my opinion, this bundle is unrivaled for value for money!