Creating unique and cutting-edge synth sounds

Making your music stand out from the crowd is a lot easier if you start with some sounds you can truly call your own. Rob Boffard shows you how.

Getting a decent sound from a soft synth doesn’t exactly take a lot of work. A tweak or two here, a few nudges to the LFO there, a little messing around with the filters and… boom! You’ve got a workable sound. It’s almost too easy, in all honesty. And thanks to the sheer number of synths available these days, you’re never more than a minute or two away from some wonderful, inspirational noises.

But of course, when everyone’s doing it, it’s all too easy to get lost in the ever-growing crowd of soundalikes. Exactly how do you make your synth sounds stand out? How can you make sure that you’re not just labeled Generic Dubstep Artist No 567?

We’d love to say that we have the one-size-fits-all, magic-wand solution to these questions. Unfortunately, we don’t. What we do have, though, is a set of techniques will help your track to stand out from all the others. In this tutorial we’re going to use a variety of synths to create a lead, a bass line and a pad sound that will simply blow your mind. You’ll find that these techniques – which don’t rely on anything too complicated or unfamiliar, incidentally — are highly customisable as well. You’re at step three of the bass line walkthrough and think you know better? We encourage you to crack on!

PRO TIP

Remember to view your sounds in the context of your mix, not just as individual sounds. The greatest synth sounds are always those which complement surrounding instrumentation — think MGMT’s Kids. You can spend your time building an absolutely enormous, whopping monster of a synth, but if it takes up the entire frequency spectrum, you’re going to find it very difficult to put other elements in there. So when you’re experimenting, always keep in mind what else you’ll be doing with the track.

In control

Let’s do a quick refresher course. We’re not going to delve into the basics here – we trust that if you’ve got to this point you’re reasonably familiar with what an oscillator is – but we are going to spend a little time talking about how to apply certain techniques.

For example: an oscillator makes noise, yes? And multiple oscillators make a bigger noise. But what a lot of musicians don’t always realise is that to get your noise even bigger you need to detune your oscillators. This isn’t just about selecting different waveforms, although, of course, that always helps things along. It’s about taking the pitch of your oscillators and making them different.

There are a few ways of doing this. You could push them apart by a few semitones or cents for a slightly warmer and thicker sound, or you could detune them by whole octaves, which will give you a vastly different result. In all cases, a detuned synth will have a much bigger and more colourful tone than one that has been left alone. You can get immensely technical with this – different octaves and semitones will have different relationships with each other, and you can use finely tuned intervals to re-create classic instruments. This is probably another tutorial altogether, although if you get deep into your synths, it’s well worth checking out.

It’s worth quickly revisiting LFOs as well. It might be instinctive to always apply an LFO to your sound — it gives movement, and movement is almost always desirable-but you may want to look carefully at how you apply it. You can get immensely creative with LFOs, chaining them together and having them modulate each other to create amazing effects. But simply because you can doesn’t mean you should; it’s always worth remembering that the oscillators are the bread and butter of your sound, and in some cases you’ll want to mess with them as little as possible. Keep in mind the sound you’re aiming for and you’ll stay on the right track.

Finally, let’s turn our attention to filters. You should really, really fall in love with modulating your filters. Whether it’s only a little – creating some subtle movement – or the full whack to give a sweeping tone, this is definitely something you should be spending time on. Try, for example, using LFOs to modulate the cutoff frequency and the resonance in opposite directions, very quickly. It’ll sound odd to start, but with a little tweaking you can achieve some incredible results.

PRO TIP

Don’t try too hard to be original — you can handicap yourself by trying to find a synth sound that no one has used before. While it’s possible to do this — especially with something like Synplant – you’re better off getting a great sound that bares a passing resemblance to something someone else has done. After all, most dubstep is built on a fluctuating, wobbling growl, and that element alone results in thousands of very different tracks. Focus on

I making a great track, not just a great sound.

Native Instruments Massive a. OSCILLATORS

These are the bread and butter of any amazing synth sound, so be sure to spend a little time tweaking and detuning them.

b. LOW-FREQUENCY OSCILLATORS

Think about whether you want subtle vibrato or a wobbling demon of modulation. This largely depends on the kind of track you’re making.

c. FILTERS

No fun until they’re automated or modulated. An automated filter cutoff can turn even a pedestrian synth sound into an amazing one.

d. NOISE

Don’t forget about white and pink noise. It might be a little pedestrian on its own, but when used effectively it can kick your sound up a notch.

The biggest dubstep bass ever

01. We’re going to make one of the most monstrous dubstep growls known to man. We’re going to do it in Reason, where the Malström synth is just perfect for this sort of thing. Create a Combinator and load it with an initialised (reset) Malström, two Scream units and a reverb of your choice. Draw some notes into the sequencer — and by the way, it really helps if you have a drum beat to set the rhythm, as we do here.

02. Let s start with the oscillators. Set Osc A 02 to a sine wave and Osc B to Throat. Play around with the Shift, Motion and envelope values until you’ve got something sounding reasonably fat, then adjust the Throat synth’s Index to taste. We’ve added some legato, polyphony and portamento as well, though that’s entirely up to you. This part of the process is all down to personal taste, so spend some time experimenting.

03. Its sounding OK, but it could be a lot better. Let s do some final adjustments before we move onto effects. Some Shaper (on Saturate, with the Amount set to around halfway) and a little LFO will do it. We’re looking for consistent sound here, so go easy on the LFO as we’re trying to avoid it jumping around all over the place. Finally, spend a little time tweaking the filters — just enough to give it a bit of flavour.

04 Time to add some Scream. Set both to Overdrive, with the Damage quite high. The parameters on the first Scream can be set to full, while the second can have its P1 and P2 knobs around the halfway mark. Tweak the EQ of each to your liking. The Res and Scale knobs can both be halfway too, but we’d suggest setting the Auto of Scream 1 to 60 and Scream 2 to 0, and selecting different Types.

05. Reverb can be set largely to your taste. We’d recommend no more than the tiniest touch of Dampness here, just enough to saturate things. More important are your Combinator controls. Select the Malström, then tell Rotary 1 to target the Osc B Index, and Rotary 2 to target the Pitch Bend Range (although be aware that if you’re ever going to experiment, this is the best place). With this all set, there’s only thing left to do: automate.

06 We’d suggest automating the rotary knobs you picked in the previous step, as this can give you control over a wide range of parameters. Try setting it to Write, playing the track and going nuts! One final note: when you’re mixing, be careful, because this is a bass line that will take up a lot of space. Use sidechaining and careful EQ to mix it in.

Preset puzzle

One of the most exasperating debates still raging among synth aficionados concerns presets. Drop into practically any online forum and you’ll find two camps: one which says that you should delete the presets the moment you install the program in order to aid learning and exploration, and another that says you should freely use presets to create your music.

Here’s the thing: while we’re not completely down with the latter camp, we cannot think of a single instance when you’d be justified in simply deleting the presets of your chosen synth. These are sounds that have been created not only by the people who built the plug-in and therefore know it inside out, but usually by extremely skilled external musicians as well. You’re going to ditch all their work because of some high-faluting ideals about forcing yourself to learn? No, you’re not.

You can use these presets as inspiration for what can be accomplished. You can reverse-engineer them to understand the finer workings of your synth. Perhaps most importantly, though, you can use them as a launchpad for your own endeavors, tweaking them further to create new and better sounds. While we’d say that using presets as they come to make music is arguably a little bit on the boring side, there’s nothing to prevent you from using them in myriad creative and interesting ways. Deleting them is not creative — and it certainly isn’t interesting.

Take the lead

01. Building a synth lead for a track is easy. Boot up a synth and hit any high key on your controller. There – you have a lead. But making a truly fantastic one takes a little bit of work. We’re going to use Native Instruments’ Massive to build our lead, as there are very few synths that offer the level of tweaking and control that Massive does. Boot up your DAW, load Massive into an instrument track and draw in a MIDI note.

02. Detuned oscillators are absolutely key to a good lead, but there’s a trick to it. Get three of them going and detune the first two about ten cents each (so -0.20 and +0.20, for example). Take the third and detune it by a whole octave, taking it up to 12.00. Nothing will create a fatter sound than a little bit of detuning, but this particular trick can turn it into something truly extraordinary.

03. Envelopes are important in this instance as well, but Massive lets us do some amazing things with them. Find an envelope you like — a falling one with a fast attack and short decay works well, if you need inspiration — and assign it to the Intensity values on your oscillators. Hold and drag the little number in the box until the blue line circles the knob, then adjust the values until you’re getting something truly special.

04 Pull a different envelope to the filter section, which you’ve loaded with a low-pass filter. Assign it to the Cutoff and start tweaking, making sure you’ve pulled the blue line all the way around the knob. It’s best to do this with your lead playing so you can hear the effect. The beauty of this is that you now have two different envelopes affecting your lead in different ways, which gives a huge range of colour to your sound.

05.| There is only one thing to say with regard to adding LFOs: as many as possible. When it comes to really kicking your sound into the stratosphere, you’ll want to try assigning some fast and slow LFOs to different parts of your synth. We particularly like taking a sine wave LFO, attaching it to two oscillator amps and pulling them in opposite directions, as in the picture above.

06. Sounding OK, but there are a couple of things you can do to push it further. Remember those detuned oscillators? They love distortion, so add some in. A little reverb, too, would be nice. And don’t forget to layer up your notes, which will have the effect of fattening the sound even further. We’d suggest spacing out a few lengths apart, as in the picture, which will give a depth of timbre to your sound.

Pick your weapon

The quality of soft synths has shot through the atmosphere in recent years. For a very reasonable sum of money you can find yourself in possession of a VST that will almost certainly give you sounds to be proud of. It becomes difficult to recommend soft synths simply because there are so many different styles available, some of a very specialised bent. What we can do, however, is explain why we chose the synths we’ve used in this tutorial, as well as shine a light on some slightly more unusual synths that are available.

Let’s start with Native Instruments’ Massive, arguably the most popular synth on the planet. It’s the flagship of the NI stable – and come to think of it, stable is a good way to describe it, because this is a synth whose operation is rock-solid. Massive stands out not only because of its intuitive and easy user interface, but for the sheer flexibility and control it gives the user. It’s incredibly easy to get envelopes, LFO and voicing to modulate any aspect of the sound, and as a result, the sounds it makes can be truly spectacular.

We’re suckers for classic synths here at MusicTech, and given how far soft synth emulations have come it’d be remiss of us not to include one. We love Arturia’s Minimoog V. While its knobs may be a tad fiddly, the sounds it makes are simply out of this world. We’ve used it to create our pad sounds, relying on its extensive motion controls to create sweeping, epic audio. We’ve also relied on the synths found in Reason – specifically, the Malström wavetable synth. It’s a testament to the program’s quality that its trademark synths have hardly changed in almost a decade.

That covers the mainstream, but it’s worth highlighting a couple of other funky contenders just for the variety they give you. Chief among these is Synplant, by Sonic Charge. You won’t find a more peculiar synth – you literally grow the branches of your sound from a single seed. You can clone your sound into a new seed whenever you like, as well as delving into its genome structure (read: fine-tune its parameters). There are few synths that are this much fun to use. We also like u-he’s ACE. It’s a little old now, but its premise — Any Cable Everywhere — means you have an almost infinite number of sounds to create.

The point is this: these are fantastic synths, but they’re just the ones we like. Go out and try as many as you can. Find the ones that give you the most jaw-dropping sounds and which you can have a blast working with.

Cool pads

01. The key to a great pad is movement -but movement over a lengthy period of time rather than immediate, in-your-face jittering that you might find in a lead or bass. We’re going to use the Minimoog V soft synth to create one of these pads. To begin with, we start — as you might expect — with some detuned oscillators. We’re going for a very warm, full sound, and the more this is done early on, the easier it’ll be to build an awesome pad.

02. An LFO is a great way to introduce movement, but for a truly magnificent pad you’ll need to know where to apply it. We’d suggest one of two strategies: either get a super-slow LFO (sine wave, maybe) and send it to the filter cutoff at a high rate, or use many LFOs sent to multiple parameters at low individual rates. The latter can give you a really clean, precise pad sound, while the former is good for warmth and depth.

03. If your synth has a vector section or something similar, you re really in business. The Minimoog incorporates a motion section allowing for on-the-fly automation, and we can use that to really widen the movement and evolution of our pad. To use it, we assign it to the Pan Mod, then draw in a curve which will get our pad moving left to right over time. This widening of the stereo field is crucial to a good pad.

04. Envelopes are less important in a pad than you might think. As long as you have a reasonably slow attack and release you’ll be fine. If you really want to make a difference, try playing around with the sustain and decay settings. There are no hard and fast rules here — just go with what sounds good, and don’t get too hung up on trying to get things exactly right.

05. Pads love unusual effects. The Minimoog V has a vocal filter which enables us to add a little human element to our cycling pad, which is perfect if you’re looking for something a little more off-the-wall. And don’t forget to add in chorus, delay and reverb, too – the latter in particular can really saturate a pad and warm it up, so don’t be afraid to push the dry/wet knob a little harder than you normally might.

06. So far, we’ve focused on a long, evolving sound. But what if you’re going for short, sharp pads? These are actually reasonably straightforward to make. You’ll need to play with the envelope values, creating a fast attack and a medium decay and release, and you probably won’t be able to rely as much on modulation as you would normally, but it’s still no more than an envelope-tweak away.

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