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Master Class: Synth Secrets of the Pros

January 15, 2013

There comes a point in everyone’s career when a nugget of wisdom can help move you to the next level of creativity and technical expertise. However, it’s often difficult to reach the top dogs in your field to get that tidbit of inspiration and advice.

For this article, I asked 12 professionals for tips on how to raise the quality of productions that use synthesizers and samplers. The suggestions I received cover a variety of situations—live performance, studio recording, film scoring, game-audio sound design—though many of the concepts can be adapted to any type of work

Of course, some of these suggestions will take time to implement. But if you enjoy the process of making music, you’ll find these tips to be a great way to personalize your favorite instrument and craft an individual sound.


Fig. 1. Composer Steve Kirk renders his orchestral libraries by busing them to pairs of mono audio tracks in Pro Tools.

Do It All with One Synth One process that has helped me achieve unique, refreshing sounds and productions is to exploit one instrument (analog or virtual; it doesn’t matter) as much as I can. I sit down and force myself to compose an idea or song entirely with a single synth—no running to the “drum synth” for drums or to the “bass machine” for bass. This has allowed me to achieve more cohesive compositions and records, while at the same time helping me learn more about a specific instrument. I also love the limitations that such a process imposes: I definitely create more out of limitation than I do with endless options.
Alessandro Cortini, composer/synthesis (Sonoio, Nine Inch Nails, blindoldfreak) 

It’s in the Motion Probably the biggest problem I notice in synth productions is that the sounds don’t “move.” They may have perfect pitch, very even vibrato, or uniform attack times on all the notes, but if the performance is too consistent, the tracks will sound lifeless.

Try to find one parameter that you can tweak while recording a part. It might be the attack time on a lead sound that you make shorter and longer while you play, or brightness controlled with the filter, or waveform shifts. Manually change the setting as you go and choose a different parameter on each track. You’ll get better-sounding music, which has greater depth and an interesting feel.
Brian Kehew, author/musician/producer (Moog Cookbook, Air, The Who, Hole)

Ambience on Lead Sounds A lot of times, people make the mistake of putting a lot of reverb on a solo line. If I have a lead sound—whether it’s a synth, vocal, or a reed instrument—I’ll use delay trails instead. Often, I use two different delays with different tap lengths—one panned to the left and one panned to the right. Not ping-pong reverb and not something that uses the same reverb tap, but a setup where each delay has its own recycling and feedback tap. That way, as the two channels echo with the solo voice, they stay separate from each other. The echoes blur, creating a silky trail that doesn’t cloud up the mix like reverb and doesn’t interfere with the timbre of the lead sound.
Robert Rich, composer/synthesist

Fig. 2. Erik Norlander adds a bit of amplitude and filter modulation when he programs vibrato into his patches.

Foreground and Background One of the big mistakes people make when creating electronic music is either putting everything into one ambient space or using no reverb whatsoever, thereby losing any sense of foreground and background. In my work, I tend to keep small sounds nearly dry and mixed into the left and right, while bigger sounds might have one really long reverb and are mixed further back and in the center. The reverb is panned wide, of course.

Usually I’ll have just one short plate and one long hall. When using long hall settings in host-based plug-ins, I’ll often put many of them in a bus. I’ll use parallel and series reverbs to add complexity, but very small amounts of each, sometimes sending one into another so that the taps have greater density. By using small amounts of many reverbs, I can blur the character of them a little bit and make them more neutral.
Robert Rich, composer/synthesist

Build a Custom Sound Library In the game industry, I’m often in a situation when I need to write several cues in a fairly short amount of time—far less time than if I was working on a traditional recording. So I have come up with ways to arrive at a high level of production quickly.
When there’s a bit of downtime in my schedule, I will create my own soft-synth patches that are specifically categorized. I usually think in terms of a synth’s impact on the final mix, so I categorize them in terms of where they’ll sit in the mix: low/sub bass, low-mid bass (a bass that will be heard on laptop speakers/ear buds), midsynth (usually this would be a featured sound, something that would take over the mix), and high-synths (usually used for color or flourishes). Having these patches organized in advance helps keep my momentum moving forward when I’m in a creative zone, rather than wasting time finding the right patch.
Fig. 3. Joe Guido Welsh will hard pan a synth sound, but with one channel out of phase in order to create unusual textures

Fig. 4. Gary Chang in his personal studio with his Wiard modular synthesizer.
Composing with Orchestral Templates Using an orchestral template in your DAW can save you a lot of time and help sharpen up your productions by a large margin. I’ve created several orchestral templates based on different sample libraries that I use and the overall sound I want to achieve (bright and punchy, muted/moody, big room sound, a dry sound, etc.). Not only does this save time during the composition phase, but it helps you get deep into the sample libraries and the instrument articulations, making you a better composer. You can also set up all of your buses, sends, and reverbs in your template, so that you have a consistent sound across all of your cues.
Dren Mcdonald, audio director, (Ghost Recon Commander, Skulls of the Shogun, Pettington Park)

The Instrumental Choir You can create interesting polyphonic textures by multitracking monophonic instruments like we used to do years ago. I played my Clavioline on the recent Trey Anastasio project Traveler, and rather than just using it as a single-line instrument, I overdubbed it to create floating chords. I also toggled the filter switches rhythmically as I played each track, which resulted in a texture that is sonically pleasing but not readily identifiable. I also recorded a 3-part Theremin track for the album. Multitracking single lines like this gives you movement in the voices that you wouldn’t get by playing a sample of these instruments polyphonically from a traditional keyboard controller.
Rob Schwimmer, composer/pianist/ thereminist (Polygraph Lounge, Paul Simon, Trey Anastasio)

Three Tips for Better MIDI Orchestration Take It Slow: Instead of trying to program “at tempo,” slow everything down so that your performances will be captured accurately.

Velocity Editing: The heart and soul of how things sound within the MIDI environment is directly related to how velocities are edited. Making adjustments to these can have a profound effect on performance outcomes.

Premixing: Before you start programming, spend time premixing your MIDI sounds, particularly when working with strings. This will inspire performances. Don’t wait until the end to mix. Mix as you go.
Gunnard Doboze, documentary film composer (Saving Face, The September Tapes, Connected)

Print MIDI Tracks to Gain Headroom To get more headroom and control over the final mix when working with orchestral libraries, I will print as many to audio as I can by bouncing them to a pair of pre-panned mono tracks and then creating an edit and mix group for them (see Figure 1). The stereo imaging and depth of field noticeably improves when I do this. And for my tastes, MIDI Volume control is clunky and is too coarse. I find that I have more control and get a more realistic sounding mix after I’ve recorded them as audio stems.

Bused from the instrument track in Pro Tools, I bounce them one section at a time by instrument type: violins as a one stereo pair; violas, cellos, and double bass as a dedicated stereo track; woodwinds, horns, and trumpets each get their own stereo track, as do solo instruments. I record them dry and add EQ and compression later, if needed. Then, I go down to the sample level and check for latency and make corrections if I need to by lining the audio up with the MIDI note in the Edit window. Occasionally, I may need to use MIDI Volume to help an instrument decrescendo correctly, but if the track is separated out, I can usually do that later.
Steve Kirk, composer/guitarist (FarmVille theme, Voodoo Vince, Star Wars: The Old Republic)

Think Before You Pan Whether you’re playing or engineering, you need to know where the part should sit in the stereo field. I don’t pan very many things fully wide in the stereo spread. I save the last one-fifth at each edge for special things and ambience. Sometimes, a synth part wants to be out there. But just because it has a stereo output doesn’t mean it should be panned hard left and hard right. If you just throw everything out there, you can end up with an indistinct wall.

I’m not a big fan of melodic elements being wide. Reverbs, drum overheads—always fully wide. The flanging on the background vocals, that’s out there, but the BVs themselves usually aren’t. Overall, be careful about what you place on the outside, because you can mask the cool stuff with sounds that do not need to be there. By not putting all the cake out there, it makes the effect clearer and has more impact when you just have icing at the edges.
Richard Hilton, engineer/keyboardist/ programmer (Nile Rodgers and Chic)

Modulate Filter and Amplitude When Creating Vibrato Moving the mod wheel or using aftertouch to induce vibrato—whether slow and acoustic-like or super-fast and ’80s electronic-style—is a great way to give lead lines greater expression. Vibrato is, of course, pitch modulation. But in the real world, when you bend a guitar string up and down or slide back and forth on a violin string, the tone and volume change as well.

Add just a bit of filter modulation to subtly change the tone and a bit of amplitude modulation to subtly change the volume at the same rate, preferably from the same source LFO as the pitch modulation. This will give you more interesting and more life-like vibrato.

Process Your Effect Sends Whether in a synth or a DAW, you can give your effects a completely new character by pre-processing the Send. For example, using a send, put a distortion effect before a reverb effect. Now you can compress, soft clip, overdrive, and even aggressively distort the signal that is being sent to the reverb. This will make the reverb effect more dramatic and pronounced. Note that you’re only distorting the send and not the dry sound itself, so your source will still sound clean and beautiful. Try adding chorus before a reverb or echo to make the effect “spin” a bit.
Erik Norlander, synthesist/composer/sound designer (Asia featuring John Payne, Big Noize)

Tailor Your Sounds to the Situation It’s important to fit your sound design approach to the gig, rather than sticking with whatever sounds good at home when you’re programming. What I’ve learned from playing with a loud band is that things that sound really warm when you’re programming will be too dark onstage. Take, for example, an electric piano sound that has a string patch behind it. The strings may sound warm and work great for a club gig that’s at a low volume, but when I get onstage using that same sound with Santana, suddenly I can’t hear the strings anymore; the electric piano drowns it out because the sound environment is very different. It’s something to be aware of, so keep an open mind and be ready to be challenged when creating your sound palette.
Dave Mathews, keyboardist (Santana, Tower of Power, Etta James)

Hard Pan Out of Phase Electronic sounds can sound sterile and dry, so I look for ways to add color and dynamics. By dynamics, I mean soft, subtle changes. Tape simulators work well in that regard, as do plug-ins like the SansAmp.

One trick that I do with my Buchla Music Easel, which works with any synth, is to pan a sound hard left and right, but put the signal in each speaker out of phase from the other. The result is unique but doesn’t clutter the mix. Then I might add spatial modulation to move the signal from side to side, often using randomly generated CVs to make it unpredictable.
Joe Guido Welsh, writer/producer/multiinstrumentalist (Thelonious Moog)

Modular Balancing Act When recording modular synths, noise becomes an issue. This is mainly due to the fact that they use a ton of patchcords and typically have unbalanced audio I/O, while most pro-audio interfaces are balanced. To address this issue, I use Cwejman AI-2 modules, which offer two channels of audio interface with unbalanced 3.5mm jacks on one end and XLRs on the other. This lets me patch to the modular right into a balanced patchbay so that I can digitally bus to it from Pro Tools. When more isolation is necessary, I will stick a Jensen Transformer DM2-2XX in the path, which transformer-isolates the signal.
Gary Chang, film composer/sound artist

Gino Robair is a former editor of Electronic Musician.

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