Top 10 Synth Tone Tweaks
|For quick edits in Rob Papen Blue, you can mute or unmute single oscillators using the ABCDEF buttons along the top, change the filter cutoff, resonance, or type in the middle section, or edit the arpeggiator steps in the multipurpose window along the bottom.
THESE DAYS, most synthesizers ship with
hundreds of great-sounding presets. I often find
myself clicking through the presets, looking for
the perfect sound to add to the mix. Sometimes
a sound is close but not quite right. Customizing
a preset is easier than creating a great sound
from scratch. The ideas below will work
equally well on software or hardware synths.
1. Dial Back the Reverb. Factory presets
are often designed to sound huge when
auditioned. In a mix, the reverb may add mud.
Moving the wet/dry knob on a reverb or delay
effect over toward the dry side can clean up
the mix. Also try shortening the reverb decay
time or lowering the delay feedback amount.
2. Adjust the Filter Cutoff. Adjusting the
filter in the synth may be more effective than
mixer EQ for adjusting the balance of highs
and lows, especially if the filter has a sharp
cutoff slope. Depending on the preset, you
may need to raise or lower the filter envelope
amount in order to change the cutoff. Adding
or reducing filter resonance can also change
the character of the sound in desirable ways.
3. Add Velocity Sensing. A surprising
number of factory presets have little or no
velocity response. In order to edit the notes
in a phrase so that some are accented, or so
that a phrase has a crescendo or diminuendo,
you may need to add velocity response. This
will affect both the overall loudness of the
instrument and the filter cutoff frequency, so a
bit of back-and-forth editing may be needed.
4. Tweak LFO Vibrato. I like adding vibrato
with the mod wheel. Some presets use the mod
wheel for a different type of expression, so you
may need to rewire the modulation routings.
The existing modulation may be cool too, in
which case you can re-route its input so as to
add it from aftertouch, or from a MIDI slider.
|Native Instruments Massive has eight Macro Control knobs (lower right) that are active in most presets for quick edits. Using the little blue button at the upper left corner of each module, you can mute or unmute oscillators (left), filters (upper center), or the dual effects processors (middle right).
The LFO vibrato rate may be too fast or too
slow. While changing the LFO rate, don’t overlook
the possibility of modulating the rate slightly from
the mod wheel while also modulating the depth.
This adds subtle intensity to the expression.
5. Check the Layers. Many presets use two
or more sound layers—separate oscillators,
parallel filters, and so on. Try soloing the layers
one at a time to see what each of them is doing.
If a layer is adding an attack transient, you
might want to boost or cut that layer by itself.
Sometimes two layers are tuned to the interval
of a fifth, which can interfere with chord
changes. Tuning a layer from the fifth back to
unison can make the preset more useful.
6. Experiment With Envelope Times.
Occasionally you may want to make a sound
more aggressive by sharpening up the attack
time on the amplitude or filter envelope. A pad
sound with a long release time may bleed into
the next chord, so shortening the amplitude
release time may clean up the mix.
If your bass preset is mostly playing short
notes, the decay time and sustain level settings
may not be doing much. But when the bass
needs to sustain a long note, the sustain may
drop off too quickly, or not fade quickly enough.
By raising or lowering the amplitude envelope’s
sustain level and adjusting the decay time to
make a smooth fade, you can avoid having to
automate the track’s mixer level.
7. Try Multiple Triggering. Lots of
bass presets are designed for monophonic
playing. This makes sense for bass, as you’ll
seldom want to hear two notes at once. The
monophonic preset may be set to single
triggering, in which case you’ll get a new
envelope attack only when there’s a gap
between two adjacent notes. When the preset
has a snappy attack and a muffled sustain,
single triggering can make some of the notes
hard to hear. If you want every bass note to
sound, switch to multiple triggering.
Conversely, if the bass preset is in
polyphonic mode, every note will have a new
attack, but you need to be careful to edit out
the note overlaps in the sequence track, as
any overlaps will add mud to the mix. In this
case, consider switching to mono mode.
8. Edit Arpeggiator Patterns. With
presets that use the built-in arpeggiator or
step sequencer, you may need to edit the
steps of the pattern to match the harmony or
the groove of the song. Sometimes I set up
two versions of a preset (on separate tracks)
that are identical except for different step
sequence patterns. This lets me switch back
and forth to meet the needs of the song.
9. Automate for Expression. Most DAWs
let you automate just about any parameter.
With automation, you can make subtle or
massive changes from note to note. Try
adding a growl of distortion to certain notes,
messing with the filter envelope decay, or
cranking up the reverb at the end of a phrase
so the last note will dissolve into the air.
10. Experiment! Most software instruments
have dozens of parameters: oscillator
waveform, glide time, panning, ring mod,
pitchbend depth, effects, and more. You
never know which obscure adjustment may
turn a ho-hum track into a winner, so roll up
your sleeves and experiment.
Jim Aikin has written hundreds of product
reviews and tutorials for Electronic
Musician and other magazines over the
course of more than 30 years. His books
on music technology include Power
Tools for Synthesizer Programming (Hal
Leonard Publishing) and Csound Power!