These days, with synthesized instruments and sounds being such ubiquitous elements of popular music, a synth may not feel quite so out of place in a typical arrangement. So it’s tempting to just take those direct outs, record them, and say you’re done. But avoid that temptation, and give your keyboard some space to play in. Choosing a sonic context for your keyboard that’s compatible with the other instruments in an arrangement can make a huge difference in the overall impact. Here are some ways you can seamlessly integrate a synth with other tracks.
There’s nothing wrong with recording your synth sounds through the keyboard’s direct outputs, as that gives definition to the sound. Just don’t use the direct signal as your only sound. Consider adding ambience or other effects either in the synthesizer itself, or introduce them via a parallel track. One common choice for that parallel track is a room sound, and an easy way to get that is to split your keyboard output so it runs through a guitar amp. Don’t be lazy! Amp simulators can do the job during mixdown, but the effect won’t be quite the same. They’re more effective with guitar, because you’re adding a synthetic effect to an organic sound source, so there’s a balance. With a synth, you’re already dealing with a synthetic sound source, so, ideally, you want to couple it with an organic effect. If you want to add ambience while mixing, an arguably better choice is simply to re-amp the track through a guitar amp, then proceed with miking the amp. Don’t forget the room mics!
A guitar amp can also be a signal processor. For example, a typical open-back cabinet reduces the synth’s low-end response and provides a steep high-end rolloff. Feeding some synth sound to the amp, miking it, and running the sound to your mixer or audio interface along with the direct sound can add a feeling of acoustic depth you won’t get any other way. In addition, because a guitar amp adds muscle to midrange frequencies, it’s a great way to make a synth solo warmer and less shrill. Furthermore, adding a room mic or two to pick up additional signal reflections can go a long way toward beefing up the sound.
Use Your Inner Processor
In the studio, it used to be a given that you’d switch off a keyboard’s internal effects, and use the equivalent effects offered by the studio’s rack gear. This was because processing power simply wasn’t at the level it is now, so the synth effects were more like an added bonus for stage use than anything else. To some extent this is still true, because while internal keyboard effects have improved, so have studio effects. But keyboard effects have become good enough that they can supplement outboard effects with good results.
One way to add realism to a synth sound is to add multiple short delays, which help simulate the way audio behaves in a room. You could tie up several external rack processors to do this, or take advantage of what’s offered by the synth. For example, Cakewalk’s Rapture includes delays and choruses that you can apply to individual elements of the sound, to a mixed combination of elements, or as master effects. The chorus, in particular, is helpful for synthesizing early reflections, as you can set two delay times (Figure 1). Try to avoid delay times that relate mathematically, so that they don’t fall into any particular type of rhythm.
However, the key to making good use of these pseudo-ambience effects is subtlety. You won’t want to hear the discrete echoes, but instead, have them meld with the sound in a unified way so that there’s a perception the sound is “bigger.”
This tip is valid for many more sound sources than keyboards, but a basic rule of thumb is to crank up the reverb diffusion parameter for percussive sounds, and turn it down for sustained sounds. Here’s why: More diffusion adds more reflections, creating a lush type of sound. Less diffusion means fewer reflections, giving more of a discrete echo sound. Discrete echoes added to percussive sounds can give the “steel balls bouncing on a marble plate” type of reverb effect, because you can hear individual echoes from the percussive transients. More diffusion smoothes out these echoes.
Conversely, with sustained sounds such as pads and organs, lots of diffusion piles a rich, full reverb sound on top of a rich, full synth sound. This can take away from the synth’s sense of definition. Lowering the amount of diffusion creates a more sparing reverb sound that doesn’t step on the main sound.
Playing the Spread
One of the characteristics of a real keyboard such as a piano is a definite sense of left/right placement. From the performer’s position, for example, bass tones appear predominantly at the left, and treble to the right. While that’s not necessarily an inherent part of a synth’s sound, it is possible to create a stereo perspective through proper programming.
One way to do this is to use keyboard note position to modulate panning. This puts bass notes toward the left, and higher notes toward the right. In some cases, this may be ideal, as the synth bass frequencies are out of the way of the kick drum and bass part, which are usually centered in the stereo field. With some mixes, though, having bass coming out of the left speaker could unbalance the mix. A simple solution is to avoid spreading the keyboard from left to right, but, instead, spread its image from center to right. You do this by panning the left output to center, and the right output full right (or close to full right). This works particularly well if you have a complementary instrument (such as rhythm guitar with some degree of stereo ambience) that can spread from left to center, thus balancing the keyboard.
I’ve also had good results by using keyboard split techniques to place the keyboard’s bass in the center, with the midrange and upper notes panning from left to right (Figure 2). This takes advantage of the fact that many soft synths let you split the keyboard at arbitrary places. So, create two splits, one containing the lower two octaves, and the other containing the remaining octaves. Pan the split with the lower octaves to the middle, and modulate panning with note position for the other split. This way, the midrange and treble notes will pan from left to right, while the bass comes out the middle.
However, to avoid an overly artificial sound, this works best with keyboard parts that have a fair amount of reverb. The ambience tends to make the stereo placement more diffused so that the notes are perceived as more of a whole instrument, rather than being “points” of sound.
Don’t Forget the Updates!
We’re all aware of the much-ballyhooed updates that occur periodically for host programs, but also remember that instruments are often updated, as well. These updates typically deal with incompatibility issues when running as a plug-in, or improve efficiency to minimize CPU power consumption. Sometimes, though, they add useful features, and there may also be new patches, or tweaks to existing factory patches.
Although I detest email spam as much as anyone else, when registering a soft synth you’ll often have the option to check a box along the lines of “Inform me of updates and special offers.” I always check these, as I’ve found out about updates I would not have known about otherwise. And, actually, some of the special offers can be pretty cool—like having the chance to purchase a soft synth at some ridiculously low price when you update a host program. I also periodically visit the websites of companies that make soft synths I use, and I check there for updates, too.