Break free of packaged sounds and take control of your musical style by learning to program synthesizers.

When using synthesizers and software instruments during the writing process, most of us reach for the presets on our favorite plug-ins and keyboards. Although this is a perfectly acceptable way of creating music, it may limit your creativity and ultimately hamper your journey to a truly original sound. Whether it's due to lack of synthesis know-how or a healthy eagerness for instant gratification, more often than not, producers will come across that “close-enough” preset and perform a few tweaks to make it fit with their song. Without getting too complicated, I will show you some quick methods that will help you move beyond that technique and toward creating your own sounds from scratch. By the end of this article, you should be able to reach for any basic subtractive synthesizer (hardware or software) and mold some compelling basic sound types. I will create three separate sounds and produce them using three different soft synths (two that are native to workstation software and one third-party plug-in), showing that the techniques used are truly generic. The presets and environment settings will also be supplied for reference at

The three sounds on the table include a soft pad, which is a useful sound to add space and dimension to any musical progression; a synth lead, which is a classic synthesizer lead sound with modulations for movement and interest; and a classic synth special effect, which is a resonant, LFO-based, laser-style effect useful for transitions. And the three soft-synths used to reproduce those sounds are: Propellerhead Reason ($499; Subtractor, a great subtractive synth in a tremendously popular production environment; Apple Logic Pro ($999; ES2, a complex and powerful virtual analog synth within a powerhouse DAW; and Linplug Rob Papen Albino 3 ($239;, an award-winning soft synth available for Audio Units, RTAS and VST platforms. Although I have selected the different synths for their technical similarities and re-created the sounds as closely as possible on each instrument, they differ slightly in timbre. That is mainly because each soft synth has its own character and unique set of controls. With time, you will become familiar with this difference in sound, instrument to instrument. Eventually, you will develop go-to instruments for certain sounds and styles.

As I break down the creation of the sounds on each synth, I'll stop to highlight and explain particularly useful synthesis techniques. It's always good to have a starting point, and the synth manufacturer often supplies that as a preset named something like “default.” The starting points are also supplied at for all three synths. You can use these presets to re-create the following sounds, as well as your own sounds, from scratch.


If you're just coming to grips with music-production jargon, a pad is the name for a synthesized sound that is similar in characteristic to a long, sustained string sound, and as its name would suggest, it's used for “padding” out mixes. Because pads are so useful and reasonably simple to create, they are usually abundant in modern synth preset banks. Pads are usually intended to sit back in the mix and therefore have fairly soft envelope settings, and for the most part, they are subtle and understated. Some classic hardware synths brandish outstanding pads — the Korg Triton series for example — while some software counterparts are almost completely dedicated to the genre, such as the superb Spectrasonics Atmosphere. Although the example sound presented here is quite basic, I have added a few touches to make it interesting enough to use in a composition. Once you have mastered the basic techniques needed to program a pad (and the other sounds in this piece), it will be much easier to add your own flavor.

Any instrument's sound originates from one point — a string on a guitar, a reed on a clarinet and in most cases, oscillators on a synthesizer. On this pad, the basic construction of the sound is one saw-wave and one square-wave oscillator de-tuned by 10 cents. The de-tuning gives a nice width to the sound and works in a similar way to a chorus effect.

These waveforms have then been equally mixed and then sent straight into a lowpass filter to attenuate the high frequencies in the sound, therefore giving you the understated, softer feel you want in a good pad. In this sound, on all three synths, the filter cutoff frequency is controlled directly by the modulation wheel and an envelope, giving both automated and manual control over the filter movement (more on modulation to come).

Once you have the basic building blocks of the sound — the oscillators — and desired filter settings, you need to manipulate the sound further to create the correct feel of a pad or string. To get a long, slow wash of sound, you need to set the amplitude envelope appropriately. A long/slow attack time is essential, and your playing style will have to adapt for it. Notice on the screenshots that you need to set a high sustain, meaning the sound will continue as you hold down the keys, and an equally long release setting, meaning the sound will continue to play and fade out as you let go of the keys. The settings of the faders differ slightly from synth to synth because each instrument has different relative timings for their envelopes.


Download MP3s, programmed presets, starting-point presets and full screen shots by clicking here.

Now that the basic sound is down, add a few things for movement and interest to it. For the pad, I opted for some delayed, light vibrato and gentle, envelope-controlled swell to the filter, and the modulation wheel is routed to control the filter directly for adding expression while playing. Simple additions like that really help add life and color to sounds. I've also added a simple reverb to the pad for space; you can easily hear the sound without the effects by bypassing them, or in the case of Reason and Logic, you can load the prepared synth presets directly.


A classic lead synth sound perks up those catchy top-line riffs perfectly. Again, such sounds are staple parts of synthesizer preset banks, but it's always better to know how to construct these sounds from scratch. Once you can build a synth lead from any point on your favorite synth, you should find it easy enough to translate the technique to any other synth as well.

This sound needs to have a bit more attitude, so it gets two sawtooth oscillators, which are mixed equally and slightly de-tuned for thickness. Such settings often characterize the basis of lead sounds and any other sounds that need that “buzz” factor. A simple lowpass filter with a touch of resonance adds some extra shine in most synth leads. Modulation directly controls the filter cutoff and resonance for expression and control during playing.

The synth lead differs from the pad most importantly in the envelope area. With the lead, you want a harder-hitting sound with a faster reaction time, so the envelope timings need to be much lower in general. For immediate impact, the envelope attack falls to zero, followed closely by a full sustain setting and a fast release. That all adds up to a very agile and responsive sound to play — ideal for lead performance.

To add some extra interest to the synth lead, I modulated the pitch with a fast LFO that is enhanced when using the mod wheel, which also directly modulates the filter cutoff frequency. On the synths that would allow it, I patched the amount of frequency modulation (FM) to increase with the mod wheel, adding extra bite when needed. A useful trick here (if your chosen synth allows it) is to add extra effects depth to the mod wheel; for example, delay feedback or reverb amount can add magic to a performance. In our example synth lead, I added some chorus and delay for interest, but you are free to hear the raw sound by loading the presets or bypassing the effects.


Once you grasp some fundamentals of synth programming, you can become more adventurous. In synthesis classes, students are often asked to re-create natural sounds such as raindrops and wind using several different instruments. That is a useful practice in learning to program abstract noises for your productions. Our example synth sound effect is a classic modulated laser effect that may be useful for transitions and drops, but with a few tweaks and a bit of creativity, the only limit is your imagination.

When building an effect patch, there is no hard and fast rule about what type of oscillators or envelopes to use, but in this case, I mixed noise and self-oscillation, which occurs when you use a very high (if not full) resonance setting from the filter section as its very own oscillator. In most cases, you will want to turn off the main oscillators, although if the synth supplies a noise source, some noise is sometimes useful because it's nonmusical in tone. In effect, I am using two oscillators here: noise and a resonant self-oscillator. Both are pretty equally mixed, but I am using the resonance control to alter the level of the self-oscillator. That differs massively from synth to synth due to the different filter characters in each instrument. Using this method, you can make anything from atmospheric sweeps to drum sounds such as hi-hats and snares.

On the synth screenshots, look at the oscillator sections. Once the noise and resonance are mixed to a satisfactory level, feed them into an amplitude envelope with a slow attack and release, causing a nice sweep effect. Then sync a second envelope to react in a similar way on the filter, causing the resonant self-oscillation to drop.

The main form of modulation that brings the synth sound effect to life is a delayed sine wave LFO routed to the filter cutoff. The delay is timed in such a way that it starts to kick in as the filter envelope drops. I have also added reverb for some sparkle. When it comes to synth effects programming, the modulation is key. Some synths allow more complex routing and therefore more possibilities.

Musicians often fear — or at least approach with caution — the modulation matrices and routing sections of modern synthesizers the most. With some of the more complex instruments, that is understandable, but all three synths used in this exercise (especially Reason's Subtractor) have interfaces that are easy to navigate and don't have a steep learning curve. Subtractor uses the simplest form of modulation routing — hardwired knobs in every section — and its presets often route those knobs to the most commonly used destinations and functions. This format does limit you in some circumstances when compared with a totally modular matrix, but it does make quick programming easier. The other two synths use a more modular, open-mod matrix, but don't be intimidated. With a little time, you'll be programming like a pro. It's just a matter of knowing which parameters you need to change to achieve the results you want, and once you learn those causes and effects, you only have to patch them together. One way to think of any mod matrix is as virtual wires because in early synthesizers, real wires actually were the connectors between each synth parameter.

Feel free to e-mail synth-programming questions to me at