The Art of the Pad

What's the question that musicians hear the least? No, it isn't Is that the trombone player's Porsche? It's How'd you get that nice pad? One of the most
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What's the question that musicians hear the least? No, it isn't “Is that the trombone player's Porsche?” It's “How'd you get that nice pad?”

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FIG. 1: In this MIDI track of a synth pad, the notes of the pad appear in piano-roll format, with the controller data in black.

One of the most popular uses of synthesizers is to play sustained chords, or pads. Pads can be brilliant and inspired or boring and static. A prime element of the inspired pad is motion. Whether or not the notes of the pad change, its sound should constantly change in subtle or not-so-subtle ways to keep the ear interested. Depending on the sound you choose for the pad, there are many ways to create motion within the pad. Here are some techniques for making your pads sound better, along with some tips on when (and when not) to use them.

The One-Sound Pad

The basic analog pad, the most common type, has been around since the early '80s, when the polyphonic analog synthesizer was introduced. The Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 and Oberheim OB series were the two most prevalent instruments then. A pad is usually produced by setting the oscillators to saw or pulse waves, setting the amp envelope to a gentle attack and release, and detuning the oscillators or adding some chorus effect. A good example of this sound is used on Bruce Hornsby's “The Way It Is.” The pad nicely fills in the spaces around the piano. You can add more interest and motion to the analog pad by riding the filter cutoff frequency as you play. I use a Novation Supernova for this type of pad, although most synths can produce this sound.

For example, on the Supernova I programmed two patches with almost identical sounds. They both have a slow panning effect but with slightly different LFO rates. One patch has a slight vibrato; the other doesn't. I put the two sounds on the same MIDI channel in the synth's Performance mode. The result is a rich stereo pad whose sound moves around in a seemingly random pattern. I keep the second mod wheel on my controller set to CC 105, which is the filter cutoff frequency on the Supernova. I then record a MIDI track of the pad with one hand playing the part and one hand always on the mod wheel. (You could also use a pedal or data slider.) In Digidesign Pro Tools the notes of the pad appear in piano-roll format, with the controller data superimposed (see Fig. 1). The audio example of this pad (see Web Clip 1) uses the Supernova sound just described.

Controlling the cutoff frequency manually while recording creates a more interesting pad. Many factory presets on synthesizers include a slow LFO or an envelope generator modulating the filter frequency. This creates motion, but you have limited control over that motion. Sometimes that lack of control results in interesting movements that you would not have created otherwise. Other times the preset modulation can be annoying. Controlled manually, the pad can “breathe,” instead of sounding like a bland collection of static tones.

Other Waves

Pads are not just for analog synths. FM and wavetable synths and sample-playback instruments can all be used for interesting pads. Wavetable synths are great for large, breathy pads. Filter control on this type of sound can be dramatic. FM synths, like Native Instruments' FM7, can create very interesting pads. The overall sound tends to be thin, but that can be good if you don't want the pad to take up a lot of space in the mix. And by varying the volume of one or more of the operators, you can get tonal changes that are more complex than simple filter changes. Although I enjoy coming up with FM sounds from scratch, the downside of FM synths is that they are hard to program. You may have to tweak even presets extensively to get satisfactory results.

Organs and strings, the original pads, are also great choices. Organ simulators, like Ultimate Sound Bank's Charlie and Native Instruments' B4, can be useful alternatives to synth pads. You can manipulate the drawbars as you're playing to create interesting motion, even simulated filter sweeps. And string samples, either direct or processed though a filter, envelope, and effects section, can make a great pad.

The Multi-Mono Pad

On his 1972 album, Talking Book (Motown/Pgd), Stevie Wonder multitracked a monophonic synthesizer to create a stunning pad effect. He played each part with a lot of expressive portamento and vibrato, so we hear multiple melodies, not chords. I find this principle to be very useful in creating rich pads. I will set up three or four different synths with different types of pad sounds. I'll generally use an analog pad sound, some sort of FM sound, and a wavetable sound. I'll make sure I can control the timbre of each as I'm playing, usually with one of the mod wheels. Then with each synth I record separate MIDI tracks for each monophonic part. The first pass is usually easy, but successive passes get harder as I try to create an interesting counterpoint to the first part, avoiding unisons and octaves. I use the mod wheel to make different instruments pop out at different times. If the song warrants it, I may start or end the process with a pedal track (a track with an instrument that plays the same note or open fifth all or most of the way through the song).

This technique can make the harmonies quite rich, and since the results are on separate tracks, I can decide just how many of the parts I want. I generally have to go back and edit them visually to fix passages that don't work. This process can also work with one multitimbral synth, but I find that if each sound comes from a different instrument with its own character, then there's more depth to the overall sound.

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FIG. 2: Each of these four MIDI tracks will trigger a different pad sound. The crossing movements of the notes and the varied sounds add texture and interest to the pad.

For example, I created four MIDI tracks (see Fig. 2), each played by a different pad sound (see Web Clip 2). Track 4 is a pedal part, holding middle C throughout. Notice how in bars 5 to 7 the voices cross. Synths 1 and 2 trade parts as the pattern repeats. Then in bar 9, synth 3 drops down from the high part and synth 1 takes over. These movements illustrate another way to change the texture of the pad.


One way to make your pads stand out is to play them in high or low ranges. In the Fine Young Cannibals' “She Drives Me Crazy,” a low-pitched, slightly distorted pad gives a truly unique character to the verses. One of my favorite high pads is the high organ in the Cure's “Lovesong.” (It's not in the recent remake.) This pad has very little textural motion, aside from a bit of vibrato. It's that starkness that pulls you in. (So the rule that motion is the most important element of a pad is one that can be learned and then ignored at will.)

In the late '80s I played with a British artist who would tell me, “No pads!” Instead, we would use shorter, splashier sounds that left more room in the mix. Eventually, more pads crept into the music, and I missed that open sound. Pads can fill the empty spaces, but they can also crowd a mix and generally make trouble for the other instruments. As counterintuitive as it might seem, as a song gets bigger toward the end, it's often better to pull the pad out of the mix, especially if there are strings or big guitars. It's also good to EQ a pad so that it takes up less sonic space; filter out the bottom end, say, below 100 Hz, and pull out a little around 350 Hz as well.

If I'm working on a hard-hitting, rhythmic song, either I don't want a pad at all, or I want a small one. A big, rich pad will detract from the rhythm parts by intruding on their sonic space. If I want a small pad, I like to use something different and quirky. I might use a single-oscillator, monaural sound from an edgy-sounding synth like FM7, Propellerhead Reason's Subtractor, or G-Force's ImpOscar. The edginess or quirkiness helps the pad stand out without getting in the way of the groove. I also may use a pad for just one section, like the climb, or prechorus, and then take it out when the chorus begins.

To Pad or Not to Pad

Pads are challenging. The timbres available to the modern synth player seem limitless, and it's hard to know which sound will fit in a particular track. It's worth it to put in the extra work, however, because every once in a while you'll hear that rare phrase, “Nice pad!”

Steve Skinner has worked as an arranger-programmer for Bette Midler, Jewel, Celine Dion, R. Kelly, Diana Ross, the Bee Gees, and Chaka Khan. He arranged the musical Rent and coproduced the cast album.