Today, we bring you tips on creating a big, cutting lead synth sound for EDM or pop music in the Dutch-house style. We used Native Instruments Massive and Propellerhead Reason’s Thor synths, but you can build these sounds in just about any analog or analog modeling synth.
Fig. 1. The oscillators and their waveshapes, tuning, and LFO pitch modulation are the cornerstones of this sound.Oscillators Start with an initialized synth patch, and select three analog oscillators: a sawtooth, a square, and another sawtooth. Pitch up the second two oscillators by 12 semitones (one octave) each. If your synth offers detuning (sometimes labeled Tune), detune the second two oscillators—one by +10 cents and the other by -10 cents. Detuning oscillators by cents in an equally positive and negative amount helps make huge lead stabs (or thick pads, too) and keeps the tuning coherent, rather than leaning sharp or flat.
Now route the Pitch for oscillators 2 and 3 to an LFO with a sine wave shape and its rate turned all the way up. If your synth lets you choose the range of pitch modulation, choose a small value like 1 semitone (Figure 1). That will give the sounds a grinding, alarm-like quality.
Fig. 2. Reason’s Thor, where the Filter, Shaper, LFO 1 and envelopes all come into play.Fig. 3. In addition to making the sound monophonic and always retriggering, increasing the Unisono voices in Massive will thicken the sound even more. General Settings The oscillators should route into a lowpass filter with the cutoff most or all the way up, and the resonance most or all the way down. Any filter envelope should have a fast attack and fast decay. The amp envelope should have the fastest attack and longest sustain. If your synth has a hardclipper (in the Shaper of Thor or the Inserts of Massive), turn that on (Figure 2).
Voicing Portamento/glide characterizes many Dutch-house leads, so turn on glide in the oscillator section, portamento in the global section, or wherever your synth houses it. Along with that, turn your voicing or keyboard mode to monophonic and retrigger (or always trigger) (Figure 3).
Effects A few key effects will help round out the sound of this lead synth. Some synths will have enough internal effects, but you may also need to add them to a DAW track. If possible, create a macro instrument that you can save with the effects included, like a Combinator in Reason or Instrument Rack in Ableton Live.
The most important touch is a little dab of reverb. Add a reverb and be sure to keep its Size and Dry/Wet settings low—in the lower quarter of the range. Chorus is also quite helpful to enhance the disorienting effect of the portamento/glide. Add a chorus either in parallel to the reverb or in serial after the reverb. You will want to keep the Dry/Wet, Rate, and Depth settings of the chorus fairly low as well. Finally, add a compressor or, preferably, a good multiband EQ as the last stage of the signal. Roll-off some of the lows and highs with shelf filters, and if your EQ has a frequency analyzer, try to tame any problem frequencies that you hear.
At this point, if you haven’t already, you should experiment with the sound and see what subtle or extreme differences you get with adjusting any parameters. Save anything you like along the way as a separate patch. If it’s starting to feel too aggressive for your taste, try rolling down the cutoff of the filter. Or to make it even more biting, add a distortion or amp simulator effect. Your particular synth, effects, and settings will all make a difference to the sound, but if you follow these guidelines, you’ll have a sharp, energizing lead synth that’ll cut through your mixes.