Key Tips for Recording Keys

Supposedly, recording a synthesizer is easy: Just plug its outputs into your mixer or soundcard’s inputs, press record, and cash your royalty check. Or for a virtual one, just create an instrument track, open the plug-in, and let the DAW do the rest. And actually, it is easy unless you want to add your own signature to its sound . . . which of course, you want to do!


Remember when having a modular synth was as fun and nightmarish as finding the right modulation path? Well, “Meta Patches” are patches created by using more than one synth, including other synth´s filters and your DAW´s plug-ins, and you can create them very easily — especially if you have access to the ReWire protocol, which nowadays is a common feature in most DAWs. The big advantage is that you can route audio from a hardware synth into a virtual synth´s filters (or go from virtual to hardware if desired), add as many plug-ins as you want, then save all the routing into a project (or save a “track preset”) so you can use it later in other sessions.

This technique lets you pump real life into an otherwise boring patch from any synth; Figure 1 shows one example. It all happens in Pro Tools, and started with a patch in Reason’s SubTractor virtual analog synth. I split the audio signal to ReWire channels 1 and 2 (RW 1/2) and to the filters of a Malström instance, whose outputs were sent to a delay and then to ReWire channels 3 and 4 (RW 3/4). In Pro Tools, channel 1 receives the signal from RW 1/2; that in turn feeds a Waves Morphoder to give the sound a vocoder flavor. Channel 2 picks up the signal from RW 3/4, which also passes through a 10-band EQ. If I was using a hardware synth I could not use it in conjunction with Reason, but I could use any other RTAS synth engine or FX plug-in to process its signal. And don’t forget that many virtual synths have “external” inputs that can process not just audio tracks, but the outputs of other synths as well.


A standard trick to add some space into a lead synth track is to send its output to an external amp, mic it, then record both signals — this can do wonders for synth sounds (and try plugging some pedals into the signal path, too).

But what happens with virtual organs and electric pianos? If you do not have a pair of rotating speakers, to get the best from a hardware “clone-wheel” with a rotary speaker effect, just send its output to a preamp (a SpeakEasy Dyno Preamp works pretty great for this), then to an amp or straight into your recording system. Some of these units may not work great with poorly sampled (e.g., lacking a lot of harmonics) Rhodes patches, but otherwise you can make those harmonics scream, and give a nice big low end to your synths together with a healthy amount of extra gain.

For clone-wheels or even for virtual organs with a rotating speaker effect, route the outputs to a decent pair of studio speakers and mic them. Even better, place the speakers far enough away so you can mix the direct signal with the miked one (but be careful with phase issues). Figure 2 shows how I set my Native Instruments’ B4 rotating speaker’s settings to get the best stereo imaging when miking its output from my monitor speakers. If the tracks are already recorded, just try re-amping them (see the Jan. ’07 issue).

As a bonus . . . try the same technique for strings and stereo pad patches, but this time set the mics as if you were miking a real string section, and mix in the original signal for a more natural reverb. And please — never use a full “strings pad” with ten fingers! Layer one patch for violins, one for violas and one for cellos, use them in their actual tonal range, and mix as if you were mixing an orchestra. Your sound will thank you for it.