The humble synth pad is designed to be heard without being consciously noticed. It fills in the background in the mix, adding warmth and spaciousness while staying out of the way of the more interesting foreground parts. But rules are meant to be broken. If you would like to make your next pad track worth listening to but still have it be relatively unobtrusive, try splitting it apart and processing it through three different auxiliary mixer channels at once.
To illustrate this process, I will use Steinberg Cubase 4. You can accomplish much the same type of effect with almost any digital audio workstation, though the details will vary.
Lay It Down
FIG. 1: Cubase 4''s Embracer synth is optimized for producing rich pads.
A pad track is not usually the first thing recorded into a new project, so open up a project you're already working on and add a pad if the song doesn't have one already. Cubase's built-in Embracer synth (see Fig. 1) is ideal for this, but almost any synth will work. The mixer patch you're going to create will work best if you select a preset that has a fairly wide range of frequencies, such as Embracer's The Abyss.
Even a vanilla pad sound in a virtual analog synth will work well, because you're going to add interest to the tone at a later stage. Use three sawtooth oscillators slightly detuned, leave the filter open wide, and add medium-length attack and release times to the amplitude envelope. The sustain level should be close to 100 percent.
Create three FX Channels from the Project Add Track submenu (see “Step-by-Step Instructions”). Choose a narrow-band graphic EQ, such as Cubase's built-in GEQ-30, for the first effect in each FX Channel. The effect you choose in the dialog box will appear as the first insert in the new channel strip in the Mixer window.
Open the Mixer window, and click on the Show All Sends icon in the left column. In the channel strip for the pad soft synth, select each of your new FX Channels as a send. Switch them on and move the level slider for each — maybe not all the way to the right, but somewhere past the middle. (Cubase doesn't show the exact values for these sliders, so just set them so that they're all at about the same level.) Next, switch the main output for the pad channel to No Bus. At this point, the pad will be heard only through the FX Channels, but the pad-channel fader will still control the overall level of the pad.
Open up each of the graphic EQ plug-ins in turn, and edit its response curve. You're going to use the EQs as frequency gates so that each FX Channel will be processing and outputting a different set of frequencies. The easiest way to do this is to pass the low frequencies through the first channel, the mids through the second, and the highs through the third, but you may find that more-complex comb-type settings work better, depending on your source material.
Pan one of the FX Channels hard left and another hard right. Leave the third panned center. Wide panning on closely related sounds creates the impression of a single sound that has great breadth.
Insert a Cubase Step Filter in each FX Channel, and edit the patterns so that they're different. You may want to set the Sync parameter of the Step Filters so that the center channel syncs to eighth notes while the left and right channels sync to 16ths. This will put more activity at the outer edges of the pad, whereas the middle of the sound will remain stabler, providing an anchor.
Edit the patterns while the sequencer is running in loop mode. By clicking on the little boxes almost at random, you should be able to come up with an interesting rhythm. If you need more animation, add a mono or ping-pong delay (synced to eighths or quarters) to one or more of the FX Channels. This will cause the peaks in the Step Filter patterns to bounce around.
You can redefine or expand this mixer patch in many ways. You might try replacing the Step Filters with phasers, for instance, and set each phaser's LFO to a different sweep rate. This will produce a much richer phasing effect than a single phaser by itself. If your effects arsenal includes a dynamics processor with a sidechain input, you can gate the FX Channels from various drums in your percussion loop. Automating the panning of the FX Channels, or their input EQ, is also worth trying.
With this type of effect, the danger is that the pad will become too interesting. That's why in my example I've used a riff with no chord changes (see Web Clip 1). In the absence of harmonic movement, the pad won't jump out and rip the song's face off.
Jim Aikin composes and records in his home studio and writes about music technology for various magazines. You can visit him online atmusicwords.net.
STEP-BY-STEP INSTRUCTIONS ON NEXT PAGE
Step 1: Choose a pad-type patch for a soft synth and record some sustained chords.
Step 2: Create three send channels. Choose a graphic EQ as the first insert effect for each.
Step 3: Assign the first three sends from the pad channel to the three send channels, switch on the sends, and raise each to a suitable level. Switch the pad channel''s main output off.
Step 4: Create frequency gates with the graphic EQs so that each send channel processes different frequencies from the pad.
Step 5: Insert a Step Filter as the second insert in each of the send channels, and edit the patterns.
Step 6: Add delay to taste.