Since its introduction nearly a decade ago, LennarDigital’s Sylenth1 has become a mainstay in EDM production. Its straightforward design, high-res sound (aliasing artifacts are truly inaudible), and thick oscillators make it easy to get started creating your own sounds. Things get a little trickier when you factor in Sylenth1’s architecture, which includes baked-in layering features.
So, while its synthesis parameters are familiar and approachable, there are more complex possibilities lurking inside for you to explore. Let’s have a look.
Making the most of Sylenth1 requires a full understanding of its routing options. While the system looks like a simple two-layer synth, the rabbit hole goes deeper once you realize that the four oscillators can be routed to each layer’s filters, either separately or in parallel.
The straight-forward user interface of Sylenth1 be-lies its deeper programming capabilities.
Here’s how it works: At the top of the screen are buttons that switch between viewing Part A and Part B, each its own two-oscillator-plus-filter affair. This interface lends itself to the layering techniques discussed later in this master class, aided by a Solo button next to the Part switches that allows you to focus on one synth panel at a time.
Things get more involved when you inspect each filter’s input options, which can toggle between each part’s oscillator pair or all four oscillators from both parts. Because of that depth, you can set up either part to filter all four oscillators, while the remaining part can filter its oscillator pair independently. Alternately, you can send all four oscillators to both filters simultaneously and modulate them differently. Ultimately, the secret to mastering Sylenth1 lies in understanding how to make the most of these options.
Fig. 1. All of Sylenth1’s oscillators include a phase knob, which expands their timbral options when combined.
Sylenth1’s four oscillators offer identical features and, at first glance, may seem a bit underwhelming with their lack of hard sync and preset-only pulse widths. That said, the inclusion of independent phase control for each oscillator and the ability to stack and detune up to eight instances of a given waveform—in stereo—give them their own unique flavor (see Figure 1).
Since volume and tuning are self-explanatory, here’s a quick summary of Sylenth1’s more distinctive oscillator options and a few tips for making the most of them.
Invert and Phase. Each oscillator includes a dedicated button for inverting the phase, as well as a knob that allows for continuous adjustment from 0 to 360 degrees. With no other oscillators sounding, turning this knob results in an erratic timbre shift with some pitch warbling, as there is no phase relationship to other tone sources.
Activating the second oscillator with a single voice (more on that below), then turning the phase knob results in some lovely timbre shifting effects, making it an excellent candidate for LFO and envelope modulation.
Detune, Stereo, and Voices. These three parameters function interactively to deliver the iconic supersaw sound. The Voice parameter determines the number of detuned voices in the stack (from 0 to 8), while the Stereo parameter adjusts the width of the stereo field for those voices.
For vintage analog sounds, two voices should be enough for simple two-oscillator effects. For EDM purposes, you can create stacks of up to 32 voices (8 voices per oscillator) per note. If this is your sound, consider using different waveforms and/or octaves for each oscillator, then blend them using the oscillators’ volume knobs. That said, if you’ve got 32 voices per note and you play a four-note chord, your CPU may groan under the weight of 128 simultaneous voices.
Retrig. This button forces each oscillator’s waveform to start from its beginning, based on the Phase knob setting. Leaving it off results in free-running waveforms, which are useful for emulating real analog oscillators.
Pro Tip. Because Sylenth1’s oscillators don’t include on/off switches, setting the Voice parameter to 0 toggles that oscillator off.
As mentioned in the Routing section above, the dual filters’ greatest strength is the ability to combine multiple modes in single, parallel, or dual-layer configurations. The filter modes are straightforward, with resonant lowpass, highpass, and bandpass options that operate with either 2-pole (12 dB/oct) or 4-pole (24 dB/oct) roll-off curves.
The filter Drive knob has more tonal subtlety than other softsynths. Here, the results are evocative of ’70s-era Moog designs, with higher values adding a fullness to the sound without imparting harsh distortion.
Fig. 2. The dual multimode filters include several routing options and a global Filter Control panel that adjusts both simultaneously.
Another highlight of Sylenth1’s dual filters is a set of unified Filter Control parameters (see Figure 2). Interestingly, this is where keyboard tracking is set globally, though you can also use the modulation matrix for discrete values. As a sound design tool, this section allows you to simultaneously adjust both filters’ cutoff and resonance settings, delivering impressive results when using lowpass/highpass combinations or dual bandpass arrays, whether layered or in parallel.
Fig. 3. This basic mixer section handles part/layer balancing.
The Mixer section simply adjusts the volumes of Part A and Part B, as well as the master volume (see Fig. 3). However, there is a neat trick you can use for re-creating the sound of vintage monosynths.
First, create your main patch using only Part A; any kind of classic two-oscillator-with-lowpass sound will do. As you create the patch, set the filter for Part A to include the oscillators for Part B as well.
Next, set Part B’s oscillator 1 to a square wave one octave lower than Part A, then slightly blend in a sine wave from oscillator 2, set to the same octave as the square, adding fullness. Now, when you’re on the Part A page, the Mix B fader will function like a vintage square wave sub-oscillator.
Sylenth1’s modulation tools are extremely concise, with only two basic LFOs and two ADSR envelopes covering animation duties for both parts. That said, the LFOs offer a wider range of waveform options than many analog synths, with options for several pulse widths, a triangle-saw, and a Lorenz mode, which delivers natural yet chaotic results that are more organic sounding than either the sample-and-hold or random waves. As a result, applying very slight amounts of the Lorenz waveform to filter cutoff and/or oscillator pitch works wonders for re-creating the character of decaying analog gear, especially when combined with free-running oscillator waves.
The dual ADSR envelopes are standard in their implementation and offer the same destinations as the LFOs: volume, pan, pitch, phase, cutoff, resonance, mix levels, LFO rate, LFO amount, and the ability to modulate distortion depth and phaser frequency, which is handy for adding dynamics to those effect processes.
Fig. 4. The modulation matrix displays both LFOs and envelopes simultaneously, along with their routings, with independent depth controls for all elements.
Additionally, the mod matrix includes four Miscellaneous routing tools (see Figure 4). These allow routing of velocity, Aftertouch, and a few other common MIDI control sources. You can also use them to assign LFOs and envelopes to additional destinations.
ProTip. To overcome the default maximum modulation depth of a given routing, assign a single source to the same destination multiple times, thus increasing its modulation intensity beyond what the standard settings allow.
Fig. 5. The effects section includes useful features such as granular delay smearing, dual chorusing, and a versatile phaser.
In addition to its high-resolution oscillators and warm filters, Sylenth1’s multi-effects chain is another reason for its continued popularity with dance music producers, as they have a distinct character (see Figure 5).
The seven effects are hardwired in the following order: distortion, phaser, chorus, EQ, delay, and reverb, with a compressor at the end of the chain. Having the compressor placed after the reverb enhances the impact of bombast of stacked supersaw chords—yet another reason Sylenth1 is a go-to synth for the EDM crowd.
Each of the effects can be toggled individually, so there’s a lot of flexibility in configuration possibilities. And if you want to leave your ambient effects airy and spacious, you can always leave the compressor off.
Here’s a rundown of each effect and specific areas worth exploring:
Distortion. The parameters are simply drive amount and wet/dry mix, but the five modes—overdrive, foldback, clip, decimate, and bitcrush—have their own distinct flavor, with foldback and decimate especially useful for hard, industrial results.
Phaser. Sylenth1’s comprehensive implementation includes controls for center frequency, spread, L/R offset, and width, as well as the standard LFO and mix options. High feedback settings work well for big-room whooshes.
Chorus. In addition to the standard chorus parameters, the Dual option re-creates vintage ensemble effects.
EQ. This is a basic low/high shelving affair, with the addition of switchable 1-pole and 2-pole options for adjusting their roll-off slopes.
Delay. As a capable two-tap stereo echo with low-and high-cut options, Sylenth1’s delay does the trick for most applications. Of special note, here, is the Smear parameter, which adds an adjustable granular “spray” to each repeat. In ping-pong mode, the spread parameter is useful for narrowing the stereo field for more restrained effects.
Reverb. The reverb parameters are minimal—size, width, pre-delay, damping, and wet/dry. That said, it has a bright, metallic quality that’s unlike many of the bundled reverbs you find in DAWs.
Compressor. While the parameters are bare bones—ratio, threshold, attack and release—this end-of-chain compressor is anything but subtle, which is why its hard character became a trademark of the Sylenth sound.
THREE LAYERING TECHNIQUES
In the ’70s, classic analog synths such as the Yamaha CS-80 and Roland Jupiter-8 relied on layering dual patches for their signature sounds. In the ’80s, Roland pioneered an entire line of products based on a form of layering called LA Synthesis, notably in the iconic D-50.
Nowadays, it’s easy to combine softsynths, either via MIDI routing or software tools. So, while these tutorials focus on the specific elements of Sylenth1’s hybrid approach, they can also apply to other subtractive synths in your arsenal.
Over the years, I’ve found there are three general approaches to combining patches to create new tones that transcend their components: Contrasting, Complimentary, and Composite. Here are a few examples for getting started with each approach in the context of Sylenth1, with the Composite example relying heavily on Sylenth1’s specific approach to filter routing.
Contrasting. Combining contrasting tones is arguably the most common approach to layering, as each component’s identity is clearly defined. Even the earliest analog string synths offered combinations like piano and strings, and many of Roland’s D-50 patches focused on contrasting combinations of bright sampled elements with analog pads.
Fig. 6. Initializing a patch can be accomplished simply by selecting Clear from the Preset menu. Randomizing the values for all synth parameters is another option.
Because of this familiarity, layering contrasting tones is a great way to get the hang of Sylenth1’s synthesis tools. For each of these examples, begin with an initialized patch by selecting Preset > Clear from the main menu (see Figure 6).
1. Set the polyphony to 6 voices, then select Part A and activate Solo, so you can focus exclusively on its sound.
2. Set Osc A1 wave to sawtooth with a voice count of 3. Set the detune value to around 3, for a subtle chorusing effect.
3. Set filter input to Oscillators Part A and filter type to Lowpass. The default cutoff of 5 is actually perfect for this type of sawtooth pad sound, so leave it at this value and keep the resonance and drive at zero.
4. The default ADSR envelope shape is a standard gate with sustain at maximum and all other parameters at zero. To give it a more pad-like feel, increase the attack to 2 and release to 5. At this point it should sound like a traditional saw pad.
5. Now, add the contrasting tone—a sine-based bell. While leaving Solo mode on, select Part B. You’ll hear nothing at first, because both oscillators have a voice count of zero.
6. Set both oscillators to sine waves with a voice count of 1. Then adjust the tuning of oscillator 2B to +2 octaves and +6 semi-tones. While an augmented fourth may seem like an “unmusical” choice, at lower volumes it’s great for adding inharmonicity to the bell texture, so attenuate accordingly.
7. In a cleared patch, Filter B defaults to Part B’s oscillators. Since we’re only using two sine waves, leave the filter bypassed.
8. Next, give the amp envelope a more bell-like shape, with instant attack, both decay and release values around 7 and zero sustain.
9. Finally, tailor the individual volumes of Mix A and B and adjust the blend to taste.
Fig. 7. Some users have mistaken Sylenth1’s Sync button for an oscillator hard sync option. Instead, it globally syncs the LFO rates and envelope times with your DAW’s master tempo. Next to it, the Solo button allows you to isolate each of Sylenth’s two parts for closer inspection.
Pro Tip. You can also use this sound as a starting point for vintage Roland LA synthesis tones. Shorten both the decay and release for Part B’s amp envelope to 2, then turn on chorus and reverb. The result will be similar to the classic “Fantasia” pad.
Complimentary. Layering complementary tones is a bit more nuanced, because even small changes to the mix can result in a very different character. For this example, we’ll combine a bright sawtooth pad with an airy pulse-based layer.
1. Begin by repeating steps 1 through 4 from the Contrasting tutorial, above, but this time increase the cutoff slightly to 6 to give the sawtooth pad a brighter sound.
2. Switch to Part B, leaving it soloed. Set Osc 1B to half-pulse, with a voice count of 3, then increase the detuning to 4 for added thickness.
4. Next, set Osc 2 to noise, with a voice count of 1. Keep its volume very low—around 1—so it is just adding some air to the texture.
5. Since the filter defaults to Part B’s oscillators, leave the input select as is. Switch the filter to Highpass mode and lower the cutoff to around 3. At this point, you should hear a fizzy pulse pad that’s extremely thin, due to the highpass filter.
6. To align the amp envelopes for both parts, switch back to Part A and use the envelope pull-down to copy its values to the clipboard, then paste them to the amp envelope for Part B.
7. Now, each layer adds a complementary element to the overall sound, so adjust their mix volumes and add effects such as chorus, phaser, and/or reverb for more cohesion.
Composite. While Sylenth1’ s specialty is layered patches, the filter routing options offer composite textures by routing all four oscillators into Part A’s filter, while simultaneously routing two of those oscillators into Part B’s filter. This results in a hybrid timbre that can be quickly customized using the mixer and global filter tools.
1. After you’ve cleared the patch, set Filter A’s input select to “Oscillators Part A and B,” then switch over to the Part B filter and set its input select to “No Input.” By doing this, all four oscillators are now routed to Filter A, which should be set to Lowpass mode.
2. Switching between the Parts, set all four oscillators to sawtooth waves, each with two voices slightly detuned (2.5 is a good starting value for this).
3. Leave the Amp envelope in its default gate shape with short release.
4. Next, set each oscillator to a different octave for a huge organ-like sound. With an oscillator stack this big, back off on the volumes for all four oscillators to around 6 or 7, then blend to taste in order to highlight different octave ranges.
5. This sound is well-suited to leads and EDM stabs, so add delay and reverb for space and ambience.
6. For greater complexity, switch Part B’s filter to Highpass or Bandpass, then route its oscillators to it and tinker with the cutoff and resonance, while adjusting Mix B’s level for added spectral control. Changing Part B’s oscillators to different pulse widths will vary the character further.
Fig. 8. Sylenth1’s arpeggiator includes a step-sequencer mode that lets you set the pitch offset, velocity, and “hold” for up to 16 steps for intricate results. These “hold” steps work as ties, allowing for TB-303 style glides in conjunction with legato portamento settings.
ProTip. You can also use the composite approach to create techno chord stabs by following steps 1-3, then for step 4, set each oscillator to a different note in the chord.
For this, Osc 1A should be the tonic (Octave 0, Note 0), Osc 1B a minor third (Octave 0, Note 3), and Osc 2A the fifth (Octave 0, Note 7). Adding the minor 7th to this chord requires setting Osc 2B to Octave 1, Note-2 because Sylenth1’s semitone adjustment maxes out at a fifth in either direction.
SYLENTH IS GOLDEN
Despite few major updates since its original release, Sylenth1 remains an essential part of many trance and EDM producers’ toolkits, with its massive sound and familiar architecture. By exploring the layering and parallel filtering options, you’ll soon discover more creative options in this powerful softsynth than its simplified feature set implies.
Producer Francis Prève has been designing synthesizer presets professionally since 2000. Check out his soundware company at symplesound.com.