Top 10 Synth Tone Tweaks

These days, most synthesizers ship with hundreds of great-sounding presets.

For quick edits in Rob Papen Blue, you can mute or unmute single oscillators using the ABCDEF buttons along the top, change the filter cutoff, resonance, or type in the middle section, or edit the arpeggiator steps in the multipurpose window along the bottom.

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THESE DAYS, most synthesizers ship with hundreds of great-sounding presets. I often find myself clicking through the presets, looking for the perfect sound to add to the mix. Sometimes a sound is close but not quite right. Customizing a preset is easier than creating a great sound from scratch. The ideas below will work equally well on software or hardware synths.

1. Dial Back the Reverb. Factory presets are often designed to sound huge when auditioned. In a mix, the reverb may add mud. Moving the wet/dry knob on a reverb or delay effect over toward the dry side can clean up the mix. Also try shortening the reverb decay time or lowering the delay feedback amount.

2. Adjust the Filter Cutoff. Adjusting the filter in the synth may be more effective than mixer EQ for adjusting the balance of highs and lows, especially if the filter has a sharp cutoff slope. Depending on the preset, you may need to raise or lower the filter envelope amount in order to change the cutoff. Adding or reducing filter resonance can also change the character of the sound in desirable ways.

3. Add Velocity Sensing. A surprising number of factory presets have little or no velocity response. In order to edit the notes in a phrase so that some are accented, or so that a phrase has a crescendo or diminuendo, you may need to add velocity response. This will affect both the overall loudness of the instrument and the filter cutoff frequency, so a bit of back-and-forth editing may be needed.

Native Instruments Massive has eight Macro Control knobs (lower right) that are active in most presets for quick edits. Using the little blue button at the upper left corner of each module, you can mute or unmute oscillators (left), filters (upper center), or the dual effects processors (middle right). 4. Tweak LFO Vibrato. I like adding vibrato with the mod wheel. Some presets use the mod wheel for a different type of expression, so you may need to rewire the modulation routings. The existing modulation may be cool too, in which case you can re-route its input so as to add it from aftertouch, or from a MIDI slider.

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The LFO vibrato rate may be too fast or too slow. While changing the LFO rate, don’t overlook the possibility of modulating the rate slightly from the mod wheel while also modulating the depth. This adds subtle intensity to the expression.

5. Check the Layers. Many presets use two or more sound layers—separate oscillators, parallel filters, and so on. Try soloing the layers one at a time to see what each of them is doing. If a layer is adding an attack transient, you might want to boost or cut that layer by itself. Sometimes two layers are tuned to the interval of a fifth, which can interfere with chord changes. Tuning a layer from the fifth back to unison can make the preset more useful.

6. Experiment With Envelope Times. Occasionally you may want to make a sound more aggressive by sharpening up the attack time on the amplitude or filter envelope. A pad sound with a long release time may bleed into the next chord, so shortening the amplitude release time may clean up the mix.

If your bass preset is mostly playing short notes, the decay time and sustain level settings may not be doing much. But when the bass needs to sustain a long note, the sustain may drop off too quickly, or not fade quickly enough. By raising or lowering the amplitude envelope’s sustain level and adjusting the decay time to make a smooth fade, you can avoid having to automate the track’s mixer level.

7. Try Multiple Triggering. Lots of bass presets are designed for monophonic playing. This makes sense for bass, as you’ll seldom want to hear two notes at once. The monophonic preset may be set to single triggering, in which case you’ll get a new envelope attack only when there’s a gap between two adjacent notes. When the preset has a snappy attack and a muffled sustain, single triggering can make some of the notes hard to hear. If you want every bass note to sound, switch to multiple triggering.

Conversely, if the bass preset is in polyphonic mode, every note will have a new attack, but you need to be careful to edit out the note overlaps in the sequence track, as any overlaps will add mud to the mix. In this case, consider switching to mono mode.

8. Edit Arpeggiator Patterns. With presets that use the built-in arpeggiator or step sequencer, you may need to edit the steps of the pattern to match the harmony or the groove of the song. Sometimes I set up two versions of a preset (on separate tracks) that are identical except for different step sequence patterns. This lets me switch back and forth to meet the needs of the song.

9. Automate for Expression. Most DAWs let you automate just about any parameter. With automation, you can make subtle or massive changes from note to note. Try adding a growl of distortion to certain notes, messing with the filter envelope decay, or cranking up the reverb at the end of a phrase so the last note will dissolve into the air.

10. Experiment! Most software instruments have dozens of parameters: oscillator waveform, glide time, panning, ring mod, pitchbend depth, effects, and more. You never know which obscure adjustment may turn a ho-hum track into a winner, so roll up your sleeves and experiment.

Jim Aikin has written hundreds of product reviews and tutorials for Electronic Musician and other magazines over the course of more than 30 years. His books on music technology include Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming(Hal Leonard Publishing) and Csound Power! (Cengage Learning).