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Studio Technology

Synthesis

Creating your own sounds from scratch is one of the best ways to master the complex
and occasionally daunting art of synthesis. Mark Cousins throws away the presets.

W
hile it’s easy enough to
comprehend the the skill of a good sound designer
mechanical building blocks
of a synthesizer – the filter, enables them to draw on a palette
envelopes, oscillators and
so on – it’s much harder to
of key sounds and effects.
understand how to successfully combine these
ingredients to create a finished sound. All too often, a We’ve also rounded up what we feel to be the best
first attempt at sound design involves a few tentative tools in their particular category, enabling you to
tweaks to an existing preset or blindly adjusting expand your set of sound-design tools in an informed
parameters until something sounds ‘right’ – often and effective way.
leading to a sound that lacks both character and Rather than tying the techniques to a specific
definition. By contrast, the skill and experience of a model of synthesizer, we’ve tried to keep the scope and
good sound designer enables them to draw on a palette application of the techniques as broad as possible to
of key sounds and effects, each of which can be fine- cater for the many and varied synths out there. And
tuned to match the musical objective in mind. with many synthesizers sharing common features, you
If you want more of a creative say over the sounds should find that the majority of the techniques BIOGRAPHY
you make with your synthesizer, therefore, there’s help described are transferable between different devices
■ Mark Cousins is a
at hand. In this feature we’re going to highlight the (although, of course, the precise results will
composer of production
three defining sound categories that a synthesizer can inevitably vary to some extent). Although we’ve tied music for BMGZomba.
be used for – namely, bass lines, pads and lead sounds certain techniques in with a sound category, it’s also His work has been
– offering practical guidance, techniques and tips on worth remembering that they can be applied in any used on BBC, ITV,
how you can create these sounds using the software or number of applications, so it’s well worth Channel 4 and Five.
hardware you have at your disposal. experimenting to see what you can achieve. MTM

www.musictechmag.co.uk MusicTech MAGAZINE September 2009 23


Studio Technology
Synthesis

Synth bass
Producing the deepest, tightest bass sounds

G
iven the frequency range a synth can
extend down to, it’s no surprise that it’s
become one of the most effective ways
of filling out the low end of a track. The
two principal ingredients of a good bass sound are
some well-chosen waveforms and inventive use of the
filter to bring depth and movement to the sound. Try to The filter section forms an important part of many bass sounds. Extra
keep your choice of waveform confined to one of the resonance at low cutoff settings can add bass energy to a patch.
four main types – sawtooth, triangle, square, pulse – so
the sound is clear and distinctive. It’s also worth using
a sub-oscillator tuned an octave below the first and set bottom. To make this filtering effect more dynamic
to either a square or triangle wave to give extra depth you’ll need to apply some form of envelope modulation
to the patch. Remember, though, to fine-tune the mix of – usually with a fast attack and medium decay setting
your sub-oscillator – this extra depth is often best to give the note some shape at its start. Although you
deployed in small, considered amounts. can use envelope modulation over the entire range of
A filter often forms an important part of the the filter, it’s worth keeping the depth relatively subtle.
character and interest in a bass sound. Given the raw, Along with cutoff, you’ll also want to experiment
almost buzzy output of the oscillators, the filter is with resonance. Even a small amount of resonance can
essential for removing excessive upper harmonics that be a useful ingredient as it helps to make any filter
can clutter a mix, leaving the bass to sit neatly at the modulation (in this case, coming from the envelope
generator) more noticeable. With greater amounts of
principal ingredients of a good bass resonance, though, you’ll start to experience radical
differences to the sound based on the ‘average’ filter
sound are well-chosen waveforms cutoff. At low cutoff settings, large amounts of

and inventive use of the filter.


resonance can actually add bass energy to the patch,
which is useful for deep, almost subsonic lines.

TECHNIQUE Effectively combining oscillators


Are three oscillators always better than one?
Although your synth might have two or three oscillators, it isn’t Going all-out for power and impact is the so-called ‘unison’
always beneficial to use all of them in the sounds you create. bass sound, which stacks multiple oscillators to create a
Deciding on the number of oscillators to use has a big effect on particularly rich and powerful effect. Most software synths
the end results – and as always, it’s often good to mix-and- feature some form of unison control, which usually places the Use your synthesizer’s
match your approach to get a sense of colour and diversity in synth into monophonic playback, with the number of stacked unison feature to
the music you produce. oscillators defined by the voice count. Using a large number of achieve an impressively
Although simple, single-oscillator sounds can often be voices combined with heavy detuning certainly creates a room- big-sounding bass line,
surprisingly effective – as demonstrated by Roland’s distinctive filling bass sound, but it’s important that other sounds in the
but remember to
TB-303 Bass Line. Despite having only one oscillator, the sound mix don’t also make too much use of the unison feature or they
account for the space it
of the TB-303 tends to cut through a mix where other layered will detract from its effectiveness as part of the bass line.
consumes in the mix.
bass sounds would add
further complication.
Of course, by adding
more oscillators you can
increase the relative
warmth (and depth) of the
bass. The classic Moog
bass sound, for example,
often blends two or three
oscillators set to a
sawtooth waveshape,
each marginally out-of-
tune with one another. The
‘soft beating’ effect
created by the tuning
brings power and warmth
to the bass sound.

24 September 2009 MusicTech MAGAZINE www.musictechmag.co.uk


Studio Technology
Synthesis

BUYER’S GUIDE –
TECHNIQUE Waveshape lowdown BASS LINE SYNTHS
Arturia MiniMoog V, £171
Understanding why the right waveform is the most important ingredient 2Twenty2 0845 299 4222
The original MiniMoog is a
classic synth for bass lines,
Each of the four key waveform types – sawtooth, triangle, of ‘frequency space’ in the mix – which is fine if you want it to used on countless records in
the early 80s. The MiniMoog’s
square and pulse – brings its own flavour to any sound you’re be dominant, but less beneficial if you want it to take a more charm was down to the
trying to create. While an inexperienced synthesist will often supportive role. powerful sound it produced,
turn to the most alluring waveform – the rich and buzzy Like a sawtooth wave, a square wave has a healthy having three oscillators and a
24dB filter. Use a snappy
sawtooth – it’s interesting to note the uses for the other collection of harmonics, but with a distinct hollow sound to it. envelope setting, a good dose
waveform types and how these impact on the bass sounds you In the context of a bass line, it provides a powerful, almost of filter modulation and a
can create with them. ‘angular’ sound and can also be interesting when used as a touch of resonance for a
sequencer-driven bass line.
Given its relative purity, the triangle wave is great for deep richer, more powerful sub-oscillator to a sawtooth bass sound.
Now reaching its second
bass lines that sit at the bottom end of a mix; alternatively, you The pulse wave, (which is closely related to the square wave) revision, Arturia’s MiniMoog V
can use it as a sub-oscillator on an existing bass sound made tends to sound increasingly nasal as you decrease the pulse is faithful to the original Moog,
from any one of the other waveshapes. As a general rule, width. While this isn’t so useful when it comes to creating as well as bringing new
features that extend what you
however, the deeper you go the better it is to use a purer powerful bass sounds, the pulse wave is a sensible choice if can achieve with this synth.
waveform, as its upper harmonics won’t interfere with the you want the bass to stay in the low-mids, possibly leaving
other low-mid information existing in the track. By room for a deep kick drum to sit beneath it, for example, or for Native Instruments
Massive, £171
comparison, a sawtooth wave tends to eat up large amounts use on busy sequencer-driven bass lines. 2Twenty2 0845 299 4222
Given some of its more
aggressive digital traits and a
powerful unison mode, NI’s
Massive is a great source of
aggressive, contemporary
bass sounds that can fill out
the bottom end of a track.
Based on a variation of
wavetable synthesis (like the
original PPG Wave), Massive
produces some unique sounds
that bridge the worlds of
analogue and digital.

Rob Papen
Waveforms define SubBoomBass, £89
the principal Time+Space 01837 55200
If you’re a serious fan of bass,
qualities of your Rob Papen’s SubBoomBass is
sound, so it’s well worth closer examination
given its unique slant towards
important that you
the subsonic end of the mix.
make a considered Based on the same sound
selection rather engine as Predator,
SubBoomBass has a two-
than just randomly oscillator subtractive
combining architecture, although the
waveshapes. second oscillator can draw on
tuned percussion samples to
add bite and percussive
interest to its output.

STEP-BY-STEP Synthesizing your first bass sound with Reason 4’s Thor

OSCILLATOR SETUP CHARACTER BUILDING ENVELOPE MODULATION


1 Working from an initialised Thor patch, set up
three analogue oscillators – two set to a sawtooth
2 With all three oscillators routed to an instance of
Low Pass Ladder Filter, start experimenting with
3 Now add some envelope modulation (ENV) to the
filter, keeping the amount relatively subtle (51, in
waveshape and the third set to a square waveshape. Now the cutoff frequency (FREQ) and resonance (RES) to bring a this case). Configure an accompanying envelope setting
turn your attention to tuning the three oscillators: finely darker timbre to the bass. Add just enough resonance to with a fast attack and a quick decay and release. Use a
detune the two sawtooths and place the square wave an introduce some extra character, but not so much that it faster envelope and more modulation to create a filter click
octave below them. becomes too dominant. at the note’s start.

www.musictechmag.co.uk MusicTech MAGAZINE September 2009 25


Studio Technology
Synthesis

Pads slow-moving envelope (slow attack and release settings


combined with a healthy amount of sustain) and a
touch of vibrato on one oscillator applied from an LFO.

How to create sumptuous textural pad sounds To increase the pad’s relative warmth and width,
it’s often beneficial to add a touch of stereo chorus as
well as plenty of reverb so that it sits firmly behind

G
ood pad sounds form an instant other instrumentation in the track. Indeed, it’s
‘musical filler’ for your tracks, bringing interesting to note that many of the classic string pad
width, front-to-back depth and a sense sounds from the 70s and 80s made extensive use of
of harmonic structure to your music. devices like Roland’s Dimension D chorus unit and the
Arguably, the most well-used synth pad sound is Electro-Harmonix Small Stone phaser pedal.
created from a combination of two or three oscillators
set to sawtooth, slightly detuned (usually by no more Although the sawtooth pad forms a
good starting point, there are plenty
than 4–6 cents either way – just enough to add some
warmth) and heavily filtered using a low-pass filter.
This characteristically dark sound is completed with a
of other approaches you can take.
Although the sawtooth pad forms a good starting
point, there are plenty of other approaches you can
take. One is to use pulse width modulation (PWM),
whereby the width of a pulse wave is modulated by an
LFO. This was originally used on one-oscillator synths
to replicate the ‘beating’ effect of two oscillators out-
of-tune with one another, but it also forms a useful,
slightly thinner variation on the sawtooth pad.
Another approach is to stack several pure
waveshapes (usually triangle and/or square) and try to
create an organ-like pad sound using the principles of
additive synthesis. Here, the coarse tuning of each
Additive synthesis techniques involve stacking two or more simple
oscillator is vital, as each effectively forms one of the
waveshapes tuned an octave or so apart.
harmonics from the harmonic series.

TECHNIQUE Layering sounds


Adding depth and interest to your pad with further layers
To create texture and interest in a pad it’s often beneficial to If you’re a little more adventurous, you can also explore
layer several different elements, but how do you do this to best the possibilities offered by layering the different qualities of
effect? The key to success here lies in creating distinction contrasting methods of synthesis, including granular synthesis
between the layers, as an arbitrary layering of elements only (this is another great way of adding texture) and FM or additive
ever creates a muddy and ill-defined sound. synthesis (for its ability to create harmonics that fall outside the
A quick and easy way of creating a sense of space and conventional harmonic series).
distinction between the layers is to use different filter types – a
low-pass filter combined with a resonant high-pass filter, for
example. If your synth supports multiple filters this might be
possible to achieve in the same patch. Otherwise, stack two
separate instances on two adjacent MIDI channels and change
each sound accordingly. Once you’ve established your two
filter types, it’s also important to create some subtle
differences in how these filters change over time. The low-pass
filter, for example, could be modulated by a gentle ADSR
envelope, while the high-pass filter is modulated by a slowly
undulating LFO.
Another good layering technique is to try to pick contrasting
sound elements, each fulfilling a different sonic objective. On a
S+S synthesizer (Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere, for example), it’s
often easy to contrast different elements – a warm pad
generated by a sawtooth oscillator combined with some
‘textural’ noise (like breathing or E-Bowed piano strings) added
in a sample-based layer. Again, this might be further enhanced
by selective filtering, perhaps using a low-pass filter on the
sawtooth pad element and a high-pass filter to accentuate the Combining different synthesis methods is a good way of creating layered sounds. In the case of Camel
top end of the samples. Audio’s Alchemy, this can all be done within the same patch.

26 September 2009 MusicTech MAGAZINE www.musictechmag.co.uk


Studio Technology
Synthesis

STEP-BY-STEP Layering pad sounds in Omnisphere

CHOOSING A SOUNDSOURCE FILTER PLAY IN EFFECT


1 In Layer A load a string-like Soundsource – in this
example we’ve selected the OB-8 PWM Big
2 In Layer B we’ve selected one of the more
abstract Soundsources – the Tesla Coil
3 Balance up the two layers with the mix control,
using Layer B as a subtle addition to Layer A. To
Strings from Omnisphere’s library. Be sure to apply plenty Synthesizer – to provide texture for the pad. We’ve also add yet further depth and interest, you might also want to
of low-pass filtering to make the sound much darker, as added a little granularity to the layer, as well as apply a apply some effects using the FX section. In this example
well as a gentle Amp envelope with a gradual attack and high-pass filter to emphasise the character-imparting we’ve applied a phaser, followed by an instance of the
slow release. noise elements in the Soundsource. Retroplex delay.

BUYER’S GUIDE
TECHNIQUE Modulation for movement PAD SYNTHS
Native Instruments
Using tempo-sync’ed LFOs and envelopes to make your sound groove FM8, £171
2Twenty2 0845 299 4222
Designed to replicate the cold,
Any sound that doesn’t change over time instantly becomes adding in a suggestion of movement. Also, try combining two digital sound of Yamaha’s
original FM-7, Native
‘sterile’ and uninteresting to the ear, which is why tools such sync’ed LFOs running at two different speeds (1/16th and 2 Instruments’ FM8 is a
as LFOs and envelope generators are so important when you’re bars, for example), with the slower LFO creating additional distinctly more versatile and
creating a pad sound. The key thing to remember is to think undulating movements. interesting beast. As with the
original, you can combine
about how the sound should evolve over time – this could be Going a stage further, some synthesizers – Native several sine wave operators
something as simple as a gradual change of volume combined Instruments’ Massive and Spectrasonics’ Atmosphere are just (FM-speak for oscillators) to
with a slight vibrato (applied by an envelope and LFO two examples – also feature tempo-sync’able rate-level create an additive pad, but
you can also create super-
respectively) or a more complex modulation that radically envelope generators.
warm pads by switching the
changes the pad in time with the track. Rather than simply defining a conventional ADSR curve, operators to sawtooth waves
Most synthesizers enable their LFO to be sync’ed to the these complex envelopes enable you to create a 16-step pulse and applying the built-in low-
host’s tempo, so you can set the rate in musical divisions effect (just like the tempo-sync’ed LFOs) but with the additional pass filtering to great effect.
(1/8th, for example) rather than in Hertz. Try using a 1/16th interest of a variable depth and curve for each step. Patched Arturia Prophet V, £171
sawtooth LFO, for example, routed to the amplifier and filter through to filter cutoff, for example, you can add an exciting 2Twenty2 0845 299 4222
cutoff to make the pad pulse in time with the track. level of animation to the sound; alternatively, you can apply the The original Prophet 5 was a
classic polysynth from the 80s
Of course, you can keep the effect fairly subtle by envelope to less conventional parameter destinations – the and a great source of warm
changing the relative depth of modulation, enabling you to density of ‘granularity’ applied to sample, for example, or the synth pads. As you’d expect,
preserve the ‘pad-like’ qualities of the original sound but amount of ring modulation. Arturia’s Prophet V is faithful
to the original, but also brings
further interest in the form of
a re-creation of Prophet’s
innovative vector synth, the
Prophet VS. The two synths
layered work wonders on pad
sounds, creating an analogue/
digital hybrid effect.

Spectrasonics
Omnisphere, £299
Time+Space 01837 55200
As the name suggests,
Complex envelope Omnisphere is a rich and
generators enable diverse software synthesizer
that includes a wealth of
you to add sample-based content as well
movement and as a powerful DSP engine. In
particular, Omnisphere excels
animation to your
at pad sounds, either using
pad sound, inspiring combinations of raw
especially when subtractive waveshapes and
its textural ‘psychoacoustic’
routed to less sample content or via its
typical destination unique granular synthesis
parameters. capabilities. A comprehensive
effects engine and flexible
modulation routing completes
the package.

www.musictechmag.co.uk MusicTech MAGAZINE September 2009 27


Studio Technology
Synthesis

Leads
Aggressive, mix-slicing lead synth sounds

M
ore than any other patch you create
with a synthesizer, a lead sound needs
to cut through the mix and demand
your attention. An interesting solution,
therefore, is to opt for a relatively simple sound –
almost akin to a pure waveshape – that attracts your
attention through brazen presence rather than any Think carefully about the use and control of pitch in a lead sound. Add
particularly deft use of modulation or complex vibrato with an LFO as well as small amounts of glide between notes.
layering. On a softer track, this is why a sine wave can
be highly effective, although if the track is busier, you amounts of this harmonic ‘grunge’ can push a sound to
might need to opt for something harmonically richer (a the front of a mix. Failing that, try the Unison solution,
square wave or a sawtooth wave, for example). You’ll whereby you stack multiple versions of the same
need to keep the filter open, with any enveloping set to oscillator, all slightly detuned.
act as a simple organ-like ‘gate’ – quick attack and Another approach is to try to make the sounds as
decay, maximum sustain and a quick release. expressive as possible – try to add the same levels of
If this waveshape still isn’t cutting through, try two expression that might be heard in a violin or vocal
additional techniques. One is to add even more performance. You’ll need to think about the use of
harmonic information, using techniques like distortion modulation, particularly in respect to pitch, which
(either within the synth itself or via a plug-in), ring tends to be a defining part of an instrument’s
modulation, FM and oscillator sync. Even small ‘expression’. Vibrato, applied via an LFO, is a good
starting point, although it’s worth controlling the
opt for a sound that attracts your depth using a mod wheel so that the vibrato can be
faded in over the duration of a note. You might also
attention through brazen presence consider applying soft portamento between notes to

rather than deft use of modulation.


replicate the natural slide between notes that occurs
with a ‘real’ instrument.

TECHNIQUE Synth effects


How to improve your sound with additional effects
In many ways, an effects section should be regarded as a vital exercising a degree of caution with the application of reverb,
part of any synthesizer’s sonic architecture – often they’re just although small reverbs can add a subtle sense of space
as important as more traditional modules like a filter or an LFO. without making the sound recede too greatly. Delays, on the
However, the specific effects you have access to can vary other hand, avoid the blurring quality of reverb, although it’s
tremendously between different synthesizers – some might worth reserving its use for a few key sounds rather than
provide little more than a splash of delay and chorus, while applying it to multiple synth lines.
others provide a comprehensive set of FX algorithms and
various patching options.
If you’re trying to create a powerful contemporary lead
sound, it’s well worth exploring options in relation to distortion.
Some of the more flexible software synths – like Native
Instruments’ Massive or Arturia’s Jupiter-8V – enable you to
embed distortion in the signal path of the synth, adding a little
‘analogue crunch’, for example, between the oscillators and
the filter, or some aggressive bit-crushing after a dark low-
pass filter setting. All of these possibilities add extra colour to
the synthesizer’s output as well as providing a more up-front
sound that helps push the patch to the front of the mix.
Chorus, flange and phasers are useful ‘fattening’ tools and
primarily tend to be used on pad sounds where this is of most
benefit. If your lead sound has plenty of high-frequency
energy, though, it might be worth exploring the addition of
phasing or flange as these can bring an additional sense of
movement and colour.
Reverb and delay add a spatial dimension to your patch,
sitting the sound in some form of acoustic space. If you want to Distortion is a great way of producing an aggressive lead sound. Some synths – like Arturia’s Jupiter-8V –
keep your lead sound at the front of the mix, it’s worthwhile even enable you to embed distortion in the signal path of the synthesizer.

28 September 2009 MusicTech MAGAZINE www.musictechmag.co.uk


Studio Technology
Synthesis

BUYER’S GUIDE
TECHNIQUE Extreme sounds HARDWARE SYNTHS
Roland SH-201, £519
Exploring the sonic limits of sound design Roland 01792 702701
The Roland SH-201 follows in
a long line of affordable
Pushed to the limit, any number of synthesizers can deliver synthesizers produced by
Roland, including the Juno
some exciting and extreme sonic textures that are impossible 106 and original SH-101 from
to achieve elsewhere. the 80s. As with all Roland
A self-resonating filter – where the resonance is pushed so classics, the architecture is
easy to understand. Under the
hard the filter begins to self-oscillate – is often a fundamental bonnet, the SH-201 is an
ingredient in many extreme sounds. By itself, the sine-like impressive beast, being much
qualities of self-oscillation aren’t particularly interesting, but closer to that powerhouse
80s synth, the Jupiter 8, than
add a fast-moving LFO – forcing the pitch to oscillate wildly –
the original SH-101.
and the results become far more distinctive. Ideally, the LFO
should be capable of being pushed high enough so that it Arturia Origin, £2,141
enters the audio spectrum range – that’s to say, the speed is 2Twenty2 0845 299 4222
More than just a hardware
as fast as 100–200 cycles per second rather than the 3–4 cycle synth with knobs on, Arturia’s
used for vibrato. If the speed of the LFO’s then modulated by Origin is the culmination of
another component (another LFO, for example, or an envelope ten years’ experience
developing some of the
generator) the results are even more complex and interesting most well-respected software
to the ear. synths. Origin’s architecture
This extreme ‘audio frequency’ modulation is carried is based on the ‘modular’
components of Arturia’s
through to two other key synthesis techniques – ring software synths – albeit a
modulation and FM (frequency modulation). Ring modulation Moog filter, for example, or an
principally involves modulating the amplitude of one oscillator ARP oscillator – which can be
patched together to create
with the output of another. The result is an output that contains your own sounds. Given the
harmonics based on the sum and difference of the two processing power involved,
oscillators. In short, this means that two separately pitched it’s no surprise that Origin has
two TigerSHARC processors.
oscillators will produce an output with a complex series
of overtones, which is a great way of creating bell-like sounds Waldorf Blofeld, £349
or abstract synth effects. Hand in Hand 01752 696633
Rather than modulating amplitude, FM synthesis varies the Having disappeared for a few
years, Waldorf is back with its
pitch of a destination oscillator (called the carrier) using latest take on the hardware
another oscillator running in the audio spectrum (called the synth – the Blofeld. Despite its
modulator). Again, the result is additional harmonics, with the small size, Blofeld has plenty
of muscle behind it and
precise qualities of the harmonics based on both the tuning sounds every bit as good as
relationship between the two oscillators and the relative the MicroWave XT, Pulse and
amplitude or strength of the ‘modulator’ oscillator. Although Q synthesizers produced by
Waldorf in the late 90s. If
you’ll need to turn to something like Native Instruments’ FM8 to you’re a fan of hard-hitting
fully explore the potential of FM synthesis, it’s still well worth Techniques such as FM synthesis enable you to create some
sounds, shifting metallic pads
injecting small doses of FM using the more rudimentary FM unusual bell-like harmonics that are a useful contrast to or chunky synth bass, Blofeld
traditional subtractive waveforms. is worth a closer look. Also
features found in software synthesizers like Reason’s Thor. look out for Largo, which
presents the same signature
sound in virtual form.

STEP-BY-STEP Creating an aggressive sync-sweep lead sound with the Prophet V

PITCH MATTERS CUTTING OFF SLAVE DRIVING


1 For the oscillator sync effect to be noticeable, we
first need to configure the pitch of oscillator A to
2 Leave cutoff at its highest setting and set the Env
Amt to 0 so that the filter envelope doesn’t affect
3 With the pitch sweep in place, activate the Sync
control on oscillator A. This ‘slaves’ its pitch to
be controlled by the filter envelope. You can achieve this in the filter. Next, adjust the envelope, setting a slow attack oscillator B, with the rise in pitch on oscillator A now
the Poly-Mod section by raising the Filter Env amount and and decay, no sustain and medium release. The pitch of creating an timbral sweeping effect as the waveform is
selecting Freq A as the destination. oscillator A should now sweep up and down. retriggered by oscillator B

www.musictechmag.co.uk MusicTech MAGAZINE September 2009 29