Option anxiety. It’s a struggle that we synthesists must toil with ’til the end of our days. Overwhelmed are we by these magnificent creatures and their many knobs, buttons, sliders and switches, vying for our attention all at once.
So how do we prevent ourselves from spiraling down the dark tunnel of trial and error madness? Well, for starters, instead of asking ourselves
“Which control should I tweak next?”
we should be asking ourselves
“What type of sound am I trying to make?”
“Which controls should I tweak to get that sound?”
Enter the Synth Patch Checklist. 12 sonic attributes that will guide you through the murky water of sound-to-patch translation.
1. Waveform: Saw or Something Else
The waveform is the raw clay out of which we mold our sound. So, which waveform should you use?
- Saw. The saw is our all-purpose workhorse. A “traditional” synth sound that’ll work in most situations. When in doubt, saw’s your man. Don’t particularly care, saw’s your guy. But if you want something different…
- Something Else. Your other options will vary widely depending on your synth. At the very least you’ll probably have pulse, triangle and sine. But nowadays you’ll most likely have a lot of other options. So go ahead and dial through the choices until you find one that piques your interest. If you’re still not sure, the next few items on the checklist will help you decide.
2. Edgy or Round AKA Bright or Dark
- Waveform. Some are bright and edgy, some are dark and round. For example, the saw and pulse waves are bright and edgy, while the triangle and sine are darker and rounder. One thing to keep in mind though: the bright waveforms give the rest of your synth more to work with. You may be lovin’ that sine wave, but a lot of the other synth’s parameters won’t have much effect on it. And you may find you love the tone of a bright waveform, but wish it was rounder. Which brings us to…
- Low Pass Filter. If you’ve chosen a bright waveform full of mids and highs, then you’ll be able to use the low pass filter’s cutoff knob to shape it. Turn it down to make it darker and rounder, turn it up to make it brighter and edgier.
3. Thick or Thin
- Waveform. If you’ve chosen a pulse wave as your sound, it’s pulse width control will determine how thick or thin it sounds. Square will give you the fullest sound, but as you begin to turn the pulse width away from square it will get thinner. If you have more waveforms to choose from in your synth besides the standard saw/pulse/triangle/sine, begin dialing through them listening to the different thicknesses they each have until you find the one that gives you the girth you’re looking for.
- Filter Resonance. This one’s tricky because it’s effect on your sound’s thickness depends on your low pass filter’s cutoff. Increasing the resonance with higher cutoff values will have a narrowing and thinning effect on your sound. Vice versa if your cutoff is low, then resonance will peak your lows or low-mids and beef up your sound a bit.
- Detuning Oscillators. Taking two or more identical oscillators (same waveforms and pitch) and slightly detuning them away from each other is a classic tried-and-true way of adding some thickness to your sound. But keep in mind, it will also add a pulsating effect. This usually sounds nice but it may be a side effect that you didn’t intend to create. Also, the more oscillators you use, the bigger and thicker (and swirlier) the result.
4. Clean or Dirty
- Distortion. The most common way to add some grit to your sound is with distortion. This is usually achieved with a distortion, overdrive or amp simulator effect. But your synth also may have the option of allowing you to overdrive your filter. This can sometimes produce nicer results since the distortion is being applied before all of the modulation stuff, thus resulting in a more consistent drive. Whichever way you choose, remember that a little goes a long way. Sometimes just a touch can give you some subtle edge that takes your patch from squeaky clean to slightly mischievous.
- Noise. Different from distortion, use noise to overlay some TV-static wash on your sound.
- Oscillator Modulation. Hard sync, ring modulation, and FM can all be programmed to create some nasty tones. Sync will give you a “grinding” tone, while ring mod and FM can create edgy metallic tones. These can be tricky to program, but can yield some nice aggressive results.
- Waveform. If you’re using a synth with copious waveforms, go through the list to see if there are any waveforms that are dirty all by themselves.
5. Hard or Soft
- Attack. One of the big influences on your sound’s aggressiveness is it’s attack, i.e. what happens at the very beginning of each note. The envelopes will determine this behavior. For softer attacks you’ll want to use longer attack stages on your amp and/or filter envelope. This will ease your sound in, giving it a softer touch. For harder attacks you can set your envelope attacks to zero, lower the sustain, and then set a short decay. This will create a “spike” at the beginning of your sound known as an Attack Transient. You can do this with either or both the amp and filter envelopes. You can also try doing this with a pitch envelope for a seriously aggressive attack transient.
- Edgy or Dark. Bright and edgy sounds tend to feel more aggressive, while darker and rounder ones take on a softer touch. Refer back to #2 for more on this.
- Heavy Detuning. As we mentioned back in #3, duplicating and detuning your oscillators is a great way to thicken your sound. Taking it a step further, if you detune the oscillators so far away from each other that they begin to sound borderline out of tune, you can create a sound so angry it’ll need a therapist.
- Oscillator Modulation. FM and Ring Mod are great for creating metallic tones. Depending on how much you use, that metal texture can give your sound a hard edge.
6. Tall or Short
- Stacking Oscillators. By taking a second oscillator with the same waveform and tuning it up an octave or two, you can give your sound some height. This allows it to take up more vertical space in your mix so be careful that it doesn’t butt heads with another sound. Also, this will have a brightening effect on your sound as well. And if you’re feeling saucy, you can experiment with using a different waveform for the higher oscillator.
7. Heavy or Light
- Sub Oscillator. By adding an additional oscillator one or two octaves below the first, you can add some serious weight to your sound. Square creates a nice solid and aggressive low end, while triangle will give you a rounder bottom end. Keep in mind, sometimes you may want to keep this sub oscillator’s volume low to just add a touch of weight, if you feel like your sound is a bit too light. So don’t feel like the sub oscillator’s volume needs to be the same as your primary oscillator.
- High and Band Pass Filter. If you want to make your sound lighter, it’s as simple as removing some lows. The more lows removed, the lighter the sound. For this we can use a high pass or band pass filter. The main difference is, the high pass cuts ONLY lows, while the band pass cuts lows AND highs. So if you need your sound to be light and round, go with band pass. If you want a bright sizzly sound, go with high pass.
8. Long or Short
- Amp Envelope. While holding a key, how long should the patch sound for? Should it stay at full volume, gradually fade out, or quickly fade out to create a short staccato note? And when you release the key should it instantly cut off, do a short fade, or do a long fade?
Now if you want your sound to remain static and unchanging, then you don’t need to worry about movement. However, no sounds in the real world behave this way. Every sound changes, whether it be obvious or subtle. So for many listeners, an unchanging sound can be kind of unnerving. To add some movement…
- Detuning Oscillators. As mentioned before, duplicating and detuning oscillators adds a pulsating movement to your sound. It also thickens it, so if you just want movement with out extra thickness…
- Filter Envelope. On most instruments, brightness changes over the length of a note. For example when you hold a piano key down, the sound gets subtly darker the longer you hold it. Or when you pluck a string the attack is very bright, but then gets darker as the sound continues to ring. So adding some cutoff movement can add a very “natural” form of movement.
- LFO. This is great for creating repeating movement. Depending on your synth you can use LFOs for a myriad of common movement effects. Modulate the pitch to get vibrato. Modulate the volume to get tremolo. If you’re using a pulse waveform, modulate it’s pulse width. Lots of options here.
- Modulation Effects. This is probably the easiest way to add movement. Take a chorus, phaser or flanger, slap it on, and tweak to taste.
- Delay Effect. Running your patch through a delay in a noticeable way will create audible echoes that bounce around your sound. But be careful. When the delays are this noticeable they can easily butt heads with other instruments, so choose your delay time and feedback wisely.
- Reverb. Do you want a dry sound, or do you want your patch to sound like it’s in a room? Use reverb to put it in a studio, a club, a concert hall, etc. But don’t overdo it. Reverb can take up a lot of space in the mix. One of my favorite things to do is put just a bit of small room reverb on my sound. Synths can sound very dry compared to other in-the-room instruments, and this adds that little bit of life and space to really make it pop.
- Delay. I mentioned delay before as a movement-adder. Turn the mix down so that the echoes are less noticeable and it can create an impression of space, instead of movement. One popular trick known as a Slapback delay, is bringing the delay’s feedback down far enough so that you only get one echo, and then bringing the mix down so that you can hear that echo, but not overwhelmingly so. Like a small reverb, this can add that bit of space and life and make your sound come alive.
- Width. Space isn’t just about the “room” it’s in. It’s also about the width of your sound in the stereo field. Unison effects often have a “width” option that you can use to spread your sound out. Also, stereo chorus and stereo phaser effects fill up the left and right speakers as well. This one is easy to abuse as these big full widths can often be addictive, so be judicious.
11. Predictable or Random
By default, a synth is very predictable. It’s a machine that is designed to do exactly what we program it to do. But what if we want to add some randomness into the equation? How can we inject a human element that makes it less artificial?
- Velocity. Route the velocity to the volume, filter cutoff, or filter envelope amount and every key you press will be a little different then the one before and after it. This is by far the best way to interject the human touch into your patch.
- S&H. Your LFO will most likely have an S&H (Sample & Hold) option, which creates a random modulation. That being said, because it’s changing at a steady rhythmic interval, it can still feel predictable. If your synth offers a “smooth” S&H, use that to create a less rigid sounding randomness. And you can take it even further by using a second LFO to modulate the random LFO’s rate.
- Drift. Many analog synths of days passed had the habit of going slightly out of tune from time to time. Then digital came along and fixed that. But for some, the loss of that subtle pitch randomness took some of the synth’s soul with it. So nowadays many synths offer a “Drift” or “Analog Drift” option. Use this to influence just how out of tune your synth will go.
- Hand Modulation. Depending on your synth or MIDI keyboard, there are all sorts of ways you can get your hands involved for in-the-moment changes in your sound. Mod wheel, pitch wheel, ribbon controller, XY Pad, you name it. When you “play” your patch design, you once again inject humanity into the robot.
12. The Cherry On Top
When you LOVE your patch, it’s done. If you LIKE it, it needs something more. This is where subtlety and detail come into play, and can often be the trickiest part.
- Subtle Programming. Duplicate and detune your oscillator, but set the second oscillator to a very low volume to add just a little bit of movement. If your resonance is at zero, turn it up just a bit and your sound may become a little less flat and a little more pronounced. Add some envelope modulation but make the change in volume or brightness very slight so that you can “sense” it, but not easily hear it.
- Subtle Effects. A touch of compression or limiting can tighten up your sound and glue it together. A bit of EQ cut or boost in the right spots can remove some unwanted frump or add a little spark or oomph. Mixing in a small amount of reverb and delay can put a bit of space around your sound and make it come to life. Bringing in a little distortion/overdrive/saturation can put just a bit of stank on your sound if it’s too nice. Some light chorusing/phasing/flanging can add a barely perceptible movement that can be felt but not heard.
At the end of the day, you don’t necessarily need to check each and every one of these attributes off the list whenever you make a patch. But if you ever feel uninspired, or can’t figure out what your patch is missing, go down the list, think about each attribute within the context of your patch, and hopefully at least one of them will point you in the right direction and give your creative process the jumpstart it needs.