Synth Quickie: Strings


We’ve all heard realistic orchestral sounds… those are made with samplers and that’s no fun. How about designing string-like sounds with your bare hands?

In this video, I’ll show you how to get that string character out of your synth. Much easier than learning cello.

When you’re done watching the video, head on over to our forum and upload your patches for discussion.


Synth Strings. I’m gonna show you the different things we can do to a patch to make it more string-like. Now if you are looking for real accurate string sounds from a plugin, what you need as a sampler. If you want to be really, really, really real, sampler. They sound amazing, especially the ones they make nowadays. But this is more about getting that string character out of your synth, getting something close to it or even just incorporate it into a patch.

So we’re gonna go over all the different techniques that give us and patch a string-like character. So here we are, we’ve got a saw wave and that’s it. First things first, we need some voices so we can create a chord. Gonna go for that sort of orchestral string sound.

Now, right now, a waveform by itself, very static, unmoving but strings a bunch of violins and stuff like that playing at the same time, they all have a similar sound playing the same note, yet they’re not exactly the same. So they have this sort of smearing pulsating sound. We can get that with unison. We create four copies essentially of our saw wave then now they start to wave against each other.

However, we don’t want their phases to start at the same time. That gives us a very abrupt attack transient. And this is way too fast at the detuning. We need it to slow down. Much more string-like. And this is an orchestra so we want to spread out. Next, amp envelope. We’re gonna make two small changes here, they make a big difference.

First off, our sound is immediately starting. It’s just like very sudden it’s synth perfect, but we’re making a more realistic string sound and bowed strings tend to kind of ease in. So we’re gonna increase our attack. Same goes for the release. We don’t want an immediate let go. We want a tiny bit of a tail. All right, amp envelope.

Next filter, we’ve got a really bright, bright sound. Strings are bright but they’re not this bright. We want to take some of that sizzle off the top. That sounds nice. However, listen to notes in the lower range. They’re too bright, they’re starting to sound like a synth again. Not really strings anymore. So if we want a lower cutoff in the lower range, higher cutoff in the higher range, key tracking. Turn this up and now adjust this a little bit. Go back up to our mid range.

Key tracking is great when you know you have a patch that’s across a wide range and you wanted more of a consistent, even cutoff across that range. You just turn up your key tracking, adjust it until you get what you want. And you’re gonna have to adjust the cutoff as you go along too.

Okay next, our orchestra is gonna be in a hall, so let’s give us some reverb. All right, so this is a nice basic, very synthy analog kind of string. But this is legato held notes. What if you want short notes? Well, let’s take our sustain down and our decay. Great, wanna increase your volume when you do that. Good, now what if we want it to hold so we get this sort of a staccato attack but the notes hold.

Excellent, and if we want a pluck, bring that back down and then bring our attack down. That starts to sound pretty synthy. That’s better. It’s still pretty synthy but that gives you your pluck. Once we lose that sort of bowed character, we also start to kind of lose the string character. So put that back in, bring this back up. Okay, how can we make this a little bit more realistic?

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How can we make this a little bit more realistic? Well, the first thing we can do is start messing with our waveform a bit. So this is just a saw but I’m gonna switch over to oscillator two and we’re gonna to do a pulse wave. It’s a bit more of a stringy character but I wanna take it one step further. I wanna morph this waveform. We could do that with pulse width modulation, which essentially let me turn it off, this will go like this. It’ll morph it.

So again, we get that realistic changing of sound. We can do it automatically with an LFO. You can hear it there, it’s too obvious. Okay, that’s very stringy. It’s kinda more of a stringy character but it still sounds kind of artificial. That’s kind of one of the downsides of a pulse wave. So I like to mix the two together. I like a little bit more saw than pulse. Listen to our saw without the pulse. With the pulse. Also with our pulse on, we can bring our cutoff down a bit.

Also to add yet another bit of movement now that we have two waveforms, two oscillators, we can just detune them away from each other a little bit. All right, so we took a step closer by morphing, our waveform and mixing in a couple of different waveforms. But if I wanna take it even closer, what I’m gonna do is hop over to a wavetable synth, and we’re gonna use Serum.

You can really use any wavetable synth. Right now, this is set up just like our basic Primer saw classic analog string synth. Okay, before we get into wavetables, one realistic step you can take is a filter with a more shallow slope. So Primer had a 24 DB slope, which is pretty steep. That’s what we have set up here but if I make it a little more shallow, let’s go to 18. Adjust my cutoff.

It can be little bit more realistic ’cause in real life, these sort of sharp, steep filter slopes aren’t as common. So a bit more of a shallow thing kind of just helps give us a more realistic, bright shape.

Okay, now let’s talk about wavetables. So we’ve got our saw here. We wanna mix in a different waveform just like we did with Serum or with Primer. So I’m gonna copy oscillator A to B, I am going to pitch them away from each other, like we did with Primer but this one for this waveform, I wanna find a very stringy wavetable and if you have a synth that’s got an actual string wavetable, great. You’re gonna get really close to being a little bit more realistic sound.

This one for me, I was able to find one called bowed metal. Now by itself, this sounds like this. Definitely got the right vibe. I wanna find a more realistic spot though. And when you’re looking for this spot, you should do it with it mixed in because something by itself sounds a little different than it does when it’s mixed in. I like right about there. But more importantly just like with Primer, we wanna modulate this. So we’re gonna take our LFO, right on here.

Just a subtle modulation and slow modulation. All right, so this is a bit realer than that pulse width, ’cause this is actually probably taken, it’s a tiny little portion of an actual recording of some metal being bowed. So it’s an actual sort of bowed sound that we’re now sort of layering in. More realistic. So that’s our bowed sound. What about staccato? There’s some things that we can do to make staccato a little bit more realistic and that is, first, we wanna obviously shorten it.

If you can curve your decay stage up, a little bit too much. Turn your cutoff down a little bit more. Here we go. We got this staccato sound. Now when you attack a string, two things happen and an initial attack, it’s a tiny bit brighter than the rest of the sound, but also there’s almost this kind of like the bow rubbing against the string kind of creates this almost noise this SHH right at the beginning. So we’re gonna layer in some white noise, just as an attack though.

So right now, it’s… We want it to be shorter than the sound. Just the very, very beginning of the sound. So I’m gonna take this envelope we’re gonna make it really, really short. And we bring a little bit… And we’ll straighten the curve up a bit. And then we also wanna route this same envelope to our filter, just a really small amount. Compared to without. And there it is.

So again, if you need something that’s very, very real, go for a sampler. This is more about how do we bring a string character into our patch. So if you’re looking to do that, you can try any of these techniques and they’ll help get you there.