Ten Steps To Becoming A Synth Dynamo


Through the development of Syntorial I’ve formed some pretty strong opinions when it comes to synthesis. So I figured I’d share them with the world in the form of a Top Ten List. I organized them into a Top Ten List because I once read that people like Top Ten Lists. So, assuming you’re not a dog or a woodland elf, I expect you’ll find the following tips to be helpful in your never ending quest to tame the powerful and beastly monster that is Synthesius Electricus. Here we go.

1. Pick ONE Synth To Start

Yes, that’s right, ONE. “But Joe, there are SO many amazing synths out there, loaded with so much crap that I have absolutely no previous knowledge of but somehow know that I need!”

If you really want to master synthesis and sound design, you have to narrow your scope and focus on one synth. Get to know it inside and out. Having an incredibly strong foundation in one synth, makes it SO much easier to learn another, because with that in-depth understanding of a single synth comes a strong understanding of synthesis in general. Whether or not you end up sticking with this particular axe for the long haul, isn’t as important. We’re considering this first synth to be a vehicle for learning synthesis, so choose ONE.

2. Pick The Right Synth

So now the question is, WHICH synth do you choose? Which lucky lady/gentleman will you be taking to the prom?

Well, first off, make sure it’s subtractive. Now I’m not going to bore you with a scientific definition of subtractive. Partly because I don’t want to, but mostly because the scientific definition of subtractive will help you pick out a synth about as much as a soup ladle will help you win a thumb war. Just know that most synths are subtractive, and will contain your classic bread-and-butter waveforms like Saw, Pulse, Triangle, maybe Sine, and possibly a few others. If in doubt, consult the synth’s website, manual, developer, manufacturer, grandmother, next door neighbor, local butcher, or OBGYN. Examples of synth types that are NOT subtractive are FM, granular, physical modeling and wavetable. Stay away from them (for now). You’re probably not old enough to date them anyway.

Secondly, keep it simple. Synth manufacturers/developers like to dazzle you with feature lists. Well they can shove their feature lists. The following is a list of synths I recommend. There are SO MANY great synths out there. But these are synths that provide a nice range of core synth parameters, without piling on too much.

“Ok Joe, enough charm. Give us some specific synths.” Fine. Here’s a brief recommendation of “First Synths” to choose from.

3. Get To Know Your Synth

Okay, so you’ve finally committed to a monogamous relationship. Now how do you get to know him/her/it?

First, go through each preset one by one, playing them and saving the ones you like in a separate folder. Do this until you have about 50 of your favorite presets with a variety of leads, basses, pads, and whatever other categories your synth offers.

Next, open up two instances of your synth, and initialize the second one, so that it’s just a plain saw wave sound. Then, one by one, open up each of your 50 presets on the first synth and re-create them manually on the second, by visually matching the controls, and consulting the manual when necessary. While doing this, play the second synth every time you tweak a control. This way you’ll hear how each step gets you closer to the preset sound.

You’d be amazed at how much you’ll learn about your synth doing this. You’ll get to know every nook and cranny, but more importantly, you’ll start to discover which aspects of your synth manipulate sound in a way that you like. Because after all, these are patches you picked out according to your own personal tastes.

4. Put Presets In Their Place

So now you know each other pretty well. You like sci-fi, origami, and romcoms and your new lover likes exploding eardrums, shooting sonic laser beams, and melting minds. You’re a match made in heaven. So now it’s time to start blasting through these amazing sounding presets and slapping them all over your tracks, right?!

Wrong. Presets are a double-edged sword of William Wallace proportion. On one end, they can sound pretty fantastic. And who needs to know a thing about programming synths when Richard Devine already poured blood, sweat, tears, coffee, earwax, mental health, and knuckle juice into a beautiful set of crafted presets for your pleasure?

Well for starters the reason they sound so great is because they often have a lot going on. They may be lathered in effects, or have several sources modulating several destinations creating a cornucopia of movement and activity. They are, after all, designed to showcase the synth, whereas useable patches tend to be simpler, allowing for more space around them for the other instruments in the track.

Second, the odds of finding the patch that happens to sound exactly like the one you’re hearing in your head is fairly slim. And if you do find something close, you’re going to have to tweak it, which requires programming skills, which is what you were trying to avoid in the first place when you decided to comb through a billion presets.

That being said, are presets the anti-Christ? No. Like I said, they often sound fantastic, so they can serve as a great starting point for a track. This way you’re not trying to wedge it into an already-built track, but instead building your masterpiece around it.

And even if you do already have the track, if you’re lacking inspiration and are musically and mentally constipated, a cool preset can be the laxative that your ear canals are craving (too much with the poop analogy?). Just be prepared to tweak it to fit.

5. Learn How To Program

So nice-guy-Joe said some nice things about presets. “They’re not the devil!” said Joe. But, much like fast food, sugar, and high fives, they should be used in moderation. What you should really be doing is programming this mother from scratch with your bare hands. Like clay. Or mashed potatoes. Yeah, mashed potatoes.

This subject deserves an article unto itself. There are a plethora of options including articles, Youtube videos, DVDs, books, websites, training software, friends, courses, teachers and good ole trial and error.

Now, of course, I personally recommend Syntorial. And that’s not just because by buying it you’d be helping me fill my Scrooge McDuck vault. I also truly believe it’s the most effective way to learn synthesis. But for the sake of this article, I’m not going to try and convince you. If you’re interested try the demo. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

Alternatively, before I made Syntorial, I personally found the following process helpful:

Step 1: Learn the technical basics. There are countless ways to do this. Many books, videos and articles cover the most common parameters. While this won’t turn you into a sound designer, it will give you an intellectual basis that will at least help you understand how a synth works. My personal favorite by far is Synthesizer Programming by Peter Gorges (not the book by the same name written by Helen Casabona and David Frederick). Two other contenders are Power Tools For Synthesizer Programmingand How To Make A Noise: Analog Synthesis. Forums like Gearslutz and KVRAudio are also really good sources for getting recommendations. Whichever you choose, read ONE of them. Not two. Not three. ONE.

Step 2: OK, you’ve got the technical stuff taken care of so now it’s time to start programming patches. Unfortunately, despite acquiring all of this knowledge, you’ll probably still find yourself staring at your synth, mindlessly twiddling like a baby playing with an iPad. This is because so far, you’ve only trained your mind, not your ear.

What you need is some guided programming. And that’s where patch re-creation comes in. Get Steal This Sound. It’s a collection of how-to-make-this-famous-patch step-by-step articles from the past 10 years of Keyboard Magazine. Listen to each patch first and then follow along and try to re-create it on your synth. Do as many as you can because this practice will start to connect what each control does, to its particular sound. In reality when we program patches we usually have an idea of what we want it to sound like, rattling around in our head, but we don’t know how to translate it into knob tweaks. Re-creating patches replicates that process, thus building a bridge between ear and synth, making it stronger with each patch.

Step 3: Step it up a notch. Open up two instances of your synth, initialize the second. Then bring up each of your favorite presets on the first synth, and re-create them on the second synth, but this time without looking at the first synth. Now you’re re-creating them strictly by ear, with no visual help. And, if you want to step it up even further (psycho), try re-creating patches from some of your favorite recordings.

Whichever way you choose to learn, the important thing is to TRAIN YOUR EAR!!!! A million books and videos won’t do you any good if you don’t start building a bridge between what you hear, and your synth.

6. Start Making Your Own Patches

OK, number 5 was really long. Yes, I like the sound of my own voice. Or rather, the look of my text.

Anyway, you are a unique snowflake. So start acting like one. Start building your own patches from the ground up. Rules and principles start to really fly out the window here, but there is one central guiding principal that, on the occasion that I manage to muster the courage to follow it, I succeed in making my favorite patches, and it is this:

Program the patches that you want to program.

Pretty mind-blowing isn’t it? You may want to turn around and look down because I think I just blew your head right of your shoulders. And your socks? Forgot about your socks. I knocked those puppies off.

Seriously though, we all start to get ideas in our head about what our patches SHOULD sound like, what producer-styles are IN at the moment, what kinds of patches FIT a particular genre, etc. etc. yadda yadda. But in the end none of that really matters. Do your own thing. Cuz’ nothing great ever came from an imitator. Plenty of ok, mediocre and bleh came from imitators. If you really want to make your synth dance, you’re gonna need to connect with it on a deep and personal level. Why do you think I had you re-create your FAVORITE presets, the ones that stood out for no other reason than you LIKED them? Bam, I just Miaggi’d you. Thanks for painting my fence.

But seriously, seriously, let go of all your BS mental filters and just starting twisting and turning until you find sounds you love. If it’s typical so be it. If it’s so weird it’s bordering on unlistenable, then that’s the way it is. No matter how a patch turns out, your success as a programmer should only be measured by one thing: do you love what you made?

7. Record, Then Program

Now this one isn’t always possible, but when it is, do it. Record (or click into the piano roll) the part that the synth is going to play. Then loop it, and play it back while you program. Now you can just sit back and relax while you program the synth. You don’t have to constantly play with one hand while you program with the other. This may sound like a little inconsequential detail, but when you remove one task from your brain’s queue, it frees it up to dedicate more focus on the other. This little difference can allow for a more open and relaxed process.

Now if you don’t know the part yet, obviously you can’t record it. But as you begin playing and programming, if at any point you find yourself playing the same or similar thing over and over, record it. Even if it may not be the actual part you’re going to use, it’s worth it to take the burden of playing away so you can dedicate your mental superpowers to programming.

8. Human vs. Robot

Nowadays there are quite a few ways to play a synth. Sequencers, arpeggiators, mouse-clicking in the piano roll, and weird little midi plugins. Oh, and there are these other things you may or may not have heard of called Fingers. They’ve been around for quite a while and can be used for all sorts of things like assembling Legos, painting on cave walls, and expressing road rage. But more importantly, you can use them to play synths.

Now, I grew up taking classical piano lessons, so I can really rip through a keyboard. I’m not bragging, I’m just giving you the cold hard facts. Because of this, I tend to play pretty much everything, and I rarely use anything but my fingers. But that doesn’t mean you need to take years of piano lessons. After all, most playable synth parts tend to be fairly simple. The key is in recognizing when you should play it with your hands, and when you should let your Commodore 64 do it.

So what are the key differences? Well a computer can do some crazy complex and fast stuff that most hands simply can’t do. Think of a really fast arpeggiator. Or, you may be putting together a huge pad with a multi-octave range of held notes, which is most likely out of your hands stretchability. This is a good job for a mouse and a piano roll.

But, when a part is playable, the hands can get it done MUCH faster. It can be very tedious to mouse click-click-clickity-clack your way through a part as opposed to just hitting record and tickling the ivories. Plus, you can hear the part as you play it, as opposed to clicking it in, playing it back, editing, playing back, etc and it’s a much more fluid and creatively enjoyable process.

Lastly, if you need a human feel for the part, it’s really only achievable with your fingers. Yes, many DAWs have a “humanize” feature that can take a computer-precise part, and give it a human looseness. But it just can’t compete with a real human impression from a part actually played by human hands. All of the little fluctuations in rhythm and velocity (assuming you have your velocity routed to something like volume or cutoff) can add some serious heart to the very electronic and sometimes cold sound of a synth. And, conversely, if you need the part to have the super-precise rhythm that only a computer can give, you can just quantize it after you record.

Either way, I recommend acquiring basic playing skills to make your creative process more efficient and enjoyable. I’m not saying you should go out and take 10 years of piano lessons from the old lady down the street. Just get some basic technique and make yourself PLAY the more basic parts that you come up with.

9. Feed Me More Synths!!

Fast forward. You’re in the future. And you’re one bad mamma-jamma when it comes to programming a subtractive synth. But your palette runneth dry. You’ve exhausted and explored the sounds that subtractive synthesis has to offer. What’s next?

Well there’s plenty of other types of synthesis, like wavetable, frequency modulation, granular, spectral or physical modeling. And it’s time to pick one.

I recommend wavetable as your next synth. Why? Because it’s more or less an extension of subtractive. Subtractive on steroids. If you can program a subtractive synth, you can program a wavetable synth. Essentially, the main difference is that instead of only having your bread-and-butter waveforms to choose from (Saw, Pulse, Triangle, Sine and maybe one or two others) you now have many many more to choose form. For example Xfer Records Serum has 144 wavetables, each with a series of waveforms within them that you can morph between. And you can mutate each waveform into something different, essentially increasing your sound options even further. Once you pick the waveform, the rest of the synth has pretty much the same type of controls as subtractive. So you’ll be able to easily expand your current skills into a wider range of tones.

Of course if you feel like trying a different type of synthesis, then go for it. In fact, try downloading one demo of each synth, dial through the presets, get familiar with the particular types of sound they make, and then go with the one you like. Keep in mind though, that some of your subtractive skills won’t translate and there may be some significantly different controls and parameters.

Now, there are a couple reasons that you might go for another subtractive synth. Perhaps the one you’re currently using is pretty simple. In this case, you could move on to a much more complex and feature-heavy subtractive synth. Just keep in mind that you may not be able to achieve significantly different sounding patches, but it will give you an opportunity to plunge deeper into subtractive synthesis, refining and creating more subtle differences in your sounds.

Also, you may come across a synth that really speaks to you. Sometimes I’ll try a new synth and for no particular reason at all, I LOVE it. Oftentimes, I’m never quite sure why. I just listen to that visceral response and go with it.

So, to put it in simpler terms, you should have a good reason for buying your next synth. One particularly bad reason that is worth mentioning, is purchasing synths for the sake of acquiring more presets. Now, if you’re content to strictly use presets, and never really want to learn how to program, then by all means, be my guest. But be warned that buying synths for their presets is a path that will lead you down the slippery slope of Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Before long you’re going to have a boat-load of synths, none of which you know how to program. You’ll be the skier on the bunny slopes with the most expensive equipment. A tourist posing as a local. And you’ll spend most of your creative process browsing through endless menus of presets. Which is BORING.

So buy to expand your palette, or for the love of the synth.

10. Don’t Use Skill For The Sake Of Skill

So you’ve toiled, and struggled, and prematurely aged yourself into a sound designing mega beast. With an acquired skill though, often comes a misguided feeling that your obligated to use it. You might find that you feel the need to program the holy hell out of every patch you make.

Don’t. Remember, it’s all about the song. And if the song wants something simple, you best be giving it something simple. It doesn’t care how good you are at programming synths. And it doesn’t care how much time and money you’ve spent getting there. It only cares that you make and choose the right sounds. Whether they be simple or complex. So let the music decide what is required of you, and accept the fact that occasionally, from time to time, you’ll make patches that the former less-skilled-you could have made.

And that’s it. Fine. Kaput. Dunnzo. 10 tips. Helpful? I hope so. Got any tips of your own to share, or questions that need answering? Send me a message. Until then..