by David Baron
SYNTHESIZERS ARE AWESOME ON THEIR OWN. THEY GROWL AND HISS AND
make all kinds of captivating sounds. They can also show up in unexpected places, and
I don’t mean cocktail parties or dentist’s offices. They can appear in mixes under electric
basses, thicken strings, or make an ordinary snare drum sound unique and unforgettable.
Synthesizers can add sonic surprise to otherwise mundane tracks. Here are a few ways
to use them in your own aural explorations.
1. Bass Guitar + Synth = Bassaggeddon
I like fat analog synths to play sub-frequencies under
electric bass guitar. It makes the real bass sound
monstrous. The first step is to double the electric
bass accurately. My typical technique is to play
along with the recorded bass part (on the bottom
in the screen shot) into a MIDI track, staying in loop
mode until I nail it. Once I have a decent “MIDI mirror”
of the bass audio track (second track from bottom),
I edit to make sure all the transients line up, to
avoid flams between the two parts. Sneak the synth
under the real bass, and if you like, run it through an
amp simulator to make it blend, re-recording everything
as audio (top track).
2. Space Bachelor Pad
3. You Call That a Snare Drum?
Here, I take a Celesta (bottom track) and double the chords using
two synths playing mono patches that are similar but not exact (top
two tracks). Adjust the volume envelope of your synth patches to
match the acoustic track’s decay and release times. I route modulation
to the filter or amplifier section of my synth to create a shimmery
feel. The result retains some acoustic properties while shifting
the instrument into a more panoramic soundscape.
In ancient times, before nearly every recording of a snare drum got augmented with samples, engineers would key white noise (from a synth or a test-tone generator in the mixing console) off of snare drum hits to get a more interesting sound. They’d simply run the noise source through a gate with the snare drum track as the sidechain input, and voilà: Instant ’70s disco!
Here, I do a modified version of that where I convert the snare track to MIDI using Massey DRM drum replacement software. The MIDI is used to trigger a synth that is set to a noise patch with a volume envelope that’s similar to the envelope of the snare drum. It’s important that you get the decay and release set in a way that blends with the snare properly. Set it too short and you’ll get a funny noise; set it too long and you might have the beginnings of a fake handclap track. I often bandpass-filter the noise so that I don’t get excessive “woosh” or messy rumble. A fixed filter can be especially effective in getting the noise to sound drum-like. At times, I also use a subtle phase shifter to help tune the noise, as well as to add a bit of movement through slight modulation of the delay time. If the snare doesn’t feel percussive enough, I sometimes add a second synth that just plays a very quick, attack-y thud. I usually create that using a very resonant filter that’s modulated strongly by a quick envelope generator.
In the accompanying audio example, you'll hear two bars of snare drum alone, then the white noise patch, then the thud patch, and then the composite sound.
David Baron composes jingles and TV themes, and
has appeared on records by Lenny Kravitz and Michael
Jackson. He makes his own records using vintage analog
gear and plays keyboards in the band Media. Visit him at