Admit it: You just dial up presets. If you like them, great. If not, you keep dialing.
There’s nothing wrong with that; you want to make music,
not become a synth programmer. But you don’t have to create presets from
scratch—you can instead modify presets that are close to what you want
so they become exactly what you want.
So let’s check out some simple tweaks. We’ll assume a
fairly standard synth architecture, but hopefully you’ll be able to
translate these concepts to your particular instrument.
Brighter or darker overall sound. Assuming a
lowpass filter is in play, turn up the filter envelope amount. This
leaves the attack and decay characteristics in place, but kicks the
overall filter response higher. Similarly, you can darken the sound by
turning down the envelope filter amount. An alternative is to vary the
filter envelope sustain level—increase for brighter, decrease for
darker. This will likely interact with the attack and decay
characteristics, which may add a useful variation to the sound in
addition to changing the tone.
Cool patch...too bad it’s not a bass. But it might
make a good bass if you transpose one or more oscillators down an
octave. This also builds on the previous tip, as you might want to
reduce the highs somewhat so the bass sits better in the low
Why be normal? Some tweaks can create entirely new
presets if you apply a sound “incorrectly.” Take a bass patch, and
transpose the oscillators up an octave or two (you might want to refer
to the filtering tip to increase the brightness a bit). I’ve stumbled on
some killer electric piano sounds by transposing electric bass sounds
up an octave or two.
Add “punch.” This requires setting the attack time
to minimum, and an amplitude envelope with a hold control (or a
rate/level type of envelope that lets you create a hold time). Set the
hold time to about 25-30 ms for a tasty “spike” that adds punch (Figure
1). Interestingly, the original Minimoogs had a brief, inherent envelope
hold time—I’ve often thought this was one reason why Minimoogs were
considered punchy (and after I pointed this out in a previous article,
Kurzweil added a punch parameter on some synths).
Subtract “punch.” Many sample-based instruments can
edit the sample start time. Because an instrument’s attack usually
determines the punch, moving the start time later will take out the
pluck of a string, the zing of a bowed sound (Figure 2), and the like.
But this can also add more punch with instruments having an attack time,
like wind instruments.
Sound is too “sharp” and “thin.” Turn down the
filter resonance control, which will also help the sound sit more in the
background. Conversely, adding a little resonance often brings a sound
more to the forefront.
A more “focused” sound. Quite a few presets detune
oscillators somewhat to add a chorusing-like effect. This can make a
cool, gossamer background sound but to make the sound more focused, set
the fine tuning controls for each oscillator to the same pitch (or at
least closer to the same pitch).
New-agey kinda “reverb.” Turn up the amplitude
envelope release control to add an evocative, reverb-like lengthening to
notes when you release your fingers from the keys. This can work really
well for pads. Note: you may also need to turn up the filter envelope
release control (Figure 3); otherwise the filter cutoff may go low
enough to make the note inaudible before the volume envelope fades out
Calling all electro fans. Make any preset sound
percussive by turning down the amplitude envelope sustain control,
setting attack and release time to minimum, and using the decay control
to create a percussive decay. If you keep your finger on the key, the
decay will cycle all the way through but if you just strike the key
briefly, the decay will last only as long as your finger is on the key.
For a consistent decay time regardless of how you hit the key, adjust
the release control for the same amount of decay as the decay control.
Travel back in time. This requires a bit more
effort, and but you can re-create the somewhat random charm of older
analog synthesizers. Route an LFO to one (or as many as you want) of the
oscillators in a preset, set the LFO for a very slow rate, and add a
very slight amount of modulation to change the pitch in an almost
subliminal way (Figure 4). A smoothed random LFO waveform is best for
this, but if there’s no random option, a triangle wave will work in a
pinch if it’s slow enough—or use two LFOs set for different rates, and
apply a very little bit of signal from each one.
Don’t forget the processors, especially distortion.
Onboard effects can twist a sound around with very little effort. I was
once asked which synth I used to get “that amazing funky Wurlitzer
sound”—it was a True Pianos acoustic piano, followed by EQ to take off
the highs, then topped off with distortion. Distortion on organs and
NI’s Massive (Figure 5) can also be a beautiful thing.
And don’t forget the modulation. Real-time
modulation controls, like footpedals and aftertouch, are a great way not
just to alter a preset but do so in real time. Many presets don’t
include these assignments because it’s not assumed you have a suitable
controller, but once you crack the code on matrix modulation. it‘s easy
to add real-time modulation to personalize a preset.
Fig. 1: To add punch, Cakewalk z3tz+2’s rate-level
envelope is adding a short “burst” (in this example, 30 ms) at a sound’s
Fig. 2: MOTU’s MachFive can edit sample start points, thus modifying an instrument’s attack.
Fig. 3: Arturia’s ARP2600V has an Attack/Release envelope
generator for the VCA and ADSR envelope for the filter. Increasing the
release time on both adds an ethereal, sustaining effect.
Fig. 4: An LFO in Cakewalk’s Rapture is modulating pitch
with a small amount of a variable, low-frequency waveform to add subtle
Fig. 5: To make NI’s Massive even a little more massive,
check out the effects section. I like adding distortion, then rolling
off some of the highs (as well as boosting the upper mids) with the EQ.