Synth Soloing Portamento Master Class

May 3, 2013

In the last two columns, we’ve explored the difference between single (legato) envelope triggering and multiple triggering, and the performance possibilities offered by each. In some synths, you can also vary between legato and non-legato keyboard playing technique to control portamento. This is a smooth sliding between pitches that you’ll often hear in classic analog synth performances (Keith Emerson’s “Lucky Man” solo is a great example), and is also called glide. As covered in our December 2012 column, some older synths only offer single triggering. In synths such as a Minimoog or Korg MS-20, portamento happened all the time if turned on. Most modern hardware and software synths offer more choices for control over this classic effect, based on your playing technique.

Concepts and Setup


Fig. 1. Arturia Mini V adds a legato switch for the glide (portamento), just to the left of the keys.

Fig. 2. Native Instruments Massive has controls on two pages. The basic portamento settings are circled here.

Fig. 3. The voicing page in Massive has the all-important trigger parameters.

Fig. 4. Spectrasonics Omnisphere offers independent glide for each layer, with a legato triggering option.

Fig. 5. Each envelope in Applied Acoustics Ultra Analog has its own legato triggering switch, separate from the main portamento controls.

Call up a basic lead synth sound on your instrument, and be sure that the filter’s sustain level is set high so that the sound remains bright when holding a long note. Then start playing phrases with portamento off. This parameter may be on the front panel of your synth, it may be on the pitch page, or on a common/global parameter page. Figures 1 through 5 show where you can find the setting—and related triggering parameters—on a variety of popular soft synths.(Click the thumbnails for larger images.)

Get used to how the sound behaves when you play both connected and non-connected notes. If your sound is currently set to mono or mono legato, you may hear the filter envelopes being re-triggered based on your touch; you should turn this off for now so we can concentrate on the portamento effect.

Now turn on portamento and set it to a low value, so you can still play clear lines, but with just a little bit of connecting “swoop” between the notes. If your synth shows time values, try setting portamento between three and nine tenths of a second. For this exercise, be sure that any parameter in the portamento/glide group called “legato” or “fingered” is also turned off. Not all synths offer dedicated controls like this for portamento, so if yours doesn’t, don’t worry for now.


Fig. 6. The Play Mode pane in Rob Papen Predator offers legato plus constant rate and constant time options for how the portamento behaves.

Notice how the glide adds nicely to your playing but can start to overpower the sound as you try to play trickier lines. One parameter that’s available on more advanced synths, and that can have a beneficial effect on this, is a choice between constant rate or constant time, as on Rob Papen’s Predator (see Figure 6). With constant time, the glide between notes always takes the same amount of time, regardless of whether the next note is a whole step away or two octaves. So long jumps between notes will be less intrusive, since they sound like they’re happening faster. 

Constant rate, on the other hand, means it will always take the same amount of time to travel a unit of measurement, e.g., three tenths of a second to travel a whole-step. So the longer your jump, the longer the glide time will be; the previous setting would take 1.8 seconds to glide up an octave.

Constant time works nicely for expressive soloing that isn’t meant to show off portamento dramatically, and is also good when playing polyphonically, so you can have chords that glide between all their notes, but always arrive at the destination pitches at the same time. Using it, I find I can bump up the time a little bit more without it bothering me as much. Constant rate is good when you want to show off the gliding more, and can do some dramatic low-to-high or high-to-low note sweeps. But when I use it for the type of soloing we’re working on, I have to dial down the time. If your synth has this parameter, try both ways and get familiar with it.

Add Your Touch

Now we can start to explore how your touch can affect things. Turn on legato for the portamento or glide parameter. Korg and Yamaha call this “Fingered” on many of their keyboards (Korg Kronos, Krome, and M50; Yamaha Motif series, MO, MOX, and MX). Kurzweil (PC series, K2500, and K2600) achieves the same effect only when “Attack Portamento” is off. On synths that don’t have a dedicated legato/fingered parameter for Portamento, change the trigger mode to mono/legato—ES2 in Logic is an example. But if you can disable legato triggering of the Filter Envelope, do it.

Now, play a lot of shorter, non-connected notes. Then, try clearly connecting a few to hear and feel how it changes things. Turn the portamento legato parameter on and off to compare the behaviors. Then go back and change the glide time and (if your synth allows) try both constant rate and constant time to see how much more controllable things can be. 

Finally, try the sustained trills from last month’s column, only with added portamento. They work best with fairly low glide times, especially the two-handed exercises. Overall, I find that this mode of playing gives the illusion of some subtle pitch-bending with one hand, freeing your other hand up to play other keyboards or zones, and to operate other controllers. Or to take a drink—go ahead, you’ve earned it!

Keep up-to-date on the latest news
Get our Free Newsletter Here!
Show Comments

These are my comments.

Reader Poll

What best describes your dream job?

See results without voting »