The Art of Synth Soloing - Great Licks To Play with Filter Sweeps

October 4, 2012

WHEN WE LAST GOT TOGETHER, WE WERE EXPLORING FILTER SWEEPS using single and mixed/dual filter configurations. We’d been just holding low notes to get used to the sound of each filter type, and how they sound when different types are combined. Holding a low note and sweeping a filter makes a powerful statement, since the note provides plenty of harmonics to be heard as you sweep the cutoff. But there are other playing techniques to use when you want to draw attention to your filter sweeps. Let’s dig in.


Repeat After Me

One of my favorite dramatic moves is to play a repeated phrase and then make other sonic gestures. The ear can easily “hear past” the notes when they’re repeated and can focus on the timbral change. Th is also causes tension in your solo (when will he stop?), and your bandmates can join you in the rhythm or in the actual notes of the phrase you play, or complement it. Then you all can release the tension at a new bar or downbeat and continue on. It’s a classic technique that can be heard across all genres of music and generations of players.

To feature your filter sweeps using this technique, you don’t want your phrase to be too difficult, as you also need to be able to concentrate on sweeping the cutoff frequency via the controller of your choice. So doing this while pitch-bending, for example, is more difficult and best done when you can use a pedal to sweep the cutoff .

Examples 1a through 1c are a few simple riff s to get you started. Notice that they don’t line up regularly to each bar: It takes three bars to complete what sounds like a “full cycle.” Th is keeps things interesting and not so basic as to be boring. Observant players will notice that this is based on an Em pentatonic scale and all I’m doing is moving the figure up to the next scale tones, repeating the same riff shape.

Start off just playing the notes slowly and work up the tempo as you get comfortable. Then start incorporating some filter cutoff sweeps, trying slow sweeps at first, then make more rhythmic and even jagged moves. Get comfortable with the independence needed to move the filter cutoff controller freely without losing your rhythmic momentum.

Swept arpeggios are another cool approach, and I like to create smaller groups from an arpeggio to create my repeated phrase. In Ex. 2a you see a straight Em7 arpeggio, followed in Ex. 2b by a fragment I’ve isolated from the note choices to simplify the range while not sounding so obvious. It’s a bit of a stretch for small hands, but practice slowly and think of it as a good warm-up exercise. Two tips for the price of one!

Ex. 3 on page 42 is a golden oldie: the rapidly repeated single note. Played slowly it’s not too hard, but getting it up to fast tempos and sixteenth-notes (or beyond) is harder than it might seem. The first fingering is for “us mere mortals” and is a common technique for repeated notes. Work on this first so you can get a good feel for it and then add in your filter sweeps. The fingerings that follow reflect the classic jazz organ “machine-gun” or “stuttering” method. Look for videos of Brian Auger doing this if you ever want a humbling experience.

Just Breathe

Filter sweeps don’t have to be only special effects, they can be integrated into your phrases as a more natural and expressive way of shaping a melodic line. If you imagine that you’re playing a wind instrument and are increasing the amount of breath you push through your horn, that’s akin to opening the filter. As you relax your breath, you close the filter. Be sure to play legato (connected) notes and let go at the end of your phrase so you can take a breath before starting the next phrase. Listening to a musician who’s talented on the Akai EWI wind controller will give you a good sense of how to shape lines like this. I recommend Bob Mintzer, Tom Scott, Steve Tavaglione, and of course, the late, great Michael Brecker. Keyboardists have also used breath controllers to great effect here—search out videos and watch David Sancious among others.

Filters Plus Effects

 Fig. 1. Vocal Transformer in Apple Logic Pro
 Fig. 1.
Last column I left off promising to explore other effects that could be used alongside filter sweeps. Setting a fl anger to a very slow speed and then modulating the depth parameter with the same controller you’re using for filter cutoff is a cool one. Set the fl anger so it’s dry when that controller is in its normal position, and then as you open up the filter more, you introduce the flanging. Th is also sounds cool with a phaser effect.

This next idea can be done with a pitch-shift effect, or another oscillator in your synth itself. Set your pitch-shifter to an interval of your choice, and set the controller that’s also sweeping the filter cutoff to increasing the pitch-shifter’s depth from dry to a positive value. When you sweep your filter, you’ll also introduce another note or harmony to your line. Th is can be fourths (below works nicely: –5 semitones), fifths (again, below sounds great: –7 semitones), or an
 Fig. 2. The Talking Modulator in Korg's MDE-X effects software suite.
 Fig. 2.
octave up (+12 semitones), or an octave plus a fifth up (+19 semitones).

Also in the realm of pitch, vocal effects like Logic’s Vocal Transformer (Figure 1) or the Talking Modulator from Korg’s MDE-X suite (Figure 2) do formant shifting. Set up an effect so it is not being modulated by any LFO, and then sweep the formant parameter with the filter cutoff controller. It adds some really unique character to your sound. Listen online for demos of all these ideas.

Happy tweaking. See you next month!

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