Tracking Analog Synths That Have No Presets or MIDI

May 15, 2013
Now that real analog synths are back with a vengeance, producers have to contend with—gasp—no programmability. Many of the best analog beasties shipping today—like the Arturia MiniBrute, Doepfer Dark Energy, and Tom Oberheim’s SEM reissue—feature tons of knobs but no memory for presets. The same goes for vintage monosynths like the Minimoog, Sequential Circuits Pro-One, and many others. What’s more, unlike their modern counterparts, most of these don’t have MIDI, so when you hit upon an inspiring synth riff, driving it from a MIDI track in your DAW as you twiddle the knobs isn’t an option.

Hence, our goal: To morph and record the sound of a synth riff in a way that suits the overall track, without changing presets, and without driving parameter changes via MIDI or DAW automation. A little advance planning and a better understanding of how dance music is arranged will go a long way toward getting great results from your analog synth. Having your twists and turns captured on a simple audio track also allows for clever audio editing tricks down the line.

Step 1

Once you’ve got the right synth riff happening, contemplate how the sound itself should evolve, and determine the “smallest” and “biggest” sonic extremes for the part. For example, the “small” sound might be a plucked sound with a short decay, low cutoff frequency, and a bit of percussive envelope on the filter. Now, note the settings for that part.

Step 2

From there, figure out how you want the sound to evolve into something different. One technique is to transform it into a bigger, nastier sound with open filters, longer releases, and a bit of distortion. So tinker with your synth parameters in a way that allows you to retrace your steps back to the smaller part.

Step 3

You want to build gradually from your “small” to your “big” extremes. Dance music generally works in eight-measure chunks. So as you record, start with eight measures of your initial sound, then use the next eight measures to slowly build it to another plateau, then let that run for eight measures, then build it a bit more, and so on, until you reach your peak “big” settings. This way, you’ll have neat little sections of several types of sounds that can be sliced, diced, looped, and reordered in a way that makes real musical sense. 

Step 4

If you’re playing the riff manually as you would on a MIDI-less analog synth (well, unless you had an analog sequencer or MIDI-to-CV setup, but that’s a whole other column) you can take breaks between each eight-measure record pass to move your synth’s knobs by a little bit each time. If you are able to let the the synth riff loop via MIDI, then by all means do so, let an audio track run in record mode, and “play” the knobs with the eight-measure phrase in mind. That’s a more right-brained process that also allows for happy accidents.

No Presets? No Problem!

Here are four desktop analog synths we fell in love with even though they don’t store presets. Click each image for our full review.
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