5 Things I've Learned About Programming Synths for the Stage

Music and career tips from a pro

As keyboardists, we deal with a wide range of issues and are asked to cover just about everything! I love the variety in my career and the range of technologies I use, whether they’re obsessively analog or clinically virtual. Here are five things I’ve learned about programming synths for the stage.

1. H is for HELP

Look under a synth’s hood for help with things like velocity, aftertouch, expression, ribbons, etc. Take the typical vibrato LFO off the mod wheel and assign it to aftertouch. That frees up the mod wheel for something else like a second layer’s volume. Cutoff knobs are fun, but you are probably not as precise as you think, so assign the specific range of cutoff change you need to a controller (expression, mod, ribbon) or macro. Use an expression pedal to free up a hand, assigning it to patch volume, shortening the release, bringing in an LFO, etc. Workstations and softsynths excel at these routings, but even modern analog [products] like those by Dave Smith and Moog have deep mod matrices assignable to a number of controls. And if you’re running playback, get your DAW (or a MIDI line from the playback rig) to send program changes to you at the top of a song. Those extra eight seconds of focus in-between songs (instead of panic) will come in handy!

2.Know Thy Presets

When I get a new board or plug-in, I progressively hijack or ditch factory presets and make my own bread-and-butter sounds. It’s a process that happens over time, but it’s worth it. Title them in ways you can identify with at a glance, like a band reference you know (i.e., Zapp Bass), or a direct description (like Squiggle Pitz). Get into the guts of some factory presets you like and figure out how they work. Dig into the PCM menu of that workstation’s voice and try another source wave, mess with LFO amounts, levels, envelope settings, etc. Stop scrolling through presets and hoping some stranger presciently knew your band situation. This way you’re slowly imprinting some of your own uniqueness on the board. In the heat of a session or rehearsal, this prep pays dividends.

3. Dress to Impress

Dressing a synth with effects can totally change its vibe. Dry analogs can go from comical to cosmic with a nice reverb. Workstations with mediocre built-in effects can reach new heights with an outboard effects pedal. Chorus, delay, and reverb tend to soften harsh synth edges and get slapped on, so apply with intent. Audible compression artifacts and EQ can be as much a part of your sound as a filter sweep. Squash stabs with a compressor after a tail-y reverb for less invasive sustain. Use light compression to contain your piano comping, or go hard and get the classic limited piano sound. If you’re using a softsynth rig or routing through a DAW, this is easy to implement.

4. Quit Hogging!

Triple-stacked, mega-wide super-saws are a guilty pleasure, but they can take up ALL the frequency space. Saw waves are brash and bright, as are cymbals and distorted guitars, so stop competing with them. Try a different wave, like a narrower pulse or a funky wavetable. Alternatively, carve out room with an EQ. Many synths have multiband EQs or highpass filters onboard.

5. Make It Work

Once in Nigeria on the day of a show, I had asked for a Korg M3 and what showed up instead was a totally wiped Korg M1. My Prophet ’08 disappeared for a week in Europe, so I had to cover with a Nord Lead. If you depend on a specific preset on a specific board, you may be left helpless without it. Know the core of what makes up your patches, and the general character of the sounds you need to cover, so you can make it work on something else in a pinch. The audience doesn’t care about your OS problems, or that your SyEx save didn’t dump—they just need you to make things work!