Despite what purists may say, soft synths rock! As the proud owner of way too many hardware keyboards (including an Oberheim OB-Xa; a Yamaha CS-80 and SY1; a Moog Prodigy, SubPhatty, and two Polymoogs; a Sequential Circuits Prophet V; a Roland Juno-60 and RS-09; a Korg VC-10, MS-10 and MS-20; an Octave Cat; three Fender Rhodes pianos and a PianoBass; and a Wurlitzer 200A, among many others), I still use virtual instruments on every project. They are great counterparts to and often replacements for the “real thing,” especially when you explore the five points below.
1. Ditch the Presets
Virtual-instrument presets are like Ikea furniture: They are almost what you need and they kind of fit. So instead of endlessly browsing for that miracle sound, try thinking of presets as a showcase of what your soft synth can do. Once you find one you like, turn off all of the built-in effects and get to the bottom of what made it right for you. Go for filter cutoff and resonance first. Once the basic sound is a better fit for your song, add the effects back in one by one. Or replace them by using high-quality, third-party reverb, delay, and modulation plug-ins.
2. Learn a Hardware Synth
If you’re having a hard time figuring out what does what on your favorite plug-in’s interface, buy, borrow, or rent a simple hardware synth—preferably an analog one with knobs such as the Arturia MiniBrute or equivalent. It will give you a visceral experience of each function so that you can learn how they feel. My first foray into hardware was with a Moog Prodigy. It taught me signal flow and about the subtle interactions between all the controls. Every synth since then has felt like a more extended and complicated version of that original instrument.
3. Map a Controller
Once you go back to software counterparts after using hardware, you may experience a certain disconnection from the instrument. That is the number one problem with software. Fortunately most modern MIDI controllers let you easily map knobs to whatever function you like. Use that feature to recapture some of the tactile feeling of the hardware synths, and escape the urge to revert to preset browsing. Start with parameters such as Cutoff, Resonance, Attack and Release and go from there to match your style of editing. Make sure you map the on/off button of the soft synth’s effects, too!
4. Keep Your Plug-in Folder Lean
Having 40 different plug-ins from 15 different companies can stifle your workflow. Find a plugin that speaks to you and dive deep into it. Own it. Make it do tricks. Then move on to the next one. You could start with simple, easy-to-use synths like FabFilter One or Tal U-No-LX, then move up in complexity to u-he Diva or AIR Vacuum Pro and finish off with KV331 Audio Synth-Master or Native Instruments Massive.
5. Add Some Air
When trying to mix soft synths with acoustic instruments, you might find that they don’t blend easily. One way to get around that problem is to play every problematic synth track through a speaker of some sort (e.g., guitar amps or control room speakers) and record the result, using a quality microphone, back into your arrangement. You may discover that the added “air” will help you blend the synthetic sound with other miked sounds more easily. Playing with mic distance will give you additional levels of variation over the original in-the-box sound, as well.
Producer Fab Dupont works out of Flux Studios (New York City), where he produces and mixes records for David Crosby, The Dø, J.Lo, and others. He also founded puremix.net, where you can learn from the pros how to make better sounding music. Find out more at fabulousfab.com.