by Morgan Page
“Fight for You,” the lead single of my new album, is a great example of how you can stack keyboards to create a rich sound. Using only one synth is fine, but you can achieve a thicker and rounder sound by combining different timbres, stacking complementary parts, making slight detunings, and using compression sidechains. Getting your sounds to combine and talk to each other in new ways will take your music to new sonic territory — and inspire new songs.
A year ago, I fell in love with analog keyboards. I bought a Minimoog Voyager, then a Dave Smith Prophet ’08 and Mopho. With the exception of the Mopho, these synths aren’t exactly cheap, but they’ve changed everything. I got better at designing synth patches from scratch, I could create better sounds with less EQ and compression, and they just warmed the track up — no plug-ins needed. Soft synths have improved a lot since — Spectrasonics Omnisphere is an amazing instrument that gets very close to analog sound, but with more stability and easier patch design. With today’s soft synth choices, you can get remarkably close to analog warmth.
Let’s assume you have some drums programmed, some catchy chord progressions ready to roll, and a few favorite EQs and compressors. Here’s how we can get your keyboard sounds — whether sourced from analog gear, workstations, or soft synths — to work together and sit with the drums so you get a big, punchy sound.
Step 1. Start synthetic.
I always start my tracks with a synth that’s in perfect tune as a reference. If you start with live guitar or synth that’s a little bit off, everything will be based on that slightly out-of-tune sound. Instead, begin with perfectly-tuned sounds, then mess around with detuning to fatten things up and create a wider stereo image. You may want to start your songs with an entirely digital keyboard — I often use my Yamaha Motif ES6 for the initial chord progressions, then dig into the analog keyboards since their tuning (even on the newer incarnations) can vary depending on the room temperature and the time the unit has been powered up.
Step 2. Stack ’em and spread ’em.
Lay down your parts: chords, bass, and arpeggio. Detune your synths a little, maybe up to 12 cents maximum. Spectrasonics Omnisphere (shown above) has a really intuitive way to visualize this process. Pan different octaves hard left and right (as shown - click the image to enlarge it and check out the pan knobs at bottom center), and make sure to check your mix in mono to see if anything cancels out anything else. Stack these parts to double the original digital versions. Pan your bass “up the middle” and spread the high parts to the sides. For the midrange, experiment with pans that are neither hard left/right nor dead center. Turn off the stock effects in a given patch to get a better picture of what is happening with the stereo image. Also, don’t over-stack — four or five layers is plenty.
Step 3. Carve.
Apply dramatic highpass and lowpass filters. Take everything 150Hz and below out of the chords so they’re not stepping on the bass part — this’ll let your bass breathe. On the bass, put a lowpass filter at 800Hz so the chords can breathe as well. Boost the frequencies you really like. There are no unbreakable rules, but use these as very basic starting points. Again, tweak the EQ points to avoid unwanted phase effects and frequencies canceling each other out — but don’t get too “logical” about the process, as frequencies will inevitably combine in surprising ways. I like to find the “edges” of the important frequencies, then pull back just a little so the EQ is a bit less dramatic. In other words, I start with a dramatic effect, then loosen it up to open up the sounds. If the EQ is too drastic, you’ll loose the musicality of the song, so widen the Q and make the curve more gradual if needed. Think in terms of notes, not raw frequency numbers.
Step 4. Crush.
Now that you’ve fine-tuned the EQ and the parts are meshing well with each other, it’s time to limit the dynamic range a bit so they gel with the track. Send the keyboards to an aux bus, insert a compressor (here I’m using the Digirack plug-in that comes with Pro Tools), and engage the key. Use the kick drum as a guide track. Set your sends to pre-fader so that if you adjust your tracks’ levels, the sidechain bus level stays consistent. Start with fast attack and release settings, maximum compression ratio, and adjust your threshold until the meter shows about 10dB of gain reduction.
Now, start making the release time slower until you get the effect you want — either a straight pumping or more of a “swing.” It depends on the “urgency” of the sound you want. You can also back off on the ratio for a subtler effect. You’ll want to avoid attack and release settings that are too fast, as this causes distortion. Often, a more “transparent” sidechained compression (say, only 3dB to 5dB of gain reduction) is more effective than a wild pumping sound. Different sidechain settings for each part work best: more dramatic for the bass line, less so for the chord progression, more swing for arpeggiated parts. Compressing each part individually gives you more control and lets you better understand the changes you’re making.
Step 5. Create space.
Add delays and reverbs, such as the SoundToys EchoBoy shown here. Use just a touch of long hall reverb for some distance, or a very short dual or ping-pong delay (32nd- or 64th-notes, lowpass filtered, with short feedback) for some depth and width while still keeping the sound tight. Filter out the low rumbling frequencies from any effects, and sidechain the reverb or delays the same way you did the keyboards to create “urgency.” Gating also works well, letting you control the tail of reverbs and delays for better rhythmic impact.
Step 6. Arrange, Mix, and Automate.
Adjust the levels of each part so they sit well and don’t overpower each other. Readjust the sidechain settings, possibly using lower ratios. Figure out which elements really need to shine. Who’s the “star player” in your songs? The bassline, the chord progression, the lead vocal? Don’t be afraid to roll off the highs on “supporting cast” sounds to tuck them into the background. Automate those lowpass and highpass filters to add animation and interest to the mix.
Step 7. Enhance.
Use a sonic maximizer, e.g. BBE D82 or Aphex Aural Exciter, or software such as the effect in iZotope Ozone. Use just a touch of these to “excite” the EQ or widen the stereo image a little. These will add some extra volume, for which you may have to compensate with your master stereo fader. Enhancers are like spices — a dash can add a lot of interest, but if overused, they can mess up your stereo image and sound harsh and fatiguing.
Hailing from Vermont and now based in L.A., Nettwerk recording artist Morgan Page is an acclaimed electronic dance music creator, remixer, and DJ. Visit him at myspace.com/morganpage.