Many musicians eschew factory presets, preferring to create their own at the beginning of a project. After all, if you know what you’re doing, you can usually create the exact sound you need to embellish a track or to use as inspiration for a new composition.
But skilled synth programmers know that it doesn’t make sense to reconfigure basic elements, such as envelopes and oscillators, each time they start. After all, if you’re creating similar types of patches—leads, pads, percussive sounds, hard-sync sweeps, etc.—having a batch of template presets readily available allows you to focus your energy on the more important aspects of a new sound. (If you’ve encountered a bank of Init patches in a synth, this concept is similar, but you’ll have choices that you’ve created to fit your personal style.)
Here are some tips for creating a library of your own preset templates.
You might be surprised to discover that, from a cognitive standpoint, the brain instantly starts determining the instrument type from the sound’s envelope alone. Daniel Levitin covers this topic in his book This Is Your Brain on Music.
Try it for yourself: Take a single sine wave, apply a percussive envelope with an instant attack and very fast decay, then play the upper notes on your keyboard. Voila! You’ve created a basic xylophone. Now, increase the decay and release to around three seconds and play in the same range. The result will evoke a bell. Next, increase the sustain level to maximum and give it a slower attack and release, around 100 ms each. The result will have a woodwind-like quality (Figure 1). Remember, all of these sounds are based on a sine wave. That’s how powerful the envelope is.
You can easily start your collection of patch templates using common envelope shapes, such as those for percussive and plucked instruments, an organ, a wind instrument, a pad, and so on.
OSCILLATORS There are several common oscillator configurations that can serve as preset starting points, perhaps even in conjunction with the envelope templates. As you might imagine, this can get tricky with advanced tools such FM and wavetable synthesis. But for creating classic analog and subtractive synth patches, it is very handy to have presets using the following oscillator setups:
1. Dual sawtooth waves, detuned five cents in either direction. This is useful for building pads and lead instruments.
2. Single square or sawtooth wave with a sub-oscillator (often a sine wave) an octave lower. You’ll always have the basic ingredients of a solid bass patch with this one.
3. Pulse-width modulation on a pair of oscillators, detuned slightly. Optimize their LFO rates and you will have another source for creating your own pads and leads.
4. Square or triangle wave with noise generator mixed in. This combo makes a great starting point for building woodwinds and techno leads, depending on the mix and filter settings.
5. Hard sync, with modulating envelope pre-assigned to the pitch of the slave oscillator. Setting this up from scratch can be time consuming, so having a handy template of it lets you focus on the tuning and envelope contour.
Because filters dramatically shape the final sound, it’s best to keep them in a relatively standard state (see Figure 2). Leave the cutoff at 75%, resonance at 0, and keyboard tracking at 100%. You may also want to set up a generic percussive filter envelope, with its amount at zero, for modulation use later. (Many Init presets already include this configuration.) And don’t forget to include a touch of velocity modulation.