While I was researching George Whitty for last month’s column, I came across a number of performance clips from the last few years and was intrigued by many of his lead synth sounds. Look up his band, Third Rail, on YouTube and you’ll see (or hear) what I’m talking about. I reached out to George and he was kind enough to share his sound design approach. (And make sure to check out the interview and demo clips coming soon to keyboardmag.com)!
THE BASIC CONCEPT
The type of sound I was drawn to is something that George first discovered when he started using the Nord Lead 3. A dual oscillator synth, the Nord Lead 3 has a unique and innovative design that allows each oscillator to do synthesis techniques that usually require more oscillators, such as sync, and FM. So, George was able to make a basic sync lead synth sound with one oscillator, and then used the second to add in a highly velocity-sensitive FM element, which varies pitch and timbre greatly according to his touch. As he describes it: “It’s like the machine is giving me ideas; playing the same phrase but with different velocities almost gives you a different line, that is sort of harmonizing with itself. I find that aspect of it to be weirdly rewarding, like the machine is collaborating with me.”
EXPLORING THIS CONCEPT
If you have a Nord Lead you’re already there, but what about the rest of us? There are many ways to recreate this concept. If you have an instrument or soft synth that does FM you can easily explore this idea. The Korg Kronos has the MOD-7 engine that does FM (and much more), while Yamaha's Montage does deep FM; soft synths like Native Instruments FM8, or Arturia’s DX7 are other obvious choices. You can use most of the operators to create your basic lead synth sound, and just reserve at least two operators to create the velocity-sensitive “weird” aspect. Create a basic two operator configuration, with one modulator feeding into one carrier, and then route velocity to control the carrier’s frequency to vary the pitch, the modulator’s frequency and perhaps its output level to vary the timbre. Make sure the output of the carrier is also velocity-sensitive so that this element is not as apparent when you play lightly.
Your basic synth sound does not need to come from FM technology. In the Korg Kronos I can make the FM component using the Mod-7, and then in a Combination, layer it with any other lead synth I want. If you are using soft synths, you need to do the layering using a host program; be it your DAW, or a program like Apple Mainstage, Deskew Gig Performer or Plogue Bidule. Let’s explore that a little bit.
SOME TIPS AND TRICKS
I’m a Mac user, so I am familiar with MainStage, and Logic. I know how to layer two tracks hosting the synths and effects I want to use, but it got harder to fine-tune the velocity control over the FM element while playing. A feature first introduced in MainStage 3 and Logic Pro X was the answer: MIDI FX, which can be inserted onto a track channel, can be used to create real-time control over a synth’s parameters, regardless of whether you know how to do it from within the given synth’s architecture. Few effects plugins offer the ability to route velocity to a given parameter. You don’t want to use a “MIDI CC Learn” function, because it will always travel the full range of the parameter based on your touch, and to make this musical we want to limit and shape the response.
Look at Fig. 1, where I show a somewhat complex setup using the Retro Synth available in Mainstage (or Logic), as well as a Ring Modulator effect to add some more color and weirdness. On the right of the image you’ll see a track, and the cursor is hovering by the MIDI FX area. I have assigned a type of MIDI FX called a Modifier, which allows me to choose a modulation source (velocity in this case) and then route it to any other controller, or parameter of a plugin on that track. I’ve actually created four of these. If you place your cursor just below the MIDI FX slot you’ll get a green line, and you can keep adding more of these in the same way that you can keep adding audio FX or other elements in the track strip. Look at the four Modifier boxes along the bottom of the screen to see I’ve routed Velocity to various parameters of the synth and the effect. The beauty of the Modifier is how it allows you to shape the response of the modulator to the destination. The Scale slider controls the range of the modulation. The Add slider lets me define where the modulation starts in the range of the destination parameter. So a negative number lets me keep the velocity from starting to affect the destination, until it increases enough to cross the threshold. In this example I used it to keep the Ring Modulator effect from coming in right away (the Wet/Dry Mix) and to keep it from sweeping the frequency of the effect until I got into harder touch.
I also had great success recreating this concept using Spectrasonics' Omnisphere synth. It allows you to layer two elements (Layers A and B), does FM, and can easily modulate parameters by right clicking on them. There you’ll get a window that lets you shape the response as I discussed earlier (see Fig. 2). No doubt there are other potential tools to work with!
I hope you enjoy the online audio clips: George has a lot of great ideas about making musical sounds to play with. My thanks to Peter Schwartz and John Lehmkuhl (PlugInGuru) for their guidance in exploring the software tools we used.