Why EQ Matters
I’m choosing this one first because of how integral it is to sound design. If you have any knowledge of subtractive synthesis, you’ve got a pretty good starting point for why it’s the “bread and butter” of sound design.
Subtractive Synthesis relies on just that, subtracting frequencies from the oscillators to craft a certain tone, be a screaming lead or a warm bass. Most of the time, this is done with a filter type (Low Pass, High Pass, Band Pass, etc.) which is essentially applying an EQ adjustment to the oscillators. So why wouldn’t you be imparting a similar technique with EQ’s while sculpting your sound outside the internal synthesizer parameters?
A lot of people struggle with stacking sound sources on top of each other to create new and unique sounds, forgetting to impart an EQ at every stage of the design of the sound. EQ techniques can vary widely depending on the sound you are crafting, but just remember before you reach for the next element to add to your sound, fit an EQ in there and really ask yourself what the goal you have in mind is. A lot of FX can be ruined by letting certain frequencies pass into it, distortion is one we’ll talk about later but really needs EQ to be it’s strongest. Be conscious of what you are after rather than just wildly manipulating anything and everything to get a final sound. You’ll learn more from being specific in your goals than “flying by the seat of your pants” every time you go in to craft a new sound.
When we stay inside the digital/computer world, we can easily create clean and shiny tones out of any synthesizer available to use. What’s harder is making these sounds feel more “real”. A lot of people look at tape saturators to bring life to the cleanest of sounds, yet a lot of them leave you with really obvious “tape sounding” results.
Wow and flutter can only take you so far, and again leave you with something that is very obvious to the listener.
Instead of reaching for Kramer Tape or whatever tape emulator you’ve got, look out for plugins who’s sole purpose is to add just the subtle 2nd / 3rd harmonics to the tone you are creating. Here are some of my favorites to try out:
Fielding DSP’s Reviver – https://www.fieldingdsp.com/reviver – honestly, the best 30$ you can spend on your studio. Very nicely designed and sounds amazing, in fact I even use it throughout the mixing process! Can’t recommend this enough.
LVC-Audio’s PreAMPed – http://lvcaudio.com/plugins/preamped/ – Lots of great things in this plugin, from 13 pre-amp models to oversampling modes and even a stereo width control, this is my go-to plugin to make any sound I’m working on come alive.
Voxengo’s Warmifier – http://www.voxengo.com/product/warmifier/ – Very subtle, but perfect for keeping your tone crystal clear while adding that “certain something” that brings “warmth” to your sound!
Process Sound Sources Creatively
When dealing with virtual instruments, you might eventually hit a wall and find the synthesizer you once loved becoming a bit boring. Instead of buying a new one, whatever the ‘next big thing’ is that week, start thinking outside your computer.
Look at cheap guitar pedals, iPhone apps, crazy freeware, or anything that you see that looks interesting to you that can process a sound source is something to explore. A fun technique I’ve used to “dirty up” and add a “lo-fi” feel to a bunch of samples I made was a technique of passing the sound source out of my audio interface in to a old 4-Track tape recorder, capturing it to tape and recording it back to the computer using Audacity. http://audacity.sourceforge.net
For the more adventurous you can try a re-recording technique: Using a favorite microphone, play your synth out a single speaker and experiment with placing a mic in front of it and the distance from the speaker to the mic. The mic could then be run through any sort of signal processing you have. For example, a hardware compressor, FX processor (try a guitar pedal!), before it returns back to the computer to be re-recorded. The end result will be something characteristically different based on your choices of external processing, and you can experiment with layering it on top of the original – or just use the new recording by itself!
To start making characteristically different sounds from a well known synths, start thinking in layers. The beauty of working in MIDI with your Virtual Instruments is the ability to easy create unique and un-heard sounds by imparting multiple instruments stacked or layered together within your production.
If you think of synthesizers as having internal sound sources (oscillators) start thinking on a more ‘macro‘ scale that building a “super synth” with different plugins as your new internal sound sources!
For example, take 3 of your favorite synths and create tracks with each of them playing the same MIDI file. As you design in the first one, think about how the other two can add to the tone you are creating. Leave room (both in frequency and stereo placement) for the other two synths to fit nicely. Use a frequency analyzer to help spot out any places where the frequencies might be stacking too much and apply EQ to help “fit” them together better. Once done, route all 3 to a aux/bus and apply a favorite compressor to “glue” your stack together. Here on the aux/bus track will be the perfect place to add any finishing touches, such as reverb, delays, or choruses. Try to shy away from the internal effects in each of the 3 synthesizers to avoid phasing issues.
Logic Pro X users: Logic has a great way of handling this called Track Stacks, check out this video to learn more:
If you want full control over your distortion options in creating your best sounds, it’s by using aux sends (I discuss this further in the next tip!) Placing a distortion FX directly on your instrument, even if it has a dry/wet knob, is going to give you a very obvious distorted “guitar amp” tone. That’s great if that’s what you want, but if you are looking to just add a bit of colour to your synth it’s going to be too much.
I rarely ever will place distortion directly on the FX chain of my synths, you’ll find them sitting off on aux tracks with various EQ adjustments to get the distortion to hit just right on the frequencies that need it, and sound the best.
For example, I’ll use FabFilter’s Saturn run through a parametric EQ, low cutting out all the bass range up to 100hz, then removing 300-500hz, boosting slightly 1-2kHz, and hard cutting 5kHz and above as a starting point. I’ll follow the EQ with a 1176 Compressor with “all button mode” engaged (which smacks up all the nice distorted nuances) and EQ again to cut out any nasty moments that might now be present. You can then follow that with a harmonic saturator, or even a bit of reverb, and EQ again.
Collect the not so well known distortion FX’s you can for even more unique options, favorites include the D16 Decimort and Devastor, AOM’s Wave Shredder and BBE’s Free Fuzz.
FX Chains And Splits
One thing I see producers doing (or not doing!) is forgetting about the ways they can “split” the signal coming out of their synthesizer/sound source using the routing within their DAW. Some of the most complex sounds I’ve created haven’t been from a long FX chain on top of the synthesizer track.
By using the bus/aux routing of your DAW, you can start to build elaborate chains that can be ‘dialed in’ to the precise amount you want to ‘split’ out of your original sound you’re creating. By doing this, you can impart EQ at various stages of the aux FX chain, allowing only certain frequencies to be processed by the aux FX chain.
The other nice thing about creating these sends is you can have multiple instruments hitting the same chain to create a “tonal bed” for your instruments to sit on top of. This works great for giving pads dimension, and giving character to a lead motif that you can easily automate throughout the arrangement of your tune. By doing this you can build excitement by slowly automating all of the FX’s into the breakdown with ease for added impact.
Better Low End
The best sounding sub bass lines, are the simplest ones. I find that here is where people tend to over think and over complicate things. the best sub bass you can make is from a pure sine wave, alternatively an FM synth can also give you great results (for those using Logic, try the EFM1 this has been my secret sub weapon for years.) Layer this underneath your bass melody and use HP and LP shelves to fit the two together. If you want distortion or some added harmonics, keep them on the “top” of the bass melody. Leave your sub alone as much as possible as you don’t want to add artifacts that the sub woofer has to interpret poorly. If you aren’t happy with the sub tones you are getting out of your synth, don’t think a saturator or tape emulation is going to solve it. Look into purchasing a basic/cheaper analog synth (such as the Arturia MicroBrute) or if you are keeping it in-the-box, try U-he’s Diva.
Be careful about how low you are going, and shelf off anything under 30hz. Most producing in the “bass genres” won’t even go lower than 40hz because of the sub harmonic distortion that can be generated at such low frequencies. Be conscious of this while composing your tune, for example Break (Symmetry Recordings) keeps all his tunes in E F and G to stay above 40hz to keep the sub smacking the audience correctly.
Sub range is also extremely hard to control without proper monitoring. If you can’t use a sub woofer in your studio, you have to rely on your eyes and what you can “see” in your frequency analyzer. Alternatively, the new SubPac could be a wise investment for your studio! http://thesubpac.com
Sound Design To Prepare For Inspiration
While creativity can “spark” from tweaking a way during your studio time, this isn’t always the case. Dedicate days to sound design so you will be prepared for the next time inspiration strikes and be able to dive in without worrying about sound designing.
Some techniques I use involve spending a day with various drum machines (doesn’t have to be hardware! there are some great drum machines from D16, or even Twisted Tools new Polyplex) recording off one-shots and building folders of raw materials to work with. Instead of having to hunt for a perfect kick drum in the key of the tune you are writing, have these built and labeled on one of your sound design days.
Explore options outside your DAW as well. While Audacity might be everything you could want to sample with, try out some different software too! Some I enjoy are:
Hosting AU – http://www.ju-x.com/Freebies.html – With Hosting AU, you can build chains of Audio Unit plugins and record the results straight to audio files. I especially like this when it comes to Reaktor. While yes you can run Reaktor stand alone, you can’t run it through a 3rd party plugin FX chain without going back inside your DAW. Try running some crazy user built Ensembles through some GlitchMachines freebies ( http://www.glitchmachines.com/shop/ ) for some wild results.
PaulStretch – http://hypermammut.sourceforge.net/paulstretch/
– Mac Users : http://music.cornwarning.com/2011/12/07/new-paulstretch-os-x-build/ – While some might have seen this from the youtube videos of people slowing down popular music, there’s a lot of fun to be had manipulating audio within PaulStretch that has left me with piles of good recordings for future use!
AudioMulch – http://www.audiomulch.com – For the adventerous, try this! It’s a bit of a learning curve but the results are fun and unique to AudioMulch, and a lot less investment than Symbolic’s Kyma!
LFO’s & Modulations
If you’ve ever wondered what it is about repetitive synth lines you hear in your favorite tunes that make them feel less repetitive, it’s Low Frequency Oscillations or other modulation FX!
While LFO’s can be used for very obvious things, for example a wobble bass line, a lot of times they can be used subtlety to add life to static synth sound. Native Instrument’s Massive has a great set of LFO’s, that can even be turned into “steppers” or “performers”, that are easily drag-and-droppable onto any of the different sources within the synth. Try attaching one with VERY minimal movement to your Filters, or WT-Position, or to give a little ‘pumping action‘ to your sound by placing them on the Amp of each Oscillator with “just a taste” dialed up.
For Logic users, a trick I use time and time again for that little bit of “something” to liven up a boring synth is to use the Ringshifter in VERY tiny amounts (as pictured).
Thing to remember here is, you should only notice it when you bypass it. If you can tell it’s shifting the frequencies it’s going to be too obvious, dial the wet amount down even further! Any FX should add to the sound, not dominate it.
Other fun modulation FX’s you can try are:
Xfer’s Delta Modulator – http://xferrecords.com/freeware/ – Almost a bit crusher, set this off on a aux and use it sparingly for curious uses!
Valhalla DSP’s Freq Echo – https://valhalladsp.com/shop/delay/valhalla-freq-echo/ – This one can get crazy real quick! Again, place this off on an Aux and dial in small amounts to liven up your sound!
Stillwell’s Oligarc – http://www.stillwellaudio.com/plugins/oligarc/ – I really love this thing, create moving Noisa styled modulations on any synth line. It can either go straight on your FX chain, or creatively used on your aux send with EQ and other plugins for more creative control.
INIT Your Synths
With synths boasting more and more presets in the factory bank, and additional packs of them available to purchase, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with sound choices and barely learn how your synth actually works.
While starting from someone else’s ideas and tweaking from there can sound appealing, the best way to learn the ins and outs of any synth is to start from scratch with it’s “initialize” (INIT) patch. You can even be so bold as to trash the preset files that came with your synth so you’ll be forced to build new fresh sounds each time you instantiate it!
If you spend the time to learn through starting each patch from INIT, you’ll have a great understanding of subtractive synthesis that you can apply to virtually all future synths you’ll use.
Colin C. is a audio engineer and music producer who’s work includes best selling Logic Pro products for Loopmasters UK, and music for USA Networks, Showtime, HBO, FOX and more. http://thecellstudio.com