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Customising Synth Patches

Article from Sound On Sound, February 1988

Craig Anderton offers some valuable hints and tips to help liven up your synthesizer's factory presets.

No one said programming a synthesizer would be easy, especially the parameter-control types where each parameter must be programmed individually. For those who would rather not spend time programming, there are a number of 'canned' software packages available, as well as the ubiquitous factory patches.

However, great patches are made, not born: even the world's best programmer isn't going to take your needs into account when creating patches. A patch that sounds great going through studio monitors may not sound all that good going through a budget synth amplifier, and a string part that sounds fantastic behind music with a slow tempo may turn to mush when the tempo gets more upbeat. More often than not, musicians evaluate factory patches or canned patches by listening to each preset for about ten seconds, tickling the keys for a bit, then deciding that the sounds are "no good".

Just as tailors have to alter clothes to fit specific bodies, synthesists have to edit programs to suit specific musical applications. If a patch works for you 'out of the box', you're lucky. Most of the time, you'll need to do some editing. In the following examples, we'll suggest how to set the synth's controls (or, occasionally, the controls of an outboard signal processor) to obtain specific musical effects. That way, if you call up a patch and it's not 'bright' enough, look under 'brighter' for some suggested remedies. Relating parameters to musical terms is also useful if you work with non-technical producers and musicians who cannot relate sounds to control settings. Good luck with your tweaking!

More 'animated' (or too 'static')

1. Select a pulse waveform and add slow pulse width modulation. This creates a flanging type of effect.
2. Turn on internal chorus (if present), or use external digital delay set for flanging/chorusing.
3. Detune the oscillators somewhat, if a dual oscillator machine, or add subtle, slow vibrato to one of the oscillators (in either case, mix the second oscillator at a somewhat lower volume level than the first oscillator to minimise phase cancellation problems).
4. Add subtle, slow LFO modulation to the filter cut-off frequency.

Brighter (also 'less dull')

1. Change oscillator waveform to one with lots of harmonics (ie. sawtooth, narrow pulse).
2. Increase filter (VCF) cut-off frequency, filter envelope generator sustain level, or filter envelope amount.
3. If the filter is not being swept by an envelope, tune the filter up fairly high and add a bit of resonance.
4. Boost high frequencies with outboard equalisation.


1. Add in a sub-octave waveform (if available).
2. Mix in a second oscillator tuned one octave below main oscillator.
3. Boost lower midrange (500Hz and below) with external equaliser.
4. Add chorusing with about 20ms of initial delay and a fairly slow sweep rate.
5. If the filter is not being swept, tune the filter to around 500Hz or lower and add a little bit of resonance to boost those frequencies. You may have to turn up the volume a bit to compensate for the lower signal levels associated with increased resonance.

"One of the problems with using preset patches involves not timbre, but rhythm. Whether a sound is 'in the groove' or not depends greatly on the envelope generator settings."

Hollower (also 'less sharp' or 'more reedy')

1. Change waveform to triangle or square wave (or pulse wave with 50% duty cycle).
2. Add external flanger set for short delay, no modulation, and about 50% feedback.

More muted ('duller')

1. Choose a waveform with fewer harmonics (triangle, sine).
2. Reduce filter cut-off frequency.
3. Reduce resonance.
4. Decrease filter cut-off frequency, filter envelope generator sustain level, or filter envelope amount.

More percussive

1. Set VCA or VCF envelope generator attack time to zero and reduce the initial decay time. It may also be necessary to lower the sustain for any change in decay to be apparent.
2. If you want a fairly sustained sound combined with a sharp percussive attack, this precludes lowering the VCA sustain control. In this case, keep the VCA envelope generator parameters as is (but make sure the attack is at minimum) and set the VCF envelope generator parameters as described in step (1).

Sharper sound

1. Increase filter resonance (note: this may also thin out the sound).
2. Select hard or soft sync and vary the frequency of the slave oscillator being synchronised (controlling this oscillator's frequency with the pitch bend wheel or lever can produce some great effects).


1. Select a waveform with high harmonic content.
2. Turn on internal chorus.
3. Add short echo with external digital delay.
4. Add slight amount of distortion with external processing to increase amount of harmonics.

"If a synth patch works for you 'out of the box', you're lucky. Most of the time, you'll need to do some editing."

More 'sheen'

1. If the filter is not being swept, turn up the resonance to about a-third to half-way, and tune the filter up to the highest frequency where the increased resonance is still audible.
2. Add an harmonic booster such as the Aphex Aural Exciter, etc.


1. Change waveform to narrow pulse width or waveform with low harmonics (triangle, sine).
2. Switch off one of the oscillators if it is a two-oscillator synth.
3. If present, turn off internal chorus or change filter mode from lowpass to highpass.


1. Reduce filter cut-off somewhat.
2. Reduce resonance.
3. Add chorusing or doubling.
4. Use external equaliser to boost bass and lower midrange.
5. Lower the vibrato speed slightly (if used).
6. Mix in a little bit of signal from a second oscillator tuned an octave below the primary oscillator.
7. Use sawtooth waveform for richer sound.


1. Add chorusing.
2. Reduce filter cut-off somewhat, or use waveform with few harmonics (triangle, sine).
3. Add reverb or delay with external signal processing.

The above tips all relate to sound quality. However, one of the problems with using preset/factory patches involves not timbre, but rhythm. Whether a sound is 'in the groove' or not depends greatly on the envelope generator settings. An envelope set for a long release time, or a long attack time, will usually not sound right with up-tempo pieces. Conversely, with more legato playing you can use longer attack and release times.

If a sound is good on its own but doesn't fit with a particular piece of music, try altering the envelope times. In particular, release times are crucial. Many preset patches come with short release times to be more universally applicable, but increasing release for slower-paced tunes can help make patches - particularly pads and washes - sound fuller and create a feeling of ambience.

© Copyright Electronic Musician magazine (Contact Details). Used with the kind permission of the Publishers.

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Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
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Sound On Sound - Feb 1988

Feature by Craig Anderton

Previous article in this issue:

> Yamaha REX50

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> Inside Views: Yamaha

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