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The Lazy Guide To Good Synth Sounds

Article from Sound On Sound, December 1993

Paul White is that lazy man; here he reveals the lengths he's prepared to go to in order to avoid editing synth patches...

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't like editing synth patches; I enjoy it as much as the next man - it's just that the next man happens to be somebody who doesn't like programming synths. What's more, I invariably realise I need a new sound when I'm right in the middle of-getting an idea down, and don't want to be sidetracked into grappling with the menu system of a synth designed by the creator of The Crystal Maze! Let's face it - editing is one type of brain function, while making music is another, and unless you're a very special type of person, they really don't mix very well. Fortunately there are several dodges you can try out to make your existing sounds more interesting without getting too involved in editing, and even if these don't produce exactly the sound you're looking for, they should enable you to get close enough so you can carry on composing. Once you've finished writing the piece, then you can devote a separate session to fine-tuning your sounds or programming replacements. OK, some of these tricks are actually more time consuming than the editing you're trying to avoid, but it's the principle of the thing, isn't it! I mean, we're the type of single-minded people who would rather spend a fiver in petrol looking for somewhere to park for free rather than being tucked up for two quid by NCP, aren't we?

One of the simplest ways of changing the character of a sound is to change its attack and release settings, so make sure that you know how to get directly to these edit parameters if nothing else. Some modern synths have a global edit option which enables you to change the envelope characteristics of a complete patch rather than having to edit each of the individual elements that makes up that patch. Don't feel you're cheating — use it!


Most people have tried layering two or more sounds to produce one new sound, but there are a few wrinkles that can help make it more effective. Layering lends itself best to ensemble sounds such as choirs or strings, but can also be used with care to fatten individual sounds such as drums or basslines.

Inject a sense of ensemble playing by copying a part played in real time (unquantised) to a new sequencer track and then quantising the copy. If you need to quantise the original part, try using Randomise to introduce small timing changes into the duplicate part.

Use the sequencer delay function to delay one track slightly with respect to the other. This also helps create a bigger ensemble effect.

To liven up a layered string or choir sound, try tuning one part up by a couple of cents and the other part down. This creates a far more natural chorus effect than you'd get with a chorus processor.

Try layering a digital string sound or sample with an analogue string pad. The analogue pad will help to warm up the digital sound and smooth off some of the rough edges.

Interesting results can sometimes be achieved by using sequencer edit functions to remove some of the notes in a copy part. For example, a busy string part could be copied, and the copy stripped down to its simplest form with any fast runs left out. The note lengths of the edited part are then increased where required.

In a sequencer which has a Force Legato function, a copied track may be made to sound quite different to the original. When the two parts are layered, this can sound very effective, though the occasional discord is possible, which will have to be edited out manually.

When trying to create a natural choir sound, you may find you have several modules, all of which provide choir patches, but none of which sounds right in isolation. One problem is that such sounds can have obvious loop and keyboard split points, but by layering two or more sounds, these artifacts are disguised. Try layering a male choir with a female choir that has a slower attack and you'll create the illusion that the singers are coming in at different times, giving a natural lift to the sound. It can also be effective if the female choir comes in one octave above the male choir. Setting different vibrato rates on the different layers can also help open up the sound.

Use the ability to pan the different layers to different parts of the soundstage. This will not only widen the sound, but if you have chosen patches with different attack times, it will add a welcome degree of movement to the sound.

Marimba and vibe parts can be made more interesting by copying the track and then both transposing and delaying the copy. The delay time should be just enough to create a mild 'flam' effect. Though octaves work well, also try transposing by fifths if the music allows it, and adjust the relative balance of the two parts if necessary. Also consider using two different marimba patches, or layer a marimba with a vibe patch or some other form of tuned percussion.

Don't forget that obsolete old synth that's lying in the corner. I've often been amazed at the solid bass sounds I could get by layering my old Casio CZ101 with a newer synth. Using a short, percussive bass sound on one synth and a more sustained sound on the other can also create dramatic new sounds that are far better than might be expected from either of the original patches.

Never be restricted by the name of a patch. A piano sound with a slow attack sounds almost sitar-like, while a bass sound pushed up a couple of octaves becomes a new lead instrument. Flutes or pipes can be dropped a couple of octaves to provide a demonic backdrop to a choir, while percussive sounds such as cow bells, tambourines or ethnic drums can be layered with conventional synth bass sounds to provide an interesting attack.

This is just a small selection of the things you can do to broaden your range of sounds without spending too much time editing. Third-party sound cards and disks can also be a useful source of variety, and there's nothing defeatist in using these. After all, the violin player doesn't feel guilty that Stradivarius, and not he, built the instrument he's playing. You don't have to use these sounds just as they are — they can be twisted and manipulated in all the ways described in this article, and once you start to experiment, you're certain to come up with other techniques that work for you. I've said it before and I've no doubt I'll say it again: In music there are no rules — the end always justifies the means.


Effects are part of the sound creation process and not merely something to dress up an existing sound. If a string preset has too short a release time and you can't change it easily, add a long reverb instead. This will at least get you by until the song is complete — then you can worry about creating a more suitable patch.

To create an novel layered effect, use a pitch shifter to add one octave up to the original sound and then use reverb to smooth out the shifted sound. If this is used at a low enough level in the mix, it can sound quite natural.

Instead of simply adding reverb to a sound, try using just the reverbed sound with none of the dry sound present at all. This works well when you are layering similar sounds, but can also be useful in creating a brand new texture. Try patching chorus or flanging before the reverb to add more movement and interest to the result.

Drum sounds can be beefed up by feeding them through a guitar preamp with a hint of overdrive, and the same is true of synth pad and organ sounds. Even without overdrive, the speaker simulator section of a guitar preamp or studio multi-effects unit can add warmth to a hard digital sound.

If you're layering sounds, add different effects to the different parts to add further variety. For example, try flanging one part of a choir layer while adding delay or reverb to the other. Light flanging is immensely useful for adding movement to choir and string sounds without sounding overdone.

Don't be afraid to abuse effects. Deliberately overdriving a reverb unit might sound disastrous on vocals, but can work magic on a snare drum sound.

Use a triggered gate to rhythmically chop up a sustained sound. This is an easy way to create a driving bass for a dance track, and again, a percussive sound may be layered over the chopped sound to add weight.

Don't be afraid to go low tech. Borrow the guitar player's wah wah pedal and try your synth through that. Even if you don't want to reproduce the cliched wah wah sound, you can always park it in one position and use it as a very selective equaliser.

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Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
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Sound On Sound - Dec 1993

Donated by: Rob Hodder

Feature by Paul White

Previous article in this issue:

> Inside Frippertronics

Next article in this issue:

> Morphology

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