You have probably listened to a great 80s pop song synth that has a rich and full synth sound. Nowadays, analog synths have undergone a radical resurgence in the last 7 to 8 years, as artists like the Weeknd and Daft Punk have popularized the instrument in mainstream music. Many companies like Moog and Korg have re-issued their former flagship models or have created new iterations of their synthesizers. While the world of synthesis can be cool to get into, it’s also quite intimidating to get into due to its complexity. Rightfully so, as it might be confusing to create your own presets and patches. Creating a great synth sound involves an understanding of the synthesizer's parameters and different settings. Here are some steps to help you achieve a fantastic synth sound:
First off, we got to discuss the different types of synthesizers available in the market, which include analog and digital synths. Analog synthesizers tend to be more expensive while also having less features. Digital synths cost less while having way more features, parameters, and sonic options. In addition, digital synths tend to have more polyphony and have faster processing speed for the notes played. Why on earth would you ever play analog synths, you may ask? There are many analog synths that can definitely be good for many situations. For instance, all analog synthesizers will tend to have clearer registry of higher notes, with the exception of higher-end digital synths. Analog synths also have better modulation due to aliasing, which is what happens when the sampling rate of a digital synth is not twice as high as the highest frequency it produces.
After you have decided what type of synthesizer you want to play or record with, familiarize yourself with the synthesizer. You need to start understanding the various components of your synthesizer, such as oscillators, filters, envelopes, LFOs (Low-Frequency Oscillators), and effects. Oscillators are used to generate one or more waveforms of a synthesizer’s sound. Filters remove specific frequency components of a complex sound. Envelope controls the value of the parameter over time. LFO (Low-Frequency Oscillators) is an electronic frequency that creates a rhythmic pulse or sweep. There are plenty of manuals and tutorials on the internet you can get access to, for a better grasp of how these elements work together to shape the sound.
Now that you have gotten some familiarity with your synth, you want to consider selecting the right oscillators for you. Choosing the right oscillator for your synth can help shape the overall tone of the instrument. Some of the common oscillator options include sawtooth, square, triangle, sine waves, and pulse waves. Sawtooth is the most versatile and widely used oscillator and has a bright and rich harmonic content, with all harmonics present in the sound. Square waves have a punchy and buzzy sound with only odd harmonics present. Triangle waves have a smoother and soft sound which results in a mellow and rounded tone. Sine waves is the simplest and purest wave form, giving you a more gentle sound that is useful for sub bass. Pulse waves are similar to squares but give you more flexibility with messing with the timbre and texture of your synth. Each waveform has a unique character and contributes to the overall tone of the sound.
Filters play an important role in shaping your synthesizer’s tone. Try to experiment with different filter types including low-pass, high-pass, and band-pass. These filters can also be combined together to create complex and unique timbres. You can also create expressive voicings with the filter sweeps using an envelope or an LFO. A slow filter sweep can add a sense of gradual change while faster sweeps can create a more dramatic effect to your sound. Messing with the resonance of the filter can brighten certain frequencies and add a unique color to the sound. High resonance settings create a resonant peak, leading to a more aggressive tone, while low resonance settings create a softer effect. You can also use various filter effects to shape your tone including distortion, modulation, delay/reverb, and envelopes.
Envelopes shape how your sound evolves over time. The most common envelope parameters include Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release. The Attack stage determines how quickly your sound reaches the maximum level when a key is pressed. A short attack time produces a more percussive sound, while a longer attack time produces a gradual, swelling sound. The Decay stage determines how long it takes for your sound to reach the sustain level. A shorter decay time produces more of a staccato sound while a longer decay time produces a legato effect. The Sustain stage determines levels set between minimum and maximum volume. The length of time the sound is held at sustain level depends on how long the key is held. Release stage determines how long it takes for sound to fade out after the key is released.
LFOs are one of the more important components of a synth as it generates periodic modulation signals at a rate typically below the range of audible frequencies. LFOs typically serve as a modulating source for your synthesizer. Depending on the design of your synth, LFOs can help to modulate certain parameters such as the oscillator pitch, filter cutoff frequency, amplitude, pan position, or others. In addition, one of the primary applications of LFOs is to be able to produce vibrato or tremolo effects. Vibrato messes with modulating the pitch of an oscillator, creating a subtle pitch modulation that adds expression to sustained notes. Tremolo messes with the volume of the sound, resulting in a pulsating effect.
Another great way of getting a great synth sound is listening to other synth players from different genres. Whether it’s from the electronic world like Richard D. James or on the pop side with Greg Phillinganes, there are plenty of synthesists to learn from in terms of the sonic aspects. Aside from their techniques, you can learn how they set their synthesizers so you can incorporate some of their sounds for your own playing.
The beauty of synthesizers lies in their versatility and flexibility to be used in various genres. Don't be afraid to experiment with weird settings and explore different sounds that might not be appealing for some. Many of the best synth sounds come from hours of creative experimentation. When you find a great synth sound, save it as a preset or patch. Make sure to organize your presets into categories for your future projects. This allows you to build a library of various sounds for your music compositions or arrangements.
Remember that getting a great synth sound is a journey of exploration and learning. Be patient, and don't be discouraged by initial challenges. With practice and persistence, you'll develop your skills and create unique and captivating synth sounds.