Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Aging Your Softsynths

It's amazing to see what strides software synths have made in such a short time.  Synth engines are getting slicker-sounding, effects quality is improving, and now even huge, cinematic sounds are easily accessible to most people.  But there's something about old, vintage gear that offers certainly qualities that don't always come naturally to many softsynths.  Not everyone can afford the price of many of these beasties, though, and given how old some of them are getting, reliability becomes a concern, too.  So today, I thought we'd talk about ways to make your softsynths sound more like well-loved, vintage gear.

1. Drift
Back in the days before digitally-controlled oscillators, most synths were outfitted with the analog variety.  Analog is valued over digital because the oscillators are more imperfect and prone to tuning discrepancies than digital gear.  With extreme discrepancies, this can be an awful problem, but in general, this leads the oscillators to sound warm and more alive.  It's not uncommon for many new virtual analog softsynths to have a drift parameter, but even if it doesn't, you can still simulate it.  Set up an LFO to modulate the pitch of one of your oscillators.  You want to set the amount relatively low, so you're only detuning by about 20 cents at most.  For best results, you'll want to set modulating LFO's waveform to Sample & Glide.  Not all synths have this, but it is essentially like Sample & Hold, although where Sample & Hold modulates to different values with hard changes between values, Sample & Glide glides from value to value for a smoother sound.  Make sure your LFO is set to a relatively slow speed.  If you have a second LFO, set that up to modulate the second oscillator with slightly different settings.  Just be sure to keep it pretty subtle.  Of course, you can obviously experiment with more extreme values if you want that sea-sick, Boards of Canada sound, too.

2. Know Your Limitations
The synths of yesteryear, while sounding great, are undoubtedly much more limited than the synths of today, so try to keep that in mind while programming vintage sounds.  For instance, many of the early synths were monophonic, so program your sounds accordingly if you're after that sound. Most early synths weren't stereo either, so avoid big, wide unison sounds for the most part. Early synths only offered a handful of basic waveforms, so don't start with a 128-layer piano sample and expect it to sound like a vintage synth.  Start with sawtooth, triangle, pulse, or sine waves and go from there.  Velocity-sensitivity wasn't very common in the early days either, so be conscious of that.  If you're imitating the sound of a particular synth, check out a place liked Vintage Synth Explorer and read up on the features and limitations of the synth you want to imitate.

3. Output/Input
All manner of outboard gear can help add the imperfections of real, vintage gear to your softsynths.  Try feeding a softsynth sound out of your DAW, through a mixer, and back into your DAW again to add a little noise and coloration.  Have a real synth like a Virus that has filter inputs or even an old analog with filter inputs?  Feed your softsynths through these to lend a bit more of a genuine feel.  Want to get more extreme?  Find a crappy pre-amp, guitar-amp, or an old tape recorder and send your pristine synths through those.

4.  Effects
Part of the reason why synths sound the way they do on classic records is because of the effects used.  Like synths, effects were much more primitive in the 70's and 80's, so keep it basic.  Look for spring reverbs, tape delays, simple chorus effects.  And don't forget to try a bit of some of the effects that were much more common back then such as flanging and phasing.  Try to avoid big, sparkling, stereo effects in most cases.  There are lots of plug-ins that imitate classic effects, but you may also be able to wrangle some up on eBay for fairly cheap.  Look for something like the old Zoom or Alesis Quadraverb units.  Feeding softsynths through a real, cheap effects unit will definitely give you some flavor.

Have any tips you like to use for making your new synths sound more seasoned?  Share it in the comments!


parque said...

Tape, tape, tape!
I’m using my tape deck extensively on synths to give ’em more grit and get rid of the extensive high ends. Also try different tapes (Fe, Chrome, old ones, new ones, bleached-by-sun-ones and so on). Also, I recently shot myself an old Tascam 4-track tape recorder for even more tape love.
Toneboosters ReelBus is also nice, because it’s capable of some quite decent HQ tape sounds as well as the noisier ones.
Also a good old consumer-grade delay or multi effect can do wonders on your good old soft synth (got a Lexicon LXP-5 and love it)! Try to overdrive the input – can result in some lovely creamy noisy thickening and lo-fi.

Anonymous said...

You can also run your softsynth through a guitar amp and record the result with a decent microphone.

Meta Sektion said...

I've had fun taking near-pristine voice sample waveforms in Luxonix Purity and processing them through the built-in bit-crusher to get back to that Akai S612/Roland MKS-100 kinda feel. Not an exact emulation, but getting closer to that old Art of Noise (think the voice sample lead in "Moments in Love") sort of sound.

Adam Dubbleu said...

If you never owned or used one, buy or borrow an vintage synth. Use it to compare your efforts on your softsynth. Go through your softsynth presets and find programs you can for the most part program on your hardware. This back and forth hands on process is powerful way of improving your programming skills.

Ladies like guys with skills.

Paul Seegers said...

Two words, Vintage Warmer.