Showing posts with label Synth Programming. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Synth Programming. Show all posts

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Advanced Techniques for Programming Modular Synthesizers

While the site is ten years old, it wasn't until Reaktorplayer's Tweet that I had seen this.  James J. Clark made this thorough programming guide with the Nord Modular in mind, but the techniques he outlines can be applied to a whole ton of synthesizers, hardware and software.  If you're looking for a beginner's guide on how to program a synth, this probably isn't for you.  Instead, Clark's guide covers more advanced synthesis techniques such as audio rate modulation, using filters in parallel and series, different types of noise, etc.  Of course if you DO have a Nord Modular, he provides numerous example patches to illustrate the concepts he is talking about.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Reproducing the Sound of "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This"

This is an oldie, but worth watching for people interested in replicating famous synth sounds.

[via FutureMusicMagazine on YouTube]

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Thinking Outside the Box With Synth Programming

If you've read this blog with any regularity, you probably know that I am a firm believer in thinking that effects can often be thought of as additional synth modules when used in creative ways.  Case in point - I am a couple weeks away from releasing a preset pack for Arturia's Oberheim SEM-V.  I've been a bit on the fence about previous Arturia software, but SEM-V is the real deal.  It is definitely one of my favorites these days.

As great as SEM-V is, the included effects kind of feel unworthy of how great the synth sounds.  Honestly, this is one area I think Arturia has consistently failed.  Many of their synths sounds fantastic, but the built-in effects kind of suck.  Well, they REALLY suck.  But that doesn't mean we can't find other uses for them!

The patch outlined in the picture above (click to enlarge it) is one of the sounds from the set I'm working on.  It's called "Koto from Mars".  Feel free to replicate it if you're an SEM-V owner.  Basically, you want to program, a short, plucked type sound.  I used oscillator sync to add some bite to the pluck.  This gives a decent enough synth sound that will probably sound somewhat familiar.  But what transforms this into a "koto", is some tricky programming of SEM-V's sort of crappy sounding chorus effect.

Once you've programmed your short, plucked, sound, turn on the Chorus effect.  Basically, what you want to do here is to set a relatively high Feedback setting with a relatively slow Rate.  This essentially turns the chorus into a primitive resonator which can be used for very basic physical modeling.  In this case, the chorus effect is helping to simulate the resonant body of a koto.  To demonstrate, here is a clip of what the final patch should sound like...

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Logic ES2 Tutorial: Making Rave Stabs

A look at programming rave/hoover stabs using Logic's venerable, but still excellent ES-2 synthesizer.

[via dubspot]

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Synthesis Made Simple: Using Your LFO Like a Simple Seqencer

Modulation is what brings synthetic sounds to life.  While there is something to be said about the starkness of a plain, unmodulated sawtooth wave, there is something about our hearing that craves change and evolution.  Think of how aggravated you feel when your neighbor's car alarm goes off for a half hour at 3 AM.  As mentioned in previous parts of this series, the LFO is a very valuable tool when it comes to a modulation source.  Quite simply, an LFO is a very slow audio wave that is used to control parameters of your synth instead of producing a audible sound.  Because synth waveforms tend to be cyclical, this means an LFO is great for creating cyclical effects, such as vibrato, tremelo, and wah-wah.  But it's useful for more than that.  Have a synth with no sequencer or arpeggiator, but want to simulate (a very simple) one?  The LFO is your key to making it happen.

For this tutorial, I'll be using TAL's NoiseMaker, a freeware synth that should work fine on both Mac and PC.  So go grab it if you don't have it already, and follow along.

1.  When you first open NoiseMaker, it defaults to an initialized patch, which is just 1 oscillator, a sub oscillator, with the filter wide open and no modulations applied.  We'll be using this "blank slate" as our starting point.  The first thing we want to do is to close the CUTOFF in the FILTER section.  If you play a few notes, you won't hear anything.  This is because we've filtered out all the frequencies in our sound.  We're going to use LFO modulation to fix that.

2.  In the upper lefthand corner of the GUI, you'll see a purple box marked LFO 1.  This is one of two LFO's offered in NoiseMaker.  First things first, click the SYNC button until it lights up.  This is telling the LFO to run in sync with your host's tempo, letting you match the speed of the LFO to specific note divisions.

3.)  Twiddle the RATE knob next.  If you look at the CONTROL section at the bottom right of the GUI as you do this, you'll see the DISPLAY readout changing to different note divisions.  Set the knob so the LFO will cycle at 1/8th notes.

4.)  Next, we need to tell the LFO what it should modulate and by how much.  So right beneath the SYNC button, you'll see a drop-down menu that reads OFF.  This is where you set your modulation's destination.  Click on this and select FILTER.  The LFO now knows to modulate the FILTER CUTOFF.

5.) Next, click the KEY TRIG button at the bottom of the LFO.  This will cause a key press to trigger the LFO.

6.)  You still won't hear anything until you turn up the DEST 1 knob next to the modulation destination menu.  Nudge it up and play a few notes and you'll probably hear something that sounds like a subdued dubstep wobble (and indeed, LFO's are key to those types of sounds).  Go ahead and crank the knob all the way up and the sound will become brighter and the modulation more extreme.  It still pretty much sounds like a dubstep bass, though.

7.)  Any well-appointed LFO will offer a variety of WAVEFORMS to choose from.  These waveforms simply allow different shapes of modulation.  The reason this sounds like a wobble is because NoiseMaker's LFOs default to a sinewave.  This would be great for vibrato, but we need something a bit more abrupt to simulate the retriggering of notes.  So click the little green waveform display for the LFO and drag up and down until you see the SQUAREWAVE, which looks a bit like the top of a castle wall.  This waveform produces a modulation that is either on or off, essentially.  The effect would be less extreme with a smaller DEST 1 value, but with it set all the way up, the LFO is opening the filter all the way and then snapping all the way shut at a speed that just happens to be the speed of an 1/8 note at your host tempo.  Play a few notes and you should hear a pulsing 1/8th note that repeats as long as you hold down a key.

Now, obviously, this isn't the same thing as a full-fledged sequencer or arpeggiator, but it can produce some useful effect and be fun to play around with, especially once you start layering on additional modulations.  A couple of notes before I go...

• If you have a synth that allows the LFO to modulate an OSCILLATOR'S AMPLITUDE, you can achieve a similar effect, with the advantage that it frees up the filter to do something else, allowing more complex sounds.  NoiseMaker just doesn't have this capability right now.

•  If you have a synth that offers a descending sawtooth waveform on its LFOs, try using this instead, as it produces a sharper, but more subtle sound.  On some synths, modulating the filter with a squarewave can produce clicks, but a descending sawtooth doesn't have this problem.  It just so happens that this isn't yet an option on NoiseMaker.

•  If you're feeling ambitious, try assigning LFO 2 to modulate OSC 1 (the pitch of OSC 1).  Assign it to a squarewave, make sure SYNC and KEY TRIG are selected, set the RATE to 1/4 notes, and the DEST 1 amount to .3987.  Play a key and you'll hear the note value changing.  Experimentation will yield more musically-pleasing results, but hopefully you get the theory behind it.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Rob Papen Synth Programming Tutorial Book and DVD Set Now Available

It's been a long time coming, but it appears that preset programmer and synth designer extraordinaire Rob Papen's long-rumored book and DVD course on synth programming is finally available.  "The 4 Element Synth" weighs in at 200 pages with the DVDs adding an additional 10 hours of material.  It's available for  € 74-- (EU included 6% VAT) or € 69-- (outside EU, no VAT).  Shipping cost not included.  The set is available to buy directly from Papen's site.  Shipping begins November 30th.

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!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Simon Cann Releases 3 New "How to Make a Noise" Books

One of the resources I've recommended to beginning synthesists over the years has been Simon Cann's excellent free book "How to Make a Noise".

Mr. Cann has obviously been busy, as he has now released 3 new titles in the How to Make a Noise series specializing in Analog, FM, and Sample-based synthesis. Whereas the original, free book touches briefly on each, the new specialized volumes promise to delve into their respective topics with more depth. The best news? Although they're not free, they're still pretty damn cheap at just $2.99 in electronic format.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

10 Handy Programming Tips for ReFX Vanguard

If you haven't checked it out yet, head on over to the Programming Tips section of the Waveformless-Soundware site for 10 random programming tips on programming your own sounds for ReFX Vanguard.
The plan is to post programming tips for different softsynths as I release new soundsets. And yes, I am hard at work on the next release. No idea when it will be done. I'd rather get it right then get it out right now.

Note that if you're a total noob and don't know an LFO from an Envelope, you can start by reading my Synthesis Made Simple series which should help you get up to speed.

Incidentally, you can click on the image above and copy the settings manually if you want to hear year another sound from the soundset. You'll be out of luck with the LFO 1 and 2 settings, but this will get you most of the way there. You can also check out the demos below if you haven't already to hear the sounds in a musical context. Feel free to embed the demos on your own site or share them via Facebook, Twitter, or whatever your social networking poison of choice is if you want to help spread the word!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What is a 'Free-Running' Oscillator?

If you're familiar with the more modern breed of synths and softsynths, you've probably run across the option to use the oscillators in either a free-running or resetting mode. But what does this mean?

Free-running oscillators mimic the behavior of most vintage analog synths. The oscillators are continuously running whether they are making a sound or not, so when you do trigger notes, each note will start at a slightly different point in the oscillator's phase (the location in the waveform's peaks and valleys at which playback starts). This contributes in a small way to the "imperfect" nature of analog synths that make them sound so unique. That being the case, why would you choose not to run in a free-running mode?

The main reason is that those variations in waveform phase can cause the attack portion of the sound to vary in a way that might not be conducive to the type of sound you're trying to create. A good example of this is synthesized drum sounds. Generally with these types of sounds, you want a consistent sound on the attack. Putting your oscillators into a non-free-running mode allows you to achieve that consistency because the waveform plays back from the same point in the oscillator's phase every time you press a key. This mode is also perfect if you want more precise, modern bass sounds.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What is Pulse Width Modulation?

Earlier this year, I put together a modest, multi-part series of posts called Synthesis Made Simple aimed at helping the total noob learn some of the basics of programming his or her own sounds. I purposely left out some of the more advanced concepts in the interest of not making it completely overwhelming, so I thought I'd take the opportunity today to discuss one of those concepts that can be insanely useful: pulse width modulation.

Not every synth will offer pulse width modulation, although with the popularity of PWM sounds in trance, most modern virtual analogs and softsynths do. You'll recall in our discussion of modulation, that modulation is simply the act of changing some aspect of your sound in real time. So what about the 'pulse width' aspect of PWM? You may have heard square waves interchangeably referred to as 'pulse waves' before. This is because if you look at the severe up and down peaks in a squarewave, it has the appearance of a pulsing sound. The distance in between those peaks is called a 'duty cycle'. By changing (modulating) the duty cycle, we can alter the sound of the waveform as it goes from wide, retangular shapes to narrow, skyscraper-like shapes. Thus, pulse width modulation is the alteration of the duty cycle of your waveform for the purposes of changing the basic timbre of that waveform. Note that although some modern synths allow pulse width modulation of other types of waveforms, it is far more usual to only see this option available on the pulse/squarewave.

Let's explore this a bit and see what we can do with it, shall we? Go ahead and fire up your DAW of choice and call up an instance of TAL Bassline. (If you don't already have it, it's free and available here.) Bassline emulates the architecture of the Roland SH-101, a very popular monosynth in the 80's.

1. The first thing to do is to isolate our pulse wave, so go to the SOURCE MIXER and turn down the sliders for the SAW and SUB OSC. If you play a few keys, you should hear the familiar hollow timbre of the pulse wave.

2. If you look next door in the VCO section, you will see a slider marked PULSE WIDTH. Go ahead and play some notes as you fiddle with this slider. As you push the slider upwards, you should hear the timbre change from the hollow square wave to something a bit more biting and nasal. You can probably already see some applications for this in emulating sounds like oboe, harpsichord, or even the buzzing of a gnat. But this is missing out on some of the more interesting stuff you can do with PWM when you assign a modulator to change that pulse width in real time.

3. You'll notice that next to that PULSE WIDTH slider is a menu that defaults to MAN for manual. This means that you can only change the pulse width by fiddling with the slider. Go ahead and change that to LFO (check here if you need to read up on what an LFO is). If you play a few notes now, it probably sounds pretty dissonant an unpleasant, so let's dial in some more subtle settings. Head over to the MODULATOR section (which is what Roland referred to the LFO as back then) and turn down the RATE slider to about 25%. Also, change the WAVE FORM to TRI. If you play a few notes now, you should hear a rather warm, fatter sounding timbre being produced. This is one of the cool things about PWM and why it was so common on early synths that might only offer a single oscillator. By using PWM, even single oscillator synths like the 101 could output thicker, fatter sounds. This, along with unison modes, is the basis for most of those giant sounding trance leads the kids love so much.

4. Of course, you're not just limited to using the LFO to modulate pulse width. Try going back to the VCO section and changing the modulator from LFO to ENV. This will allow you to modulate the pulse width using the ENVelope generator (read up on envelopes here). By altering the Attack and Decay of the envelope, you can simulate the way a plucked sound operates in the real world with a brighter attack portion settling into a more mellow decay or sustain. This can be useful in emulating instruments like guitars, or retro sounding 70's leads.

As you can imagine, when you get to more complex synths that offer multiple oscillators, the sounds you can make using PWM get even bigger, warmer, and more impressive and you can even use different methods for modulating the pulse width on each oscillator. Try experimenting with something simple like Bassline first, though. Once you've got a handle on that, try tackling it on a more advanced synth and see where it takes you!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tweaking for the Non-Programmer

I've often said that owning a synthesizer and never learning how to program your own sounds is a bit like owning a Ferrari and never driving it over 35 miles an hour. Sure, it'll probably still get you the chicks, but you're missing out on half the fun.

Still, I understand it's not for everyone. And sometimes, a particular preset just happens to fit the arrangement perfectly, save for a few characteristics you'd like to change. So how do you make those changes without needing to know how to program a sound from scratch? Fortunately, most synths share a common range of parameters that make this pretty easy. Keep in mind that many synths use differing terminology to describe the same things, but with a little noodling around, you'll figure it out. Here are some guidelines:

To change the overall timbre of the sound most easily, try changing the WAVEFORM in the synth's OSCILLATOR section. This is where the 'raw material' of your sound starts, so it has quite a big influence on what the end result sounds like.

Assuming the synth uses a lowpass filter (this is the most common type), you can get this result by increasing the CUTOFF (sometimes called FREQ) in the FILTER section. Also try increasing the FILTER'S ENV AMOUNT to exaggerate, for example, the pluck in a plucked type sound.

As above, try lowering the CUTOFF value of your FILTER, as well as decreasing the ENV AMOUNT on the FILTER.

If you have a relatively slow sound, like strings, you can give them a more immediate sound by decreasing the ATTACK value in the AMP ENVELOPE. Try also manipulating the ATTACK in the FILTER ENVELOPE if still sounds like it's fading in a bit.

As above, but you increase the ATTACK values of your envelopes.

If you want to make a percussive sound sustain like a pad or organ, try raising the SUSTAIN value of your AMP ENVELOPE. You may want to increase the DECAY value as well. If it still doesn't sustain as loudly or brightly as you'd like, make the same adjustments to the FILTER ENVELOPE.

Try increasing the RELEASE value in your AMP and FILTER envelopes.

In the OSCILLATOR sections of your synth, look for something marked COARSE or OCTAVE. Adjusting this will change the overall octave of the oscillator. Additionally, some synths have a TRANSPOSE function that lets you transpose the entire sound up or down.

Those are the most basic tweaks you'll likely need to know on a regular basis. Not that complicated, is it? Practice tweaking sounds until you get a bit more comfortable with it and then consider cracking open your manual (gasps of horror) and learning what 1 or 2 of your synth's other parameters do. Once you're comfortable with those, try learning 1 or 2 more. In no time, you'll have learned to program your own sounds from scratch. Want a guide to getting started with that? Check out my Synthesis Made Simple series from earlier this year.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Roll Your Own Lead Sounds: The Hoover

There are some synth sounds that transcend mere coolness and enter the realm of the iconic - sounds so instantly recognizable that they almost become integral to the genre that spawned them. The Hoover is one such sound. The gnarly, detuned lead/bass sound started life as a preset called "What The?" on the Roland Alpha Juno, and after it made an appearance on a track by the band Human Resource, it went on to become one of the most popular types of sounds in the rave and new beat movements. Even today, these types of sounds frequently pop up in drum n' bass, electro, and even dubstep tracks. So today, I'll show you how to make your very own hoover utilizing TAL's recently released freebie instrument NoizeMaker.

1. Fire up your DAW of choice and initiate an instance of NoizeMaker.

2. In the OSC 1 section, change the waveform to the pulse/square wave.

3. On LFO 1 change the DEST 1 to PW to modulate the pulse width of that pulse wave. This will give us a nice, fat detuned sound out of a single oscillator. Set the DEST 1 knob most of the way to the right (at about .3732 in the DISPLAY) and the RATE to about 50%. You can hear the pulse width being modulated, but it's doing so in a bit of a disruptive way. Fix this by turning the PW of OSC 1 all the way to the left.

4. In the MASTER section, turn up the OSC 2 level so it is equal with OSC 1. (You'll note that OSC 2 is a sawtooth wave tuned an octave above OSC 1.) The SUB oscillator should already be up, but if it isn't, dial that up so it is equal as well. Turn PORTA to ON and set the PORTA knob (the rate of portamento) about halfway up. This is what gives us those sliding notes, so you may want to adjust it to taste.

5. In the filter section, drop the CUTOFF back to about 90%.

6. Finally (and this is optional), you turn on the CHORUS 1 button to thicken the sound up a little further with some chorus.

If you've done everything correctly, you should have something that sounds a bit like this:

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Faking Sidechain Pumping on Synths

If you listen to any club-oriented music these days, you're probably intimately familiar with the sound of sidechain pumping by now. The trendy technique consists of strapping a compressor with extreme settings over and instrument and using the compressor's sidechain input to use the kick drum track to trigger the compressor instead of the track being processed. The result is a rhythmic sucking/pumping (get your mind out of the gutter) in time with the music. It adds a certain extra level of energy and indeed sometimes artists sidechain every instrument except for the kick and vocals. It can also be useful in keeping your kick drum and your bassline from overlapping too much frequency wise, thus giving you a cleaner low end. If you're not that well versed in using a compressor, however, it may be frustrating trying to get the effect working properly.

So today, I'm going to show you how to simulate the effect from within your synth itself. I'll be using Spectrasonic's Trilian, but just about any well-appointed soft synth should be able to pull the effect off without too much effort.

1. Fire up your DAW and insert an instance of Trilian or whatever synth you choose.

2. It defaults to a simple "init" patch, a simple, non-descript sawtooth wave with an organ-style amplitude envelope. From the EDIT page, go ahead and turn the MIX slider for LAYER A down to about 1/4 of the way (say, -14.3 dB or so). We don't want the level all the way down because sidechaining doesn't totally silence the sound it's squashing, it just lowers it significantly.

3. Trilian and Omnisphere's default patch already uses LFO 1 for vibrato, so let's select LFO 2 to keep things simple. Here's where we're going to set it up to create the pumping effect. Set the waveshape of LFO 2 to the ascending sawtooth wave. This will give us that "rising and dropping off suddenly" effect produced by a signal sidechained with a kick.

4. Set LFO 2's mode (right below the waveshape) to LEGATO, so the pumping continues no matter what you play.

5. Click the SYNC button so it lights up. Since this is a rhythmic effect, it's important that the LFO is in sync with your host's tempo.

6. Now we need to set the LFO to the proper speed. With SYNC activated, LFO 2's RATE will let you select specific note values. Set it to 1/4 for quarter note.

7. Finally, we have to do the actual assignment of the LFO 2 to modulate our AMP level. So in the modulation section, select LFO 2 as your modulation source and AMP -> AMPLITUDE as your destination. Push both sliders all the way up.

If you sustain a note now, you should hear the trademark pumping sidechaining is known for. For an even more current sound, try sending your sound through an amp or bitcrusher effect.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Getting Creative With Step Sequencers

Back in the days when modular synths first appeared, it was not uncommon to use a step sequencer not just to trigger notes, but to modulate a parameter or two. Now that we've entered the age of the soft synth, step sequencers as modulation sources are becoming increasingly common. This is great because it opens the door to all sorts of rhythmically-precise modulations that can really add energy and motion to your sounds. It even allows you compose complete, self-contained synth riffs if you so choose. So today I thought I'd throw out a couple ideas you might not have tried yet that can yield some unique results.

1.) Keep It Odd!
Any step sequencer worth its salt will allow you to adjust the number of steps that make up the sequence. Most people's instinct is to set this to 8, 16, or some other musically symmetrical number so that the modulation cycle is in sync with the bar structure of your song. It's worth giving a try setting this to an odd number such as 5, 7, 11, etc. This way, although the modulation will still be in sync with the song, its relation to each bar (provided you're playing in 4/4) will constantly evolve. This will give you a less repetitive feel as the relationship between the steps in your sequence and the structure of your song changes with each new bar.

2.) Time Against Time
Most modern soft synths are equipped with multiple step sequencers that can each be assigned to different parameters. So, for instance, you could have one sequencer modulating the volume/amp value of your sound, one can be modulating the filter cutoff, and another can be modulating the pitch of your oscillators. Try setting each sequencer to a different number of steps, so the relation between them is constantly shifting. This again opens the door to more complex sounding, constantly evolving modulations. The listener's ear is always listening for a pattern to lock onto. By setting each sequencer to a different number of steps, it's harder for the listener to detect a single pattern and your sound will have appear to have a life of its own.

3.) Changing Values
Any decent step sequencer will let you choose a note value for each step in relation to your song's tempo. For example, the sequencer could advance a step ever quarter note, or every 16th note, or even once per bar. As with the above example, try setting up multiple step sequencers to modulate different parameters, but set each sequencer to a different note value. The value of the sequences between one another will remain the same, but the modulations will all be happening at different speeds, thus making your sequence sound more complex without being completely unpredictable.

4.) Let It Run Free
Many step sequencers will allow you to choose between a trigger mode and a free-running mode. Trigger mode means that your step sequencer(s) will restart from the beginning each time you hit a note. In free-running mode, however, the sequencer is always advancing through its steps in sync with the clock of your DAW whether you're holding down a note or not. This way, the 'first step' of the sequence that plays depends on when you play a note in relation to the bar. This can sound less predictable than the standard trigger mode. And hey, there's nothing saying all the step sequencers you're using for modulation even have to share the same mode. Try mixing and matching for yet more unpredictable results.

5.) Smooth it Out
Step sequencers are good for rigid, sudden changes between steps, but what if you want something more subtle? Say you're programming an atmospheric pad sound and you want some animation of the filter cutoff, but you're not looking for something rhythmic and bubbly. Many step sequencers have a 'smooth' option. With this option engaged, the changes between steps will sort of 'glide' from step to step instead of the 'hard' transitions you would get normally. This is great for more subtle modulations where you want a sense of repetition, but where the changes from step to step of the sequencer in normal mode might be a bit too jarring.

How about you? What's your favorite use of a step sequencer as a modulation source?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Synthesis Made Simple Part 12: Where Do You Go From Here?

So, I hope by now that the basics of subtractive synthesis are at least a little more clear to you than before (assuming you're a noob).  So what now?  

My first suggestion, would be to check out some of the posts I've made in the past regarding synth programming.  I have an ongoing series of articles called Roll Your Own Sounds where I take you through the process of how to program certain sounds.  These might make a bit more sense to you now, and will allow you to see the concepts and features we've discussed applied practically.  They'll also help introduce you to some new features such as OSCILLATOR SYNC and UNISON.

Here's an article I wrote on using the free TAL Bassline synth to make a kick drum.

Here's an article introducing the concept of RING MODULATION.

This post discusses use for NOISE in your sounds.

Here's one about using PITCH ENVELOPES to add a hard attack to bass sounds.

Here's something a bit more advanced: simulating old school video game music in Native Instruments Massive.

Also on the more advanced end of the spectrum is this article about a type of filter we haven't discussed here called a COMB FILTER.

What about resources outside of this blog?  Check out the Synth Secrets series by Sound on Sound Magazine.  Simon Cann offers a free version of his How to Make a Noise guide to synthesis, as well as a commercial version with additional content.  Finally, check out Howard Scarr's excellent Programming Analogue Synths guide on Access's site in the manual downloads section.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Synthesis Made Simple Part 11: Putting it All Together

So over the past couple of weeks, we discussed the basic ingredients that make up most synthetic sounds you're likely to hear. As you might expect, many synths are a lot more complex and offer many more options than we've outlined here, but don't worry about that yet. What you've (hopefully) learned here accounts for most of what you need to make your own sounds. Get a good handle on this stuff first, and once you feel confident with these fundamentals, feel free to crack open the manual and learn about the more advanced stuff.

So let's review: You start with some oscillators that you set to different waveforms to set a basic general timbre. You tune these oscillators against one another to taste, to make for more complex sounds. These oscillators are fed into a filter to set the basic bright/dark tonal balance and are usually modulated by an envelope and additional modulators to sculpt the tonal changes. From here, we assign different modulators to create more dynamic sounds that change under certain conditions.

This info gives you the fundamentals you need to understand how synthetic sounds are made. But there are some tips you can use to make your ventures into sound creation still easier:

1. ) Try to envision (en-listen?) the sound in your head before you program it - Does it have a high pitch or a low pitch? Is it a thin or fat sound? Is it bright or dark? Does it have a fast attack or does it fade in? Does the sound stop immediately after you let go of the keys or does it fade out? How does the sound change throughout the course of the note? If you analyze and break down sounds this way and think of how those characteristics relate to the basics we've gone over here, you'll find creating them is a lot easier.

2.) Start with a preset that is closest to what you envision - Yes, obviously you want to make your own sounds as original as possible but there is no use doing more programming than you have to. So look for a preset that is at least somewhat similar to the sound you're after as your starting point. If there is nothing very close, at least choose a patch that is of the same type as what you're after - a pad, an organ, a bass, etc. This will at least save you from having to do too much re-programming of the envelopes, etc.

3.) Take apart presets you like to see what makes them tick - One of the best ways to improve your synth programming chops is to look under the hood of preset sounds you like. Look at all the settings that make up a sound. If you can't figure out what parameters are contributing what qualities to the sound, try tweaking different parameters until you figure it out. Looking at the work of experienced programmers is a great way to learn new tricks.

4.) Don't be afraid to get lost - Many synths are a lot more complicated than the basics I laid out here. Don't hesitate to experiment and try crazy things, even if you are completely ignorant of what they do. You'll figure it out. This is actually the way I learned to program. I just called up a preset and changed various parameters to figure out what they did. Remember that you can't hurt anything by messing around with a sound unless you overwrite it. So go crazy. If there is a parameter you're not familiar with, try setting it to extreme values so the effect it has will be more obvious.

5.) Expand your definition of synth programming - Synths are getting more complicated all the time, but if you find your sounds pale in comparison to what you're hearing on your favorite albums, remember that most sounds you hear on commercial albums are heavily layered. So don't think of a synth sound as being the end all, be all. Think of how you can combine completed sounds from different synths into still more complex sounds.

6.) The sound is just the start - It's a good idea to master the basics before you get too deeply into sound design, but once you do, remember that any sound needn't be considered "finished" at the source. Learn to use effects like they are merely extra synthesis tools. Use reverbs to create space or resonances, delays to create rhythmic interest, distortion and filters to alter the harmonic content, use chorus to fatten up thin sounds, use flangers or phasers to create further movement. Just mess around. Create insane, long chains of plug-ins or effects to your synth sounds and see how much deeper than you can make them.

7.) Start simple - Learning to program your own sounds is fun, and as concepts start to click with you, you'll find yourself eager to learn more. When you're starting out, however, stick with a synth with simple, minimal features. With less extraneous features to distract you, you can focus on learning the important basics with minimal confusion. For free synths, I highly recommend Togu Audio Line's excellent Bassline (based on the Roland SH-101 monosynth) or U-no-62 (based on the Juno-60) as great, simple, starter synths. In the commercial realm, check out Korg's Polysix emulation in the Analog Legacy bundle.

8.) Don't get discouraged - Like anything new, you're going to suck at sound programming at first. Don't get discouraged if you're not able to instantly start programming the sounds you imagine in your head. Keep at it and experiment, experiment, experiment. You'll be amazed at how quickly you'll start to pick things up.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Synthesis Made Simple Part 10: Using Modulation Practically

So by now, you should have a basic idea of the concept of modulation, and you've met the two most common modulators: the envelope and the LFO. To fill out your knowledge of modulation a bit more, this post will be less an article than it will be a couple of lists. The first of these will give you some definitions of other common modulators you might run into, and the second will be a list of various examples of ways you might want to modulate a sound and how to achieve it. 


The Mod Wheel - As you probably gathered, the "mod" in "mod wheel" stands for modulation. Virtually every keyboard synth you will run into will have a mod wheel located next to the pitch bend wheel. (Some older Roland and Korg synths have joysticks where side to side movements bend the pitch, and forward movement acts as a mod controller, but the concept is the same.) The mod wheel doesn't have a function until you assign it one, so it can do just about whatever you want it to. Common uses are to trigger a vibrato effect that can be faded in or opening the filter cutoff. But it can be assigned to anything your synth allows you to modulate.

The Pitch Bend Wheel - Since the pitch bend wheel is already hard-wired to change the pitch of your oscillators, it's not something most people use for other modulation purposes that often, but many synths do allow it. If you assign it to open the filter, your sound will rise in pitch and get brighter as you advance the wheel.

Velocity - Velocity is simply a measure of how hard you hit a key. If you play a key on a piano softly, the sound you produce will be someone quiet and subdued. Hit it harder, though, and it's much louder, brighter, and more aggressive. It's this ability that allows us to make instruments that allow for expressive playing just like "real" instruments. The most common destination to modulate with velocity is amplitude, so the harder you play, the louder the sound gets. Filter cutoff is another popular choice. Real sounds tend to get brighter as they are played harder, so you can emulate that, or you can do really complex sounding, modulating synth riffs. Remember, on many synths you can modulate by negative amounts too, so you could create a sound that was loud when you played lightly and quiet when you played it hard if you wanted to. Why you'd want to, I don't know, but you can do it.

Pressure - Pressure allows you to apply modulation to notes you are already sustaining. Play a chord and as you're sustaining the chord, you press harder on the keys to apply the modulation. This is great for pads when assigned to filter cutoff, as it allows you to do really expressive swells. The important thing to remember is that this is not a polyphonic effect. That is to say, it will look at a chord you're playing, and whatever note you're playing with the most pressure will effect the modulation for ALL the notes you're playing.

Channel Pressure - Less common than plain old pressure, channel or polyphonic pressure operates the same way, but it will treat each note individually. Thus, if you're playing two notes at a time, one very lightly, and one very hard, the note triggered with a soft touch will have less modulation applied to it than the one you played hard, which will have lots of modulation applied to it. This is obviously a still more expressive form of modulation. In addition to the popular amplitude or filter cutoff destinations, if you apply it to oscillator pitch, you can emulate the sometimes odd pitch bends within chords on pedal steel guitars.

Key Scaling/Following - This varies the amount of modulation that is applied to the modulator based on the position of the key on the keyboard. With a positive mod amount, the amount of modulation increases the higher the note you're playing is on the keyboard. You can guess what a negative amount would do. This is most commonly used on filter cutoff. Many times, the filter setting that is perfect for the low end of your keyboard is too dark or muffled in the higher notes, so this allows you to compensate for that and have higher cutoff values on them.


Add a vibrato effect - Assign an LFO as your modulation source with your oscillator(s) pitch as the destination. Your modulation amount can be positive or negative, but should be for a relatively low amount to avoid the "crazy siren" effect. LFO waveform should generally be a triangle, although sine can work as well. Using a square wave here with more intense modulation amounts can create trills.

Add a dubstep wobble effect - Set your filter cutoff and resonance to a medium setting. Assign an LFO as your modulation source with the filter cutoff as the destination and a positive modulation amount to taste. If your synth will sync the LFO to note values, try using triplet or dotted eighth notes. Feed it through some distortion and you're good to go.

Add an auto-pan effect - Set an LFO as your mod source, with your sound's PAN position as the destination. Higher modulation amount values will result in more extreme panning, while more moderate values will generally be a bit more useful. If your synth allows your LFO to sync to a note value, try setting it to 2-3 bars.

Use pressure to bend the pitch - Assign pressure (or channel pressure, if available) as your mod source, and your oscillator(s) pitch as the destination.

Use velocity to make a sound brighter as you play harder - Assign velocity as your mod source and filter cutoff as the destination with a positive modulation amount.

Use velocity to make a sound louder as you play harder - Assign velocity as your mod source and the sound's VOLUME or AMP level as the destination with a positive modulation amount.

There's just a few to get you started. Take some time to explore your synth's modulation options. Some will have more than others, and as you get comfortable using modulation, you'll come to really appreciate synths with deep mod options. Remember also that with most synths, you can have multiple modulation sources modulating multiple destinations at once, so you can see the potential for really complex, evolving sounds on a synth with great modulation capabilities. Next post, I'll wrap things up with some advice to keep in mind when you're programming your own sounds.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Synthesis Made Simple: Part 9 - Your Friend the LFO

Last time around, we discussed envelopes, one of the tools you can use to perform automated modulation of various synth parameters. As you'll recall, envelopes are perfect for modulations that take place over time and happen once each time a key is pressed. So what if you need a modulation that repeats regularly? That just happens to be the strength of the LFO.

The acronym LFO stands for "Low Frequency Oscillator." As the name suggests, this is an oscillator just like we talked about early in this series, but with an important difference - it plays at frequencies that are below the range of our hearing. So what good is an oscillator you can't hear? LFO's aren't used as an audio signal. Instead, they're used as a control signal.

An LFO is like that robot assistant I mentioned a couple posts back. It smoothly and repeatedly turns the value of whatever parameter you assign it to up and down automatically. Instead of using programmed ADSR values to determine the 'shape' of the modulation, an LFO takes the shape of the waveform it's producing and uses that to create the modulation. The LFO waveforms you'll find on almost any synth are the same 'classic' analog waveforms we discussed at the beginning of this series. Thus, the upward slope of a triangle wave increases the value of the modulation, while the downward slope decreases it. A sinewave does the same thing, but the peaks and valleys are a bit more smoothed out. A sawtooth will result in modulation that continuously rises and then drops off sharply over and over. A squarewave will produce a modulation that goes back and forth between two values. These modulations will repeat for as long as you hold the note.

Some synths will have an additional option among the LFO waveforms called 'SAMPLE & HOLD'. Fuller-featured synths might even have a dedicated Sample & Hold Generator. Sample and hold generates random values (the 'sampling' part) and holds them for a period of time before changing to yet another random value. If you assign it to modulate your filter cutoff, you open the door to complex, changing burbling effects like this:

Assign it to modulate the pitch of one of your audio oscillators, and you get R2-D2/sci-fi type sound effects like this:

Like an audio oscillator, all LFOs have a frequency control. On an audio oscillator, the frequency value changes the pitch, but on an LFO, it controls the speed of the modulation. This allows you to create filter sweeps that take place over several bars at slow speeds, or to create vibrato effects at higher speeds and everything in between. Most modern synths allow you to sync your LFO to the tempo of your host/sequencer, so you can have changes in the sound take place over musically coherent periods. Older synths, however, generally lack this capability, so getting synced LFO effects is a little trickier with them.

Another parameter you might run into on an LFO is DELAY. The delay parameter does just what it says. It waits a pre-determined amount of time before allowing the LFO to kick in. Think of a cello player who plays a note and as it sustains gently adds in some vibrato. Delay allows you to replicate that.

If this all seems a bit confusing, here are some practical examples that'll hopefully clear things up a bit. In this first example, an LFO with a TRIANGLE wave modulates the filter cutoff. It starts with a low frequency value, and gradually increases the frequency. The triangle wave is probably the one you'll use the most when it comes to modulation:

The most common use of LFOs is to add vibrato. You do this by assigning it to modulate the pitch of your oscillator(s). For these types of effects, you generally want to keep the modulation amount pretty conservative, otherwise you end up with something that sounds like a siren. Here is an LFO set to the TRIANGLE wave modulating the pitch of a sawtooth oscillator:

If you've got a stereo synth, you can even use an LFO to modulate the pan position of a sound for instant, auto-panning . Here, I'm using a sine wave to cause the sound to pan back and forth in the stereo field:

LFOs are great for creating pulsing, rhythmic effects, too. Here, I am using an LFO set to a squarewave to modulate the amplitude, resulting in what sounds like a simple sequenced part  playing quarter notes, but is actually produced from sustained whole notes:

As you can see, LFOs are extremely useful and have a wide number of possible applications all of which can add a sense of movement to your sounds.  What's better, most modern synths offer you several LFOs which can all be assigned to different waveforms/values to modulate separate synth parameters. Which is a good thing, because once you get used to using LFOs to modulate sounds, it can get addictive.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Synthesis Made Simple Part 8: The Envelope, Please

In the previous post, I described a scenario in which you adjust the volume of your car radio as you’re driving to make it louder when a song you like comes on or to make it quieter when you get a ring on your cell phone. Nothing we probably haven't all done before, but all that fiddling about can be a bit distracting while you’re driving. Wouldn’t it be great if you had a little robot friend that could automatically adjust the volume knob for you? In a sense, that’s exactly what MODULATORS do - they automatically change whatever parameters they're assigned to, leaving your hands free to play. The most common type of modulator in the synth world is what is called an ENVELOPE.

An envelope is used to perform one time, non-repeating modulations to a sound that occur over a period of time. I don’t mean to keep bringing up the example of plucking a note on a guitar, but it really is a great example for explaining a lot of concepts of synthesis. So imagine you pluck a note. Over time it goes from a bright, loud initial pluck (the ATTACK) fading down (the DECAY) to a mellower sustaining portion (the SUSTAIN), until it eventually fades out (the RELEASE). This type of modulation is what envelopes are designed for. Think of an envelope like a mini timeline that allows you to define changes to a parameter over the course of the time you hold a note.

The most common type of envelope you’ll find on synths is called an ADSR envelope. The name refers to the portions of the sound I just mentioned above. For the sake of introducing you to envelopes, I’m going to be talking about using an ADSR envelope to modulate the volume or amplitude of a sound. Virtually every synth that ever existed at the very least has an envelope dedicated to modulating the amplitude of your sound. Often, they can do much more than that, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

When you first play a note, you are triggering the ATTACK portion of the sound. Not all sounds start the exact moment you begin playing. Sure, if you play a piano or organ, the sound begins the moment you press the key. But sounds like flutes or strings actually “fade” in a bit. It takes time for them to reach the maximum volume. Thus, a sound that starts instantaneously would have the lowest attack value possible, whereas a sound that fades in like strings or a synth pad, would have a higher attack value.

Most real world sounds don’t maintain the same volume level from start to finish. Instead, after the initial attack, the sound tends to drop down in volume a bit. The time it takes for the sound to go from that initial louder attack to the quieter SUSTAIN (more on that in a second), is what is known as the DECAY time.  A low decay value would very quickly move on to the sustain portion (great for synth bass sounds), whereas a higher decay value might take longer to reach it (like a piano).

Unlike attack or decay, which are time values, the SUSTAIN level is an amount level. If we’re talking about an AMPLITUDE ENVELOPE, the sustain level is the volume a note eventually settles on after the initial attack decays down.  In general, a higher value will be useful for infinitely sustaining sounds like pads, where a level of zero wouldn't sustain at all.

Finally, we have the RELEASE portion of the envelope. Put simply, this is the time it takes for the sound to fade out after you’ve released the key. If you play an organ, the sound cuts off immediately after you let go of a key. On the other hand, if you play a note on an acoustic piano, the sound gradually fades out after you let go as the vibration of the strings and the body of the piano die out. Thus, a low release value will end the note close to the time you release the key, whereas a longer release will take time to fade out. In addition to being useful for simulating the way real instruments operate, longer release values can be useful for creating more atmospheric sounds, as it can very simplistically emulate reverb.

So envelopes can be useful for shaping the volume of a sound throughout the time you hold a key. But they aren’t limited to just this. Even the simplest monosynth generally allows you to use an envelope to modulate the filter cutoff as well. In fact, this is so common, that you’ll probably remember I mentioned that most filters have a dedicated parameter for determining what influence the envelope has on the cutoff. Using envelopes to modulate the cutoff lets you emulate the bright initial attack of a sound and the drop off that usually follows. Or to imitate the swell of an ocean wave. Basically, any time you need the frequency content of your sound (the bright/dark level) to change over time, a filter envelope is there to serve you.

Another common thing envelopes are used to modulate is oscillator pitch. Some acoustic sounds, like a trumpet, have an initial ‘blip’ in the pitch at the attack portion of the sound before it settles to the note you’re playing. This happens extremely quickly, but it has a great effect in how each note sounds. Or, take a sound like the classic 808 kick drum. It starts at a higher pitch, and slowly drops down to get that classic ‘DOOOOOOOOoooooooong’ sound.  Most modern synths will allow you to modulate pitch with an envelope, but this is a bit rarer on older ones.

So, what if I want to use an envelope to modulate more than one of these parameters at once, but I don’t want them to all modulate in the same way or at the same speed? Fortunately, most synths are equipped with more than a single envelope. So you could have a different envelope for your pitch, your filter cutoff, AND your amplitude. Not ALL synths allow this, but most at least have separate envelopes available to modulate the amplitude and filter cutoff separately. Thus, you can have a sound that starts playing the moment you press the key (via the amplitude envelope), but that goes from dark to bright (the filter envelope) as you play it.

So envelopes are clearly very useful to create modulations that only occur once (some synths DO allow you to loop an envelope, but this is relatively rare). What if you want a modulation that repeats regularly? Think of a cello player who plays a note and adds some vibrato to the note as it sustains. Vibrato is a repeating pitch modulation. This sort of effect is the domain of the LFO which we'll talk about next time!