Fix It Before The Mix: 10 Tips For Sound Design

7) Add Expression

Synthesizers and samplers can all too easily sound dead and sterile. Most of them offer various ways to modulate the sound expressively from note to note, but it’s up to you to learn to use these features.

After selecting a preset, check to see what happens when you move the mod wheel. The wheel may add vibrato or open up the filter, for example. If you don’t like what you’re hearing, edit the preset to change it. The vibrato LFO may be running at a fast, nervous speed, for instance, in which case your wheel moves may sound much better if you slow down the LFO rate.

If you have a hardware controller with a bank of sliders, learn to use the MIDI Learn functions of your synth. You’ll probably be able to assign each front-panel control to a different slider. Parameters like LFO rate, filter overdrive, filter-envelope amount, and delay wet/dry mix are natural choices for slider assignments.

Fig. 4: The arpeggiator in Native Instruments FM8 has rows for rests, tied notes, velocity accents, transposition, and more. Editing these rows is a quick way to come up with a new pattern that works with the groove and harmony of a song.

8) Edit The Piano Roll

Sometimes the sound you’ve selected may be perfect. The problem may be in the MIDI data you’ve recorded. The solution, in that case, is to edit the track, not the sound.

If a few specific notes are popping out of the mix, or getting lost, edit the velocities of the offending MIDI notes. Yes, hand-editing is tedious, but applying the pencil tool to a few notes while leaving the rest alone will quite likely preserve the good live qualities of the track while banishing the glitches.

I always pay close attention to when the MIDI notes end. With a sequenced bass part, for instance, the gaps between notes have a huge impact on the feel. With a long sustaining chord wash, ending the notes slightly earlier may leave just the right amount of space for a drum fill. Be sure to turn off the sequencer’s “snap to grid” feature before editing the ends of notes, and zoom in so you can make small edits.

Some software synths have versatile arpeggiators (Fig. 4). Or maybe we should call them “step sequencers”: You may be able to edit the note length, velocity, and pitch of single steps within a complex moving pattern. Here again, a certain note may pop out in a way that distorts the feel of your song’s groove. Or a note may be on the wrong pitch for the harmony. A few quick edits will give you a pattern that works better, while also adding a modest amount of originality.

Fig. 5: In Zebra 2.5 from U-he software, you can apply distortion in several ways. The filter called VCF1 (middle left) has a drive knob, which is cranked up, and the filter’s output is passing through a waveshaper, which has depth and edge parameters. The filter and Shaper 1 are separate for each voice. At lower right, another waveshaper has been applied as an effect. It will process all of the notes of a chord together, adding more distortion.

9) Distort!

Distortion is a staple of aggressive rock styles. In a synthesizer, there are two ways to apply it: in the filter, or as an effect (Fig. 5). They’re very different. Filter overdrive can fatten up the tone, but the result will likely be cleaner than adding overdrive in the synth’s effects area.

If you play two or more notes at once, each note gets its own filter (and other modules). As a result, filter overdrive affects only one note at a time. Play a five-note chord, and each note is overdriven separately by its own filter.

The signals from all of the notes are then combined and sent to the effects. When you apply an overdrive or distortion effect, it processes all the notes together. If you play only one note at a time, you may not hear any difference. But if you play two or more notes, you’ll hear inter-modulation between them. This is a much thicker, more dangerous sound.

One of my favorite tricks for patching lead synth sounds is to run the tone through a delay line set to an eighth-note or sixteenth-note delay, and then apply a distortion effect to the output of the delay. When I play a sustained note, the distortion doesn’t do much. But when I play a rapid lick, the delay line causes several notes to stack up on their way into the distortion module. The distortion then twists my fast run into a moment of nastiness.

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