Fix It Before The Mix: 10 Tips For Sound Design

10) Use Extra Output Channels

If your synthesizer plug-in is multitimbral (capable of playing several different sounds at once on different MIDI channels), it will usually mix all of the sounds to one stereo output. But if you dig into the manual, you’ll usually find a way to send each sound to its own output. You may also need to activate the separate outputs in your host program for this to work.

The advantage of having each sound on its own output is that you can apply different effects to the various sounds in your mixer. With a percussion-oriented plug-in like Spectrasonics Stylus RMX, for instance, I might send one snare hit from the pattern to a different output so I can apply a dub-style triplet delay line to it. You may also find it easier, for technical reasons, to automate the mixer controls rather than trying to automate a few of the hundreds of voice parameters in a multitimbral synth.

Fig. 6: The Playlist in Image-Line FL Studio. Note the unvarying repetition of the two-bar pattern called “7/8 beat” (top row). I still need to do some editing in this song!

11) Edit The Block-Copied Loops

When developing a song in a sequencer, it’s quick and easy to build a long section by copying a one-bar or two-bar loop so that it repeats for eight bars, or sixteen, or thirty-two. The result: mind-numbing repetition. After all your basic tracks are in place, go back to the loop track and make a few edits here or there. Even if the listener isn’t consciously aware that the loop is being varied, it will sound fresh and keep their interest.

Making subtle edits is easier with MIDI tracks than with sampled loops. With an electric piano comp, for instance, you might want to vary the chord voicings between the first verse and the second, or just rerecord the same part a second time so that the timing and velocities will be a bit different. A bass track will often benefit from little ornaments such as slides and pops that aren’t repeated. In some sequencers, such as FL Studio (Fig. 6), you may need to use a “make unique” command before editing the repetitions, so that your edits will apply to only one of the patterns, not to all of them. Opening up the filter gradually over the course of four bars is a familiar effect in dance music. To get this effect, you’ll use a combination of track automation and synthesizer voice editing.

The Sky's The Limit

Okay, so that was 11 tips, not 10. Even so, I’ve only touched on a few of the ways you can massage the sounds of a synthesizer or sampler. Waveform modulation, multisegment envelopes, complex modulation routings, and many other features can be used to personalize your sounds and make your mixes sparkle.

Jim Aikin is a freelance writer specializing in electronic music. He also teaches classical cello and writes computer-based interactive fiction. Visit him online at

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