Every synth is unique, but here are Mark Jenkins’ (and our) favorite general tips to make creating sounds easy and fun
Early synthesists were often asked to imitate particular instruments – a trumpet, a bass guitar, a flute – but also to create sound effects, for example Suzanne Ciani’s famous “pop and pour” sound for Coca-Cola. A real bottle being opened sounded nothing like what the company was aiming for, so she created a “platonic ideal” of the sound.
Things are no different today, whether working for advertising, computer games or movies, or creating original and striking sounds for your own compositions. So here are some quick and easy approaches to programming and sound creation.
1) Learn some physics.
Understanding the physics of sound creation will help enormously when you’re picturing a sound you want to create or recreate. That means knowing what aspects of a sound determine its pitch, tone, loudness, and superimposed effects like vibrato.
For example, if you want the sound of a crashing sheet of metal, you’ll soon understand that you need to add lots of high harmonics, maybe semi-random ones.
2) Know your synth design fundamentals.
Starting on a Korg Kronos may not be the best way to understand the fundamentals of sound.
Get a basic analog synth – or make one from three or four Eurorack modules, or model one with a simple virtual system like VCV Rack, which astonishingly are free (although certain options are paid) – and you’ll soon appreciate why early synth designs like the MiniMoog created almost universal standards. Having your oscillators flowing through filters and amplifiers controlled by envelopes has always made logical sense, and understanding where in this flow to insert other elements is basic – even if you end up owning totally different synth designs using FM synthesis, sample manipulation or other techniques like granular synthesis.
3) Look into “real” instruments.
Before Karlheinz Stockhausen started creating electronic tape pieces in the 1950s, he visited ethnological museums to understand how early instruments really worked.
The standard symphony orchestra is divided into several sections – strings, brass, woodwind, percussion – each with a different mechanical way of making sound. Understand those mechanisms and you have an insight into reproducing their sounds from scratch.
Some synths like the Technics WSA1, Yamaha VL1/VL70M, and Korg Z1 do some of this physical modelling for you, replicating the effect of combining different mouthpieces, tubes, vibrating objects, and so on. They can help you create the sound of a trumpet mouthpiece playing a metal sheet – whatever that might be.
4) Learn your own synths.
Apart from playing the presets, there’s plenty of work to do in getting the best out of any hardware or software synth design, and understanding what it can do for your music.
For example, the Roland D50 “cheated” at a time when waveform memory was expensive, after engineers realized that a sound can be convincing if you sample the most distinctive part – like the opening “chiff” of a flute – and then complete the sound with the closest simple waveform, say a sine wave. In this way the D50 made highly natural sounding instruments with minimum memory requirement.
The Ensoniq Mirage sounded great too, but actually had very basic sampling quality and depended on very careful setting of the filters to cut out unwanted high frequency noise. Your own synth may be relying on similar workarounds too. Read up about it, and maybe go beyond them…
A really well designed synth could be worked without a manual, but often some great elements are slightly hidden and won’t come into play unless you do read the f manual.
I speak as someone who has been using Apple Logic for 15 years, and just discovered accidentally that its central analog-style virtual synth ES2 has a huge bank of sweepable digital waveforms that can make it sound like a Korg Wavestation/Wavestate, Waldorf, or PPG Wave instrument. That would have saved a lot of time over the years…
6) Abstract sounds.
To create unusual abstract sounds, you really need versatile forms of modulation.
To be specific, the abstract swirling sounds of Tim Blake and Jean-Michel Jarre require two LFOs with variable depth and speed, directed to control an oscillating filter or a sine wave oscillator. Both of those musicians did the trick using the joystick on an EMS Synthi, but anyone can do it now with a few Eurorack modules.
The lesson is that if you want to create some crazy sounds, some synths with only one oscillator and one low frequency oscillator (often without a random setting) will just not take you far enough.
7) Study the classics.
Various synth sounds have captured the public imagination over the years. Make sure you know how to create and modify the sounds from “Popcorn” (short decay Moog synth), “Lucky Man” (high degree of portamento), “Spiral” (filtered sequencer), “Arabesque No. 1” (human whistle), “The Journey” (sawtooth glide lead synth), “Oxygene Pt. 2” (irregular length step sequence), “On The Run” (filtered sequencer), “Autobahn” or “Just An Illusion” (hand-played synth bass), “Song Within A Song” (different shape modulation within the same solo), “Acid Tracks” (Roland Bassline patterns), “Karn Evil 9” (random sample & hold filter), “The Black Hit Of Space” (fuzzed synths replacing fuzz guitar)…
And if you don’t know the artists for all those tracks, shame on you.
8) Get playing technique.
If you are into making some imitative sounds, there’s more to it than programming. Sounds don’t become convincing unless they’re played in a style reminiscent of the actual instrument (and ideally played within the real range of that instrument, not lower or higher). So listen to some solos on saxophone, guitar, pipes or other instruments to see how expression is added to the basic note.
Jan Hammer distorted his MiniMoog and Oberheim SEM combination through a guitar amp, but it’s his approach to pitch bending (particularly using keytars) that really made his guitar imitations convincing (particularly on “Miami Vice” and on albums with Neal Schon or Jeff Beck).
If you’re playing a pipe or whistle sound, don’t add the obvious sine wave vibrato, it’s not typical of the real instrument. You need square wave modulation taking you rapidly up and down to the “next finger hole.”
9) Control your mix.
Once you’ve programmed the sound you want, take care how it’s placed in your mix. As Rick Wakeman once commented to me, even on high pitched orchestral instruments like an oboe, there can be a (largely inaudible) bass element. Rolling that off can clear up huge amounts of headroom in the total volume of your piece.
And of course think about what frequency spectrum your sound is occupying – programming several instruments all to play in the same frequency zone as a human voice could be counter-productive.
If all else fails in your programming quest, try something completely new.
Brian Eno often composed and performed using randomly chosen “Oblique Strategies” cards with instructions like “Only one element of each kind” or “Honour the error as a hidden intention.”
More recently, synthesizers like the Korg Wavestate have been marketed with complete or partial randomization functions. It’s no effort to push these buttons a few times until an interesting starting point comes up, maybe one you wouldn’t normally have considered.
11) Patch things up.
If you’re using any modular or semi-modular gear, don’t be afraid to make non-obvious patch connections and instrument interconnections.
You’re unlikely to do any damage, and obscure options like random sequence controlled pulse width modulation are sure to bring something unique to your sound.