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Programming Essential Subtractive Synth Patches

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This post is part of a series called Top Sound Design Tuts.
Essential Synthesis Part 3: Synth Bass
Synthesize a Mini Pluck with Sylenth1

In some of my recent tutorials I have looked at programming patches that represent the building blocks of subtractive synthesis. In this more extensive offering we'll round up the sounds covered so far and explore a few others.

I've used Reason's Subtractor throughout this tutorial but you can of course use any subtractive instrument in your collection to recreate the sounds created here. The previous synthesis tutorials I have completed use a few different instruments and should show you that these sounds can be created on just about any synth. Learn to make each of these sounds and you should be well on your way to becoming an accomplished synthesist.


Step 1: Classic Synth Bass

Kicking off our five sound groups we have one of the most commonly created synth patches out there, the classic synth bass. Get this right and you'll find your suddenly familiar with all the major sections of your chosen instrument.

The real beauty of synth bass patches are that in the most part they are extremely simple to create. From an initialised patch they can be fully programmed in only a few 'moves', so if you are looking for a quick warm up or just some instant gratification this is really the way to go.

So you'll need to start with an initialised patch and this rely applies to all the patches we'll be covering here. Obviously the method for creating a 'blank' starting point varies instrument to instrument but it's really an essential process.

I find that if the synth I'm using doesn't supply a satisfactory way of completely wiping a patch, it can be a good idea to construct your own. This generally involves opening and resetting filters, turning off all but one oscillator and initialising envelopes so that they have everything but their sustain turned down. It also goes without saying that all LFO's modulators and effects should be turned off. With this complete you can save the patch and get programming.


Our initialised patch in Subtractor

As you would with any synth patch start with your oscillators. Now depending on whether you like a nice wide detuned bass or you prefer a more solid single oscillator sound, you will need to pick one or two waves here. In this case I have used two de-tuned saw waves. I find this is a great foundation for a lot of sounds and we'll discover how we can use this same combo in other patches.


Th de-tuned oscillators are activated

These saw waves will then need to be fed into a resonant low pass filter model. Most synths feature multi-mode filters and this is a pretty standard mode and is often the synths default state. Set the filter cutoff to around 70% and add a small amount of resonance for flavour.


Our resonant filter is set up

Now to give this filter some movement use an envelope (perhaps the synths dedicated filter envelope if it has one?) to add a decay based effect. This should give your bass sound a slight acid edge and really introduce a dynamic feel. Ultimately this will make the sound more expressive and much more playable.

Our bass sound is nearly complete and could be used in it's current state but there are a few more changes that can be made to make it a little more presentable. The amp envelope can be treated to a little release to make the notes a little less abrupt and some glide/portamento can be added to introduce some bend in between notes. Of course this will work better if the synth is in 'mono' or 'legato' mode.


Some voicing modes are changed to finish off our sound

It's really that easy to create a basic bass patch. Of course there are literally hundreds of tweaks we can make to any of the sounds in this tutorial to transform them and make them your own. In their current state they only represent a starting point or foundation.

To read more about programming synth bass sounds you could check out a tutorial I wrote on the subject some time ago here.


Step 2: Synth Strings

Another hugely important sound to have in your programming repertoire is a classic synth string patch. To show you how you can move from one sound to another in only a few moves we can use the settings from our last synth bass patch and transform them into a convincing synth string sound.

In our previous patch we used two de-tuned saw waves, this set up can be re-used here. I you prefer you could use two de-tuned square or pulse width waves. The important thing is keeping the de-tuning. This adds width and a natural chorus effect to our sound.

The filter can also be left more or less untouched, as a lightly effected low pass resonant filter is ideal for this sound. The real difference will be in the way we modulate the filter settings and this will be achieved using an envelope.

In our bass patch we used a fast, decay based envelope to create a snappy, acidic sound. When programming pads and strings things should be generally slower, with longer attack and release times. So dial in these values to both the amp and filter envelopes and straight away you should hear your string sound taking place.


With only a few tweaks our synth bass sound is easily transformed into a string patch.

Of course this is in no way meant to truly mimic an acoustic string section but more that of a classic synth string patch. With this in mind things can be kept really simple and the minor alterations we've made here are enough to give us the patch we are after. From this point you can make your own tweaks to personalise the patch, but learn how to program to this point with your eyes shut.

To read more about programming synth string sounds check this out.


Step 3: Evolving Pads and Textures

Equally as important as the humble synth string is the eternally useful pad patch. Pads can take many forms but essentially share the same dynamic signature as the string. Slow attacks and releases are the order of the day here. the main difference is that they are usually more muted in nature and this often involves a little more filtering.

So with this in mind we can easily move from the bright, direct sound of our synth string patch to the more subdued effect of our pad with only a few tweaks to our filter settings. By simply lowering the cut off frequency the sound is totally transformed.

Although this has taken us most of the way to a useable pad sound we really need to make the sound a little more dynamic in nature. Many pad sounds 'evolve' and change over time, this gives them an organic nature and means they can be used as backdrops or sonic textures.

To achieve this movement we need to think about introducing some modulation into our patch. The best way to achieve this is by using the synths built in LFOs (low frequency oscillators). Most instruments have at least one LFO and many have two or three. These LFOs are more often than not freely assignable, meaning you can route them to any part of the synth.


The synths LFO is activated and is now controlling the filter

The obvious route here is to use an LFO to effect the filter's cutoff frequency, this will give you a constant movement throughout the sound and in conjunction with the effect of the filter envelope should give you the feeling the sound is evolving. Other parameters you can experiment with are master volume, pan and resonance.

To learn more about programming synth pads have a read of this.


Step 4: Lead Sounds for the Perfect Topline

Lead sounds are extremely useful for creating top line melodies in your projects and they are another essential sound to have in your collection. Although the average lead patch is a very different animal to the string or pads sounds we have looked at, if we step back to the fist bass sound we created it's DNA can be used as a basis yet again.

Our de-tuned saw waves can be changed to something different, say a saw and a square. This should add an interesting texture to our sound. The filter can be pretty much left as it is but the envelopes will need some tweaking. A slightly slower release time is needed for the amp envelope settings and a decay based filter envelope should work nicely.

With these minor changes in place you'll find that once the sound is played high up the keyboard it has become a very convincing lead sound. Further changes that can be made to your lead patch to make it even more playable include voicing mode adjustments such as extra portamento.


With literally 3 or 4 changes we have changed our original synth bass into a playable lead sound


Step 5: Noise and Resonance Based Effects

Finally let's take a look at a sound that really represents an entire family of patches. In modern electronic music synth effects are indispensable and learning how to create this sort of patch certainly pays off. Although there are literally endless possibilities for variation here, as with many of these basic patches, get the foundation right and the rest is easy.

The main point of making atonal, non musical effects is so that they fit anywhere in any project. This means you can load them up time and time again and use them without worrying about tuning or pitch. To achieve this we have to ensure that the sound source used is not pitched. The best option here is to use noise as out primary oscillator.

Most synths have noise generators built in and Subtractor is no exception. The trick is to ensure that all other oscillators bar the noise generator are disabled. You can then feed this pure noise signal into a resonant filter and create any effect you want.


The noise oscillator is isolated

The easiest effect to start with is perhaps the sound of the seashore or waves. These can be easily emulated my using a pad or string like envelope setting and playing the sound slowly. You should be presented with your wave effect almost immediately.


Long attack and release times are used to create our wave effect

For something a little different try resetting the envelope and using an LFO to modulate the filters cutoff. By constantly changing the LFOs speed you can create laser type effects. As you can see this noise based system is pretty versatile and you should find you can produce everything from percussion sounds to long drawn out textures.


.. a few changes and we have our LFO based noise effect

Take a look at some other tutorials on creating synth effects here and here.

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