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5 Ways to Enhance Any Synth Patch

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When you are programming any analog style synth patch it always pays to have a few tips and tricks up your sleeve to spice up proceedings. Regardless of what style of patch you are creating it only takes a few choice moves to transform a dull lifeless patch into something really useable and exciting.

In this tutorial we'll take a look at several simple techniques that'll help you with your programming and hopefully make your patches a whole lot more interesting. You can use nearly any virtual analog soft synth here as the techniques demonstrated are generic.


Step 1: Oscillator Detune

One of the simplest ways of adding width to your patches early in the programming process is to use detuned oscillators. If you are not familiar with this technique start with a simple, single oscillator patch and add a second duplicate oscillator. In other words, if you are using a saw wave add another saw! Simple.

A simple single oscillator patch.

The single oscillator patch plays back.

Next up we need to create the actual detuned effect. This is achieved by using the fine tune function on each oscillator. Move one fine tune to a slightly positive setting and another to a slightly negative setting. I find that about 7 cents each way tends to work very well but the intensity you use is completely up to you.

The patch with detuned oscillators.

The two oscillators are detuned.

Creating a detuned synth patch is really this simple and can be hugely effective for pads, leads and even some bass sounds. Another nice touch you can add hear is stereo enhancement. If your synths feature set allows it you can try panning the oscillators hard left and right, this will create a very wide stereo chorus effect. Fabfilter's Twin 2 synth is a great example of an instrument capable of this effect.


Step 2: Layering Oscillators

We've seen how adding a simple duplicate detuned oscillator can immediately fatten our patches up but by adding layered oscillators of different flavours we can achieve even more interesting results.

Let's say you have a simple one or two oscillator sound, try adding a new oscillator using a different waveform to the others and tuning it an entire octave below or above the others. This can lead to a whole new texture in your patch. Other tuning such as 5ths or 7ths also work very well in some circumstances although you may find that simply adding another type of wave is enough.

A simple two oscillator patch.

The two oscillator patch plays back.

Of course how many 'extra' oscillators you can add to your patch will ultimately be decided by the synth you are using and it's architecture. If you plan to experiment with these layered sounds and combinations of different waveforms you might want to opt for an instrument that has at least three oscillator slots.

An extra pulse width modulated, transposed oscillator is added.

The pad plays back with extra oscillator.


Step 3: Using Portamento and Glide

Moving away from the oscillator section of our synth let's have a little look at something called portamento (or glide). If you are a rookie synthesist and these words are new to you then let me explain. Portamento is simply a feature that forces each note played by your synth to slide to the next. So rather than a straight step up or down to the next note in your sequence you'll get a smooth glide in pitch.

A synth pattern with no glide.

With a simple sequence programmed try engaging this feature and adjusting the glide time to taste. Also try experimenting with solo / legato mode. This will only induce glides if the notes you program overlap, giving you total control over when the effect is present. If you feel your patch is a little dull this can be the perfect solution and totally transform some sequences.

A synth patch with some portamento added.

The same synth pattern with glide added to a few choice notes.


Step 4: Adding Distortion or Drive

Some synths feature their own distortion or drive circuits and these are often found built right into the filter section. These will often mimic tube or tape saturation and can be a total lifesaver when it comes to boring synth patches. Even patches lifted directly out of factory libraries can be made to sound exciting with a touch of drive.

Try combining any drive you use with high resonance settings and entirely new layers of harmonics can be introduced into your sound. In fact if these two features are pushed to their max your sound can be twisted beyond recognition fairly easily.

A healthy amount of drive and resonance is added to our patch.

The newly distorted patch plays back.


Step 5: Use Those LFOs

All these little tricks are great but the most tried and tested way of altering our patches is the use of good old fashioned modulation. There are literally limitless ways in which we can effect out patches using modulation. Every synth has it's own system for applying it's modulation but even the simplest most stripped down instruments can induce pretty intense effects.

Some good starting points here are using your LFOs to modulate parameters such as pan, volume, filter cut off and pitch. All of these can be set up in a matter of seconds to produce tremolo, auto-pan, wah-wah and vibrato effects without even reaching for an external effects plug-in!

This pad benefits from a good amount of filter modualtion from and LFO.

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