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Using Synths And Instruments As Effects Processors

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We all love having a good collection of effects processors at our disposal, so you'll be glad to know you might have a few more options than you originally thought. It turns out that quite a few of your run of the mill synths are capable of acting as dedicated signal processors and can become anything from resonant filters to full on multi effects units.

Although set up varies from instrument to instrument, it's usually pretty straight forward and shouldn't hurt your brain too much! Let's take a look at a few examples of this technique in action and it should get you thinking in the right way and allow you to experiment with your own software collection.

Step 1: Our Raw Sound

Of course you’ll need a DAW loaded with a raw sound to process. In this case I’m using Logic Pro 9 and a musical loop. I went for something pretty harmonically rich so you could hear the effects of the different synths clearly.

Of course it goes without saying you can use any DAW you like and any sound. It’s even likely you’ll end up using a different synth. This tutorial is simply an example of what is possible when the right elements are used.

The raw sound ready to be treated.

The raw sound plays back

Step 2: Choosing The Right Synths

To get this process right the first thing you need to be able to do is spot the synths capable of behaving as signal processors. As a rule these instruments generally come in two flavours, the insert capable synth and the external input capable.

Whichever synth you end up using as an effects processor, first you’ll need to identify it and ensure that it’s going to work. The insert capable stuff is very easy to find. In fact if you navigate around your plug-in list when choosing an insert you should see some of your favourite synth names pop up with a simple ‘FX’ after their name.

These inserts can be used in the same way as any other effect and you’ll find the interface will be very similar to the actual synth, the only real difference will be that it will allow your signal to pass through it’s internal circuitry.

Other synths that can be used as effects units will actually be loaded as an instrument and the signal you want to process will be fed to it through a discrete external input. Some of these synths will allow the sound to be passed through their filters, others their internal effects and in some cases all of the above!

Synths that allow external inputs are pretty rare to be honest and you are much more likely to find synths that handle ‘side chain’ inputs, for modulation purposes. The trick here is to really get to know your synth collection as every instrument is different. If you synth is capable of either technique I’m about to demonstrate then you should consult your manual to get the low down on exactly how to route external audio.

Step 3: The Insert Capable Synth In Action

If you choose to go for an insert capable synth you can simply go to the audio file (or instrument channel) you want to process and add the effect as you would any other. You can see in the image below I have a number of N.I. Instruments that are capable of this in my collection.

Anything with FX after it’s name in your insert list is likely to be a synth.

Once the insert is active you will be presented with the synth’s interface and you can get tweaking! In this case I have opted for the Korg MS-20 FX plug-in and used the filter’s on my musical loop. These are great virtual analog filters and better than most stand alone filter plug-ins.

The MS-20 processes our sound.

The sound being fed through the MS-20 filters

Step 4: The External Input Capable Synth

On the flip side we have the external input capable synth and when using these instruments there is a little more work to be done.

As I mentioned earlier these synths are little harder to find but an excellent example of an instrument that does a great job of this is Propellerhead’s Thor. Thor allows us to feed our audio (or sample) into Thor’s circuitry and add not just filtering but also multi effects to the signal.

The routing is not as straight forward as just throwing an insert in line but the extra work is usually worthwhile. Start by feeding your audio track into Thor’s inputs, you should find your sound disappears at this point as your original routing is broken.

Start by feeding Thor’s inputs!

With this routing complete you need to make the connection in Thor’s mod matrix. Select inputs 1 and 2 from the drop down menu and feed these to inputs 1 and 2 of filter number 3. When the amount is turned up to 100% you will now get sound.

Now assign the inputs to filter 3.

With the level turned up you can now hear your sound.

Now put filter 3 into any mode you like, I opted for the very cool comb filter model here. I then added some chorus, delay and a little LFO based modulation for some movement. As you can hear some pretty cool effects are produced.

The filter settings used

The final sound effected by Thor

Even if you opt for a synth with this more complex routing it’s still pretty straight forward. Try playing around with you synths and you might find that you have a lot more effects in your sonic arsenal than you originally thought!

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