Steve Hillier is a writer and record producer and with more than a dozen hits under his belt. An Apple Logic genius, when he isn’t producing and performing, Steve can often be found teaching Sound Engineering Courses at Point Blank. In this article he discuses some analogue synths and how they match up to the modern digital sisters…
Arturia released the MiniBrute last month. The softsynth company have made a genuine analogue synthesizer which will sell well for a simple reason: every laptop producer knows in her heart that software synthesizers, no matter how exciting, are not the real thing.
No amount of code and graphics replaces that ‘hands on’ feeling, no amount of accuracy removes that niggle that she’s working with a simulation. But there’s another crucial aspect of the MiniBrute that’s been overlooked in the excitement: it has no presets. None. And this might be a game changer for producers. In 2012, the problem with virtual synths isn’t the results…they sound amazing. Today’s issue is how we use them. With the incredible variety available, and with every DAW being supplied with at least a couple of highly capable instruments and thousands of patches, we no longer work with our synths. We let them do the work for us.
Initially synthesizers had no keyboards and resembled something you’d find in a 1950’s sci-fi movie. In order to create a sound you had to ‘patch’ modules together with leads to create an audio signal flow that would eventually produce a sound. Synth operators worked hands-on with their instrument in large, air conditioned studios and became highly skilled sound designers; they had to learn their instrument or they’d never get any work done!
As technology evolved, and particularly with the launch of the Minimoog and it’s predetermined signal paths, sound design became something everyone could try. Building a synthesizer at home became a popular pastime in the 1970s. Anyone with a soldering iron could be an audio engineer.
Then patch memory appeared and changed synthesizers forever. At the touch of a button you could completely convert the sound of your synth. Switching between sounds live or in the studio could have freed us to create diverse and unique sonic worlds. But it didn’t. One of the most astonishing things about the Prophet 5 was on return for servicing (a regular occurrence sadly) most units had all the factory patches intact. The players hadn’t changed them at all. Factory presets, intended to be nothing more than demonstrations of what an instrument could do, were taking control. The advent of the Yamaha DX7 in 1983, with it plastic membrane switches and impenetrable user interface cemented this change forever; synth players were becoming preset players and sound design became the preserve of the adventurous and the obsessive.
‘Phasers preset to numb’
In 2012, we spend more time selecting patches than making our own sounds. And with laptop producers having an attention span comparable to a gnat, this vast choice has turned us into hapless librarians, scanning through endless menus searching for something to excite us. We’re not getting our hands dirty but we are getting very bored.
The quality of the sounds are not the issue, it’s the amount and the endless process of auditioning them that kills inspiration. There are other problems too:
- A large range of presets inhibits the user from learning the synth. Why put in the time to get to grips with Absynth when you can have that amazing sound in an instant?
- Having that sound in an instant leads to preset fatigue, where the connection between the librarian (sorry, producer) and the music she’s making is slowly lost. Like developing a website from a template, it looks nice at first but that impression wears off quickly because it’s not yours. And when you’re working with something that isn’t yours, the emotional connection can be lost too
- The librarian develops a habit of looking for huge impressive sounds that deliver instant impact. Come mixing time, she’ll spend most of her time compressing and EQing to weld them together when a sense of light and shade in her sound design would have done the job for her.
- Endless choice leads to dissatisfaction. When you can have any sound, how can you be happy with any sound?
The solution: Digital lifestyle, Analogue attitude
We can avoid these issues by taking a cue from the world of classic analogue synthesizers. We need to fight against this infinite flexibility and it’s inherent dissatisfaction by introducing a few obstacles. I call this discipline.
- Buy one excellent soft synth and learn how to use it thoroughly. My fave is Spectrasonic’s Omnisphere (pictured above). If you can’t make the sound you want in this beast then that’s your fault, not Omnisphere’s!
- Uninstall all other soft synths from your computer, put them out of temptation’s way. You won’t need them. You probably never did.
- Create a library of your own sounds using your chosen synth. And not ‘tweaked’ presets, that’s cheating; sounds you’ve made from scratch. A benefit of this approach is that you’ll be familiar with your library in a way you never were when you had a million sounds to choose from. They’ll be exclusively yours too.
- Create your sounds as a separate process to your composing. Sound design and composition are two different disciplines, separate them so that you get the best out of both
- Create a template project that includes a selection of your own ‘vanilla’ sounds for easy composing
- Create simple sounds without multiple layers, because these sound much better in a mix and are easier to control
- Create distinctive sounds. With a bit of effort you will even develop your own signature sound, so no one will ever be in doubt who made your record
- Create finished sounds. Do not design a patch expecting to finish it off with compression, make it punchy within the instrument. This always sounds better, plus you’ll get to know your synthesizer’s capabilities far more deeply
- Once you have played your part and designed your sound, bounce this part down as audio. Rather than editing the sound endlessly, you’re mimicking the process used in a proper recording studio and committing to the sound and the part as you record. All the best records are made this way. Seriously.
- Abandon software synthesizers completely and buy yourself an analogue. There, I said it!
Want to learn more about synthesis? Why not check out our online Ableton Live 2: Sound Design Course.