There are plenty of ‘big’ things it’s worth learning when it comes to music-making. Whether that’s mastering an instrument, learning the ins and outs of a new DAW, studying theory or devising a whole new way of being creative. The little things matter too, and we’re focusing on that this issue. Don’t expect any groundbreaking theses on the future of synthesis techniques, or mammoth deep-dives on the development of a certain sound – what follows over the next few pages is a collection of our favourite quick, simple tips. Short, sharp ideas aimed at helping make your music-making life better, from ways to improve your studio layout to beating writer’s block to creative methods for engaging with existing gear. Little by little we hope to help you hack your way to a happier, more productive time in the studio!
6 pro synth programming techniques
Ditch those presets and program standout synth sounds for yourself! Go beyond basic sound design with these quick pro tips
1 Modulation fades
Heavy modulation of oscillator pitch or filter cutoff can sound a little over-the-top if applied to the entire duration of a sound. Many synths allow a ‘fade in’ to be applied to modulation routings though. You might find this as a ‘fade’ parameter attached to an LFO, or within your synth’s modulation matrix. This can be a great tool for adding tremolo to just the release tails of synth chords, or creating bold EDM-style bass with distinctive ‘wobbles’.
2 Looping envelopes
It’s common to find modern synths offering a ‘loop’ function for envelope generators, but what does this do? Well, exactly what it sounds like – once the envelope reaches the end of its final stage, it will retrigger from the start of the ‘attack’. In effect this creates an entirely customisable LFO. Adjusting the attack and decay/ release controls will adjust the speed of the LFO, as well as letting you tailor its shape.
3 Noise as a mod source
Alongside standard tools like LFOs or envelopes, many synths let users use a noise generator as a modulation source. The benefit? In modulation terms, noise provides very rapid randomisation, with the effect of sounding gritty and atonal. Apply a little noise modulation to a filter cutoff for an alternative to distortion or, in small amounts, to modulate oscillator pitch.
4 A FILTER AS AN EXTRA OSCILLATOR
Analogue-style filters sometimes have a capability called ‘self-oscillation, which is what happens when the resonance is increased to a point that the filter generates an audible pitch by itself. This means the filter can be employed as a sine wave oscillator. What’s more, if your filter features ‘keyboard tracking’ – meaning the cut-off point moves in sync with incoming notes – you can play this filter/ oscillator melodically. Raise the filter resonance to full, tune the resulting tone to a ‘C’, then play some notes to hear this in action.
5 Sync and sweep
Oscillator sync is a common feature on both hardware and plugin synths. Simply put, it means the wave cycle of a secondary oscillator is reset in sync with the primary oscillator. So when osc 1 returns to its ‘0’ point in the wave cycle, osc 2 jumps back to ‘0’ too. Sonically, this works best when manipulating the pitch of one of the sync’d oscillators. Use an LFO to modulate pitch, or manually change the octave/course tuning of osc 1 for classic sync sweep effects.
6 Take control
Try to include at least one ‘expressive’ modulation routing in each synth patch. By this we mean make use of controls such as a mod wheel, macro dials, aftertouch or a foot pedal input. Anything that allows you to get physical with key elements of a patch can really bring your sound to life. Good parameters to map include filter cutoff, oscillator detune or LFO modulation depth.
8 sure-fire ways to beat creative block
We’ve all been there: you get in the studio, fire up your gear, open your DAW and… nothing. Unfortunately, writer’s block can be a destructive cycle. A lack of progress breeds a lack of confidence, and it’s hard to get back into your creative flow. Fortunately, we’re here to help you bust out of that funk…
Don’t know where to start? Drag a track you like onto your DAW’s timeline and spend some time recreating it. Go through the track bar-by-bar copying each element for yourself – the beats, melodies, arrangement, FX… Once you’re done you’ll have a finished track, albeit one entirely ripped off from someone else. The challenge now is to mix things up till you have something you can call your original work – rearrange melodies, move drum hits, swap out sounds. Take some time to adjust the arrangement too, extending some sections and cutting others, moving builds or breakdowns. It may seem like a round-the houses approach, but sometimes starting by ‘unmaking’ a track can feel less daunting than starting with an empty DAW.
3 Create a sample pack
Studio sessions don’t always need to be spent working on a specific track. Sometimes it can be beneficial to get in the studio and make sounds with no defined goal in mind. Record loops, design one-shot hits and program drum patterns, then save results in your sample folders to build your own sound pack or construction kit. When it comes to actually creating your next track, you’ll have a whole host of ready-togo resources to draw from.
4 Set yourself (manageable) goals
Heading into the studio with an overarching goal of finishing a complete track, EP or album can be somewhat daunting, so it can be beneficial to break the process down into manageable bite-sized chunks.
Few things can beat creative blocks more effectively than bringing in a fresh set of ears. Whether that involves getting into the studio with someone or sending ideas back and forth online, combining ideas with a like-minded producer is a great way to inspire yourself. If you don’t know any similar musicians in person, get on forums, social media or SoundCloud to make connections. Suggest swapping some unfinished ideas to see how you can take each other’s projects further.
Set yourself realistic daily goals – eg day 1, program five drum grooves, day 2, create five bass loops. Break your entire project down this way, from the earliest creative steps through arrangement, mixing and – if you’re planning on tackling it yourself – mastering. The key is to make sure your goals are achievable; it can be soul-sapping to set yourself some grand ambition, such as finishing 10 tracks in a week, only to feel knocked back when you don’t achieve it. Allow yourself breaks too – even the most productive musicians have days off. These small achievements can help break the cycle of feeling like you’re getting nowhere. Creative ‘block’ is a psychological phenomenon and the feeling of achieving small but regular chunks of progress will help.
6 Use a visual aid
Inspiration often has its roots in capturing a certain mood, feeling or emotion. One great way to trigger this is to use something visual, like an inspiring photo or artwork that evokes a feeling you’d like to capture. Set the image up in your studio in a frame or on a screen and work as if you’re trying to create a ‘soundtrack’ to accompany it. Take this concept further by working with an inspiring video clip. Load a clip into your DAW (if it has the capabilities) or simply play it back as a video file, and try to write something to match its mood.
7 Change location
One of the wonders of making music with a laptop is the ability to up sticks and try making music away from the studio. Try moving to a different room, heading outside or even booking yourself a countryside retreat to see how new surroundings can inspire different ideas. If you’re not using a laptop, self-contained, portable production systems are great for this – things like Akai’s Force or MPCs, NI Maschine+, Novation Circuit Tracks or Polyend Tracker all allow for plenty of creative freedom on-the-go.
Even the best musicians can lean toward a specific style of playing or set of chords or scales. A great way to break out of your creative habits is to try starting with an instrument or controller you’re less familiar with. Do you usually start by playing chords on a keyboard? Write a progression on a guitar. Tend to program your drums using a step sequencer? Try playing patterns live with a pad controller. Even if you’re not some virtuosic multi-instrumentalist, there are plenty of MIDI controllers that make it easy to experiment with melodies and patterns with little-to-no prior experience. Grid controllers such as Ableton Push or Novation’s Launchpad range are great for this, as they allow users to lay a preset scale-out across their pads and experiment with chord shapes and melodies in a fairly idiot-proof way.
9 quick ways to improve your mix
Do your finished tracks always end up feeling slightly flat, lifeless or unprofessional in comparison to your favourite releases? Nail that pro sound with these quick mix tips
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