How To Choose the Right Synth Sounds
Selecting the right synth sounds can be a daunting task — especially if you have a near-endless supply of meticulously crafted patches at your disposal.
Establishing your initial idea may be easy, whether it's a plucked acoustic texture, an acoustic piano, or a programmed chord sequence. But, what's next? How do you transform this initial concept into a balanced-sounding track?
When you're creating a song out of synth patches, it's vital that you choose the right ones (or build the right ones from scratch if you're so inclined). It's essential that the sonic textures in your arrangement complement — rather than compete with — one another.
In this post, we'll explore how to choose complimentative sounds to ensure a balanced, full-sounding arrangement that won't give you a migraine when you're ready to mix it.
The First Phase: Getting Started
When you're establishing the initial part of your arrangement, full-bodied sounds often work best. After all, this element is what you're going to build your entire song around.
If you can, try to create a single patch that fits, as stacking sounds can lead to phase issues, which you'll hear as a weird comb filtering effect when the patches are positioned on top of each other. Phase problems not only yield you a bad-sounding patch, but they can also cause your mix to fall completely apart if the mix is folded down to mono.
If you do need to stack patches (sometimes this is the only way to achieve the sound you're hearing in your head), the correlation meter in our LEVELS plug-in is a great way to resolve any potential phase problems.
LEVELS is an extremely intuitive plug-in, and it's a breeze to use. If the correlation meter reads near +1, you're good to go; if it points towards -1, you have phase problems.
Phase issues can be difficult to resolve. A great starting point is to try nudging one of the layered sounds forward a few milliseconds.
In the case of complete phase cancellation (i.e., the sound drops significantly in volume when the layers are combined), you'll want to flip one of the layers' phase by 180° using your DAW or the phase-invert feature on a channel strip or EQ plug-in.
Some stereo patches can also contain inherent phase problems. Be sure to check them in mono!
The Next Step: Adding New Elements
Now that you've gotten the initial part of your arrangement nailed down, it's time to start adding new elements. Like we noted earlier, you'll want to use patches that complement one another, rather than compete with one another.
In practice, creating a well-rounded synth composition is no different than building an arrangement out of acoustic instruments with distinctive lead, rhythm, and bass elements. For example, most rock ensembles feature a lead vocalist, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, drums, and bass; each of which, by virtue of the composition's arrangement alone, take up their own unique place in the frequency spectrum.
Sounds can compete with one another in many different ways, including frequency, rhythm, timbre, energy, stereo width, and volume. Some overlap is fine if it's implemented in a musical way, but you'll want to add elements that fill in the gaps if you want a balanced-sounding result.
The Third Stage: Filling in the Gaps
So, which sounds complement each other? How do you fill in the gaps?
Well, we've made it easy for you — the table below is an effective way to help you identify the right synth patches for your arrangement.
Let's say you started with a piano with the frequencies focused in the high mids, a basic rhythm, warm timbre, laid-back energy, mostly centered stereo width, and a medium volume (these attributes are highlighted in blue). To compliment your piano, you'll want to choose an element that doesn't conflict with the majority of these characteristics.
For example, you might choose a bass with the frequencies focused in the low end, a complex rhythm, dark timbre, upbeat energy, mono stereo width, and a medium volume (these attributes are highlighted in green). If you have multiple elements in your mix that are very similar in all six categories your music will sound cluttered and cacophonous.
The Next Step: Clean Up the Mud
Muddy tracks equal a muddy mix. That's why you should remove low-frequency mud and unwanted resonances before you move onto the next step.
Low-frequency mud is easy to eliminate. Simply fire up your favorite EQ plug-in and apply a highpass filter to each of your tracks.
For bass instruments, start at your EQ's minimum cutoff frequency and a slope around 12dB. Increase the cutoff frequency until your track sounds too thin, then decrease the frequency until it sounds right.
For non-bass instruments, start with a cutoff frequency around 30Hz and follow the same steps as above.
You'll also want to resolve any unpleasant resonances. Resonances are frequency buildups that not only rob your tracks of dynamics and headroom, but they also create weird sonic artifacts that are guaranteed to mar the quality of your recording.
And let's face it: nobody wants to deal with muffled or harsh-sounding tracks.
Our RESO plug-in is an easy-to-use solution for eliminating unwanted resonances — automatically.
Just place it on each of your tracks, click the Calculate Targets button, and RESO does the rest. It not only provides you with Target Nodes for killing the resonances, but it also gives you helpful setting suggestions for achieving resonance-free tracks.
Clearing the sonic junk out of all the tracks in your arrangement will make mixing your project much, much easier.
The Final Leap: Using a Reference Track
Once you've put your arrangement together and cleaned up mud and resonances, you'll want to give it a real-world reality check.
After all, when you listen to the same project for a long period of time, it's easy to lose perspective — especially if you don't rest your ears. This type of ear fatigue is common, even among experienced professionals.
That's why seasoned engineers use reference tracks. Reference tracks are professionally mixed and mastered songs that you use for a periodic comparison, and they're vital to achieving a balanced mix that translates well to other playback systems.
Our REFERENCE plug-in makes using reference tracks super-easy. All you need to do is import a reference track you'd like to compare your project to, preferably within the same genre you're working on, then use the reference track's arrangement as a benchmark for how yours should sound.
Especially when it comes time to mix your project, reference tracks will help keep levels in check, they will make EQ decisions easier, and they will assist you in getting the right sound and behavior out of your tom's compressor.
Simply put, a reference track will ensure that your song sounds as good as — or better — than everything else on your listener's playlist.
Here’s the cold, hard truth: there is such a thing as a bad arrangement. Unless you're recording a bass ensemble (who'd want to try to mix that?), your arrangements should contain elements that complement, rather than compete with, one another.
But, by building an arrangement out of complimentative parts, you can ensure an effective, balanced result. What's more, clearing your tracks of unwanted low-frequency mud and resonances will ensure that they mesh well together, leading to a great-sounding mix.
Finally, using a well-chosen reference track will ensure that your final mix plays back equally well on a wide range of playback devices, from a humble Bluetooth speaker to a high-powered club system.
Following the steps outlined in this post is an easy — and effective — way to take your music to the highest level.