Here are a few really cool things you can do with synths to spice up your songs. I’m including plug-in virtual instruments and sample-playback-based instruments in this description.
Remember that there’s no magic formula to making music. With synths, there are gazillions of quadrillions of things you can do with them. Do your own thing and wander freely wherever it takes your fancy.
Engage your curiosity and imagination. Over time, you’ll gather a bunch of things you like to do with them.
It’s great fun to play with synths and they are worth exploring for the additional tone colours they bring to music.
It would be really great for your homegrown production tool box to set aside time to explore synths. Keep it fun!
The mighty MiniMoog is the archetypal funky bass synth workhorse and it can generate most of the great bass sounds most people associate with the synth bass on records like the Bee Gees’ classic “Jive Talkin'”.
There are various plug-ins that will do the Moog thing very successfully, and scrolling through presets will give you plenty of cool starting points. Grab a free trial of one and see if you like it.
I tend to use Arturia’s MiniMoog V plug-in or Digidesign’s Vacuum for big fat basses with a bit of squirt or squelch to them, but the finest sound of all would probably be a Moog Voyager hardware synth recorded as a DI (direct inject) for cleanliness and simultaneously through a miked up bass amp for extra dirt and a little room sound.
RENT OR BORROW A BASS COMBO AMP AND RE-AMPING BOX
When you are sure the bass is finished, and it’s in the bag, you can try pushing for another level of texture in the lows by checking out the following method.
If you happen to have a re-amping box (such as Radial Electronics X-Amp), you can also try sending it to an output of the DAW interface. The reamping box will convert the line-level output from your interface to instrument level. Now you can continue on into a guitar amp, or even guitar pedal(s) and then an amp.
Amplifiers in a room really add some righteous dirt and funky friction, my friends, and putting a mic in front of them is easy enough! Use a big microphone if you can, because the lower bass frequencies have longer wavefronts, physically. Big ones tend to capture lower frequencies better than small ones, just like their counterparts – speakers.
A speaker is converting electrical impulses to acoustical energy, and a microphone is doing the exact same thing in the opposite direction, converting acoustical energy into electrical impulses.
If you try miking a bass plug-in this way, you would ideally use a large diaphragm dynamic mic to record the amp, and, upon play back of both tracks together, check that in mono the bass is still a healthy volume and not sounding thin or hollow. It sounds great, but it’s a lot of trouble, and takes a fair investment in equipment.
Nice to know you can do that sort of thing, because you can always rent helpful gear for a day or a week, and still stick to a sensible budget when you have a song you really want to invest in.
Remember your DAW can move tracks in time, nudging them forward or backward relative to other tracks by any amount you want down to the individual sample level. This helps minimize any phase issues between low-end-rich tracks.
To finish nailing the bass all the way through to the final master, you will want to read the blog on mixing bass instruments that I’ll be doing in late June.
The Kill EQ type of EQ removes all frequencies in the selected band. Thus, you can kill all the treble, leaving only the dark and velvety mids and lows. Or kill the lows and mids, and hear nothing but silvery highs.
This is handy with synths and any other types of audio intended for your mix. As well as suddenly killing all the top or bottom, you can be more creative.
Duplicate a track twice in your DAW, then mute the original and work with the two copies. Treat one track with a Treble Kill EQ and the other with a Bass Kill EQ. Now you can do cool things to each independently, like compress them, or put a chorus effect on the one with no bass frequencies and maybe an exciter and get a shimmery sound without damaging the solid bass end of the sound in question, which lives on in the low frequency version of the track.
You could even insert a stereo plug-in on your second track, the high one, so that it will become a stereo track and you can pan it wider than the centre-panned original low track.
The world is your oyster, as they say. It’s a dead simple EQ to use, on or off, basically. But you can use it on duplicated tracks to create all kinds of production craft.
Dance music is full of filter sweeps. They are pretty simple to do. You can automate any EQ plug-in inside your DAW, or you can start with a synth preset filter sweep. You can build one from scratch. They are very handy..
The point is to make a sound that changes slowly over time, thereby holding the interest of the listener more easily. It’s just an EQ changing midrange frequency over time, in it’s simplest form, although it can be quite a bit more involved. More on this when I talk about time-based delay processing specifically later in this blog series.
If you are a UAD plug-in user, you will like their awesome Moog Filter plug-in, for example, which comes with some great filter sweep presets. Be aware that resonance is often called emphasis! Same thing…
We love to hear sounds that change, because contrasts are interesting to us, and they stand out, getting our attention.
You will hear the filter slowly close on the entire stereo mix of a song – this happens quite a lot – and over the course of 8 bars or so things get darker and more muffled. Then, bam, it’s bright as the Sun again suddenly. That’s just automating the filter to close slowly (rolling off the highs) and then suddenly open it again all the way to let all the highs back in on a dime. Grabs the attention every time, due to contrast and context, the producer’s best tools.
Rhythmic variations also grab our attention. A groove can be hypnotic and pulsing and grip our nervous systems and not let go. That’s so cool. Use arpeggiators as a shortcut to a pulsating or shimmering set of notes that consistently groove.
Make sure to give people a break from the riff at least sometimes in the song, since the hook factor will be enhanced when it comes back in.
All synths that arpeggiate will let you pick patterns, seeing what they sound like in your mix by triggering a MIDI loop.
Pick ones that set the song aflame with infectious feverish dancing or drift quietly purring in a new age cloud of well-being.
Everybody loves vocoders! Don’t forget them. Look for the vocoder presets in your synth, and read the manual to see what you can do and how you can do it.
Make your own handclaps, snares, kicks, hihats, toms, surf and wind noise, whatever. Almost any synth can do this.
Think as freely as you can about the kinds of sounds to include in your songs, because new territory is invigorating to the creative spirit.
That’s it for today! See you tomorrow for an overview of sampling.