This original article appeared here at HeavyweightBass.net in full. It was designed to help producers who are interested in moving beyond presets and thinking about their sounds in new ways. I’ve condensed the original article in this post to make it more concise. Feel free to dive into the longer version when you have time!
1. EQ Matters.
A lot of people struggle with stacking sound sources on top of each other to create new and unique sounds, forgetting to impart an EQ at every stage of the design of the sound. EQ techniques can vary widely depending on the sound you are crafting, but just remember before you reach for the next element to add to your sound, fit an EQ in there and really ask yourself what the goal you have in mind is.
2. 2nd and 3rd Harmonics Are Your Friend.
3. Think Outside The Box.
You’re DAW shouldn’t be the only place sounds come from. Look at cheap guitar pedals, iPhone apps, crazy freeware, or anything that you see that looks interesting to you that can process a sound source is something to explore.
4. Think In Layers.
To start making characteristically different sounds from a well known synths, start thinking in layers. The beauty of working in MIDI with your Virtual Instruments is the ability to easy create unique and un-heard sounds by imparting multiple instruments stacked or layered together within your production.
5. Distortion Isn’t Just For Guitars.
If you want full control over your distortion options in creating your best sounds, it’s by using aux sends. Placing a distortion FX directly on your instrument, even if it has a dry/wet knob, is going to give you a very obvious distorted “guitar amp” tone. That’s great if that’s what you want, but if you are looking to just add a bit of colour to your synth it’s going to be too much.
6. Aux Tracks Are Your Friend.
By using the bus/aux routing of your DAW, you can start to build elaborate chains that can be ‘dialed in’ to the precise amount you want. The other nice thing about creating these sends is you can have multiple instruments hitting the same chain to create a “tonal bed” for your instruments to sit on top of. This works great for giving pads dimension, and giving character to a lead motif that you can easily automate throughout the arrangement of your tune.
7. Better Low End.
The best sounding sub bass lines, are the simplest ones. I find that here is where people tend to over think and over complicate things. the best sub bass you can make is from a pure sine wave, alternatively an FM synth can also give you great results (for those using Logic, try the EFM1 this has been my secret sub weapon for years.) Layer this underneath your bass melody and use HP and LP shelves to fit the two together. And add those harmonics we talked about to the upper frequency range only.
8. Get Inspired.
Getting outside of your DAW can bring new inspiration. Try some of these favorites of mine.
Hosting AU – With Hosting AU, you can build chains of Audio Unit plugins and record the results straight to audio files. I especially like this when it comes to Reaktor. While yes you can run Reaktor stand alone, you can’t run it through a 3rd party plugin FX chain without going back inside your DAW. Try running some crazy user built Ensembles through some GlitchMachines freebies.
PaulStretch – While some might have seen this from the youtube videos of people slowing down popular music, there’s a lot of fun to be had manipulating audio within PaulStretch that has left me with piles of good recordings for future use! Mac / PC.
AudioMulch – For the adventurous, try this! It’s a bit of a learning curve but the results are fun and unique to AudioMulch, and a lot less investment than Symbolic’s Kyma!
While LFO’s can be used for very obvious things, for example a wobble bass line, a lot of times they can be used subtlety to add life to static synth sound. For Logic users, a trick I use time and time again for that little bit of “something” to liven up a boring synth is to use the Ringshifter in VERY tiny amounts. Thing to remember here is, you should only notice it when you bypass it. If you can tell it’s shifting the frequencies it’s going to be too obvious, dial the wet amount down even further! Any FX should add to the sound, not dominate it.
10. INIT Your Synths.
The best way to learn how to design your owns sounds, is to start from scratch. If you spend the time to learn through starting each patch from INIT, you’ll have a great understanding of subtractive synthesis that you can apply to virtually all future synths you’ll use.