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Quick Synth Tips Used by Pros For Dreamy Sounds

Do you dream of huge, ethereal synth sounds that will move and enchant listeners, but when you try, it all sounds a little flat and uninspiring? You no longer need to head to the nearest corner for a quick cry, because Headliner is on hand with 20 tips to get your synths soaring in your DAW without needing a PhD in synthesis, or much time at all, really. Let us venture into the void!

1: Duplication

    Let’s ease you in with an easy tip that any DAW user can get cracking with. It’s a widespread, commonplace recording tip that we can steal for our synth uses. Producers will often record an instrument multiple times on the same take for a bigger sound. This is why rock guitars often sound as huge as they do on albums. And if you’re listening to a song that sounds like it enlisted a huge string section, oftentimes that is just the same violinist recorded dozens of times.

    If you want your synth part to sound extra hench, record the same part again a second time (the minute and subtle differences in each performance give a lovely human feel) and pan one part hard left, and the other hard right. You can make some minor and subtle tweaks to one patch also.

    2: Stack those synths

      On a similar note, it’s always worth remembering that the modern DAW means you can have as many synth sounds as your computer can handle. So as well as the doubling parts tip above, you can also create your own unique sounds by having a melodic part doubled by two (or more!) different synth sounds. Have fun with this one!

      3: Finessing the FM

        And now, a way of simplifying one of the seemingly complicated aspects of synthesis. One way to get great FM (frequency modulation) synth sounds is by modulating the oscillator. And some, such as u-he’s Diva, let you modulate one oscillator by using the other. It has a knob just for this purpose, and you can create evolving textures in an easy-peasy way.

        4: Getting dynamic

        If a synth sounds boring, nine times out of ten it’s a lack of interesting modulation. Making use of modulation is, in effect, changing and affecting a sound in time, adding tonnes more interest for the listener. Most VST synths come with an included ‘mod matrix’ (it may have a different name) that will get you working on modulation destinations and sources to elevate your sounds, so get experimenting!

        5: Onboard effects are your friend

        It’s not rare for VST synths to have a range of effects straight out of the box. The likes of Pigments and Omnisphere have effects that can go toe to toe with dedicated effects plugins. Don’t think of effects as being lesser than filters and oscillators, as many of these synths are built on effects, especially in preset form. 

        6: Get noisy

        The noise oscillator you’ll find with most synths is equal parts fun and vital. One common use is to breathe life into electronic drum and percussion sounds, but noise can really elevate synth sounds also. That trademark sizzle is a big part of the appeal of electronic music, after all.

        7: Automation

        There are some mega-advanced modulation systems in today's soft synths like Serum, Massive X, and Hive, but not every control in the GUI is accessible via modulation. A great alternative is to automate the target control in your DAW instead. This allows you to animate otherwise unreachable controls and utilise your DAW's sophisticated automation features. Automation envelopes can be drawn or recorded live, or copied as part of a MIDI clip for looping riffs.

        8: Run rings around your synth

        If your synth comes with a ring modulation control, you should jump on that. This feature multiplies one signal with another, creating some delightfully quirky and weird sounds. In pads, you can add a lovely sweeping LFO texture. Just be prepared to rein it in a little as the effect can get a bit too chaotic if you’re not careful.

        9: Be a master of vibrato, not vice versa

        If you’re making an instrumental electronic track, your lead synth is doing what a singer otherwise would. With that in mind, vibrato on a synth becomes a less strange concept. It is also a great way to keep a lead synth sound evolving and interesting. It also enhances the expressiveness of the melody, which is brilliant when you don’t want your synths to sound too cold. You can control the amount of vibrato via an envelope so it’s added in gradual increments, as human singers often do in line with the needs of the music.

        10: Presets are your friend, feel no shame!

        In the bygone days of hardware synths, factory presets were far fewer in number and were essentially a promo tool to showcase what the instrument could do. Today, soft synths come with veritable libraries of great patches, sometimes even commissioned by artists and sound designers. Should you reach straight for the presets? Yes, and you shouldn’t feel any shame if presets work well with your workflow. Not every producer is a synthesis professor, so there is nothing wrong with utilising them. You can always make them unique to your own sound by experimenting with effects and going under the hood a little to make a few tweaks, and doubling with other sounds.

        11: Break out the strings

        If you want your synth strings to sound orchestral in scope, pair several layers of saw waves with a big reverb. Use a unison synthesizer control to stack the saw waves. And before you know it, you’re conducting your own string section. Play around with the reverb a bit, depending on your taste and if you want a subtle touch (as if you’re recording a string orchestra in a grand hall) or perhaps you prefer a more washed-out reverb sound.

        12: Record the part, then tweak tweak tweak

        While many like to program a synth part by playing and editing simultaneously, it can be wise to get the recording of the MIDI notes out the way first. This way, you can then put all your focus into tweaking the sound to perfection. Especially if you have the part looping while you get editing Remember to play the part in the full context of the mix as well as solo; you want your tweaks to be reflective of the full track rather than just how the synth sounds alone.

        13: The high life

        High-pass filters are another valuable acquaintance to have. Using a 24db low pass filter on synths can make your creations sound big, but can also lead to muddy mixes. Successful EDM artists know to include high-frequency synths to bolster the melody and ensure clarity on both big systems and small speakers. To get that sleek and professional sound in your music, it's essential to have patches dedicated to higher frequencies in your mixes.

        14: Parameter links

        The main use cases of aftertouch and velocity are controlling a synth’s volume, but have a little experiment with trying other parameter linking. One fun idea is to link these to a filter, so pressing the keys directly affects the filter cutoff.

        15: Plucky upstarts

        If you love that trademark trance sound and its signature plucky synth sound, here’s how to achieve it. Find the amplitude envelope and use it for a short decay and quick attack. Or you can enlist a filter envelope to control the cutoff as the synth plays. Hands in the air!

        16: Roll with the punches

        Want your sub-bass to land a knockout blow? You can make it sound like a quasi-kick drum sound while pumping out the bass with an envelope. Use it to modulate its pitch, while also setting to a fast decay and attack, and you’ll feel as if you’re hitting a drum kick pedal beneath your desk.

        17: Plan your sounds / be ready for happy accidents

        This one is counterintuitive but hear us out: it’s good to have an end destination in sound, and this is where presets are very helpful once again. For example, decide if you’re after a heavy lead sound or a distorted bass. But, the joy of synthesis is you will, by total accident, create sounds you never planned but sound amazing — so always be ready to hit save on those sounds so you can come back to them again.

        18: Bell ringer

        Often when people think of FM synths, they’ll think of that classic FM bell sound. To create a bell of your own, set up two sine wave operators, with the first modulating the second. Increase modulation until you hear a ‘gong’ type bell, and program an amplitude envelope. Add chorus and reverb, then play in the upper octaves for a DX7-style bell tone. Ring ring!

        19: Innit, mate

        ‘Init’, aka an initialisation patch, is the name you’ll often find on a synth which is the opposite of a preset — it’s a totally basic sound that’s ready for you to build something from scratch. It’s usually a lot easier to work with this than trying to build on a preset. As Anakin Skywalker said, this is where the fun begins. The effects, envelopes, and modulation are fully in your court, as you take a basic wave and turn it into something majestic.

        20: Set the table

        Wavetable synthesis, rapidly gaining OG status thanks to synths like NI’s Massive, Xfer Records’ Serum, and Arturia Pigments, makes creating complex waveforms and switching between them over time something you can easily achieve. Modulating between waves on a table, such as using LFOs to traverse different waveforms, can produce extreme (and very cool) sounds. If you’ve not sampled the wavetable nectar, now’s the time.

        So there you have it — the wonderful news is you can achieve amazing sounds by sticking to the basics, or you can get as weird, whacky, and complex as you so desire. The caveat is this can all become very addictive and the hours can fly by, so always remember to touch grass now and then.

        Further Reading:

        Best affordable synthesizers

        Best synthesizers in the golden age of hardware

        Best synth VSTs