Synth Programming Basics
Illustration by John Hersey

Synth Programming Basics

with Scott Hirsch

Video: How to make a synth lead

A lead synth carrying a melody could be a crucial component to a song. In Logics Retro, we can do this, by going down to So, as I played that, I wasn't letting each note up, As I introduce each note, the filter did not open up again.

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Watch the Online Video Course Synth Programming Basics
1h 32m Intermediate Mar 07, 2014

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Early modular synthesizers that once took up entire rooms are now available at our fingertips with modern DAWs. Though software synths often use the same knobs and sliders as the originals, all the controls can be confusing. But you can crack the code of programming synths with these tutorials from sound designer and engineer Scott Hirsch. Learn about the building blocks of synthesis (sine waves) and how you can build more complex tones with additive synthesis. Then discover how to sculpt your sound with filters and envelopes and create a number of example synth sounds, including a synth lead, a rich pad, a drum sound, and a synth bass. Along the way, Scott shares specific techniques for synth programming using the AIR Vacuum synth in Pro Tools, Reason's Subtractor, and Retro Synth in Logic Pro.

Audio + Music
Logic Pro Pro Tools Reason Max MSP
Scott Hirsch

How to make a synth lead

A lead synth carrying a melody could be a crucial component to a song. In this movie we'll program a synth lead sound in Logic Pro X's retro synth, using some of the techniques we've discussed in earlier movies of this course. And we'll touch on new concepts as well. First, let's talk about polyphony. Polyphony refers to how many notes, or voices, a synth can play simultaneously. Most modern synths nowadays will allow multiple polyphony, usually something on the order of 16 or more voices.

This is useful for chord making. But for lead synth sounds, it's often helpful to go back to how the early synthesizers behaved. Which is that they had no polyphony. They only allowed one note at a time. The result of setting a synth to no polyphony, or monophonic, can actually be useful in terms of playing a single melody, and never overlapping your notes. In Logics Retro, we can do this, by going down to the bottom right of the instrument, under where it says settings. Now here, the default voices is 16, so that's a polyphony of 16 voices available.

But up at the top, we have two options, legato and mono. These are both of our monophonic settings. The only difference here is if I chose mono, with each new note is re-triggers the note. So, therefore, the filter will be retriggered and everything else. I want to play a sequence of notes with the mono setting and you can hear how it works. So, as I played that, I wasn't letting each note up, I was actually playing more than one note at a time. But because the voices was set to mono, it only will allow us to hear one note at a time.

But with each new note that I introduced, each note got re-triggered and the filter got re-triggered on that note. And I want to just play a similar sequence in legato mode, and I'm actually going to just turn the cutoff down a little bit here. So, you'll really hear the filter not reopening as I play a sequence of notes here. As I introduce each note, the filter did not open up again. So I'm going to go back to mono, because I want each note to reopen the filter as we program this lead synth. So I'm going to click off of Settings. And now, I'm going to start, as we always do, with the oscillators.

Those are the core of our sound. So, I'm going to choose for shape one, actually like the saw tooth wave we've been hearing, and that gives us some upper harmonics to work with. But for shape two, I'm going to blend in a different sound. I'm going to go over and choose one of the square waves over here, so let's just move the mix over to oscillator two, and hear the square wave and I'm going to pick something. Maybe something around there, and I'm going to blend in shape one, and get a nice blend between the two. There's a nice blend. I'm going a little bit more in the direction of the saw tooth wave. But just having a little bit of the square wave in there, is adding some nice harmonic effect.

The next thing I want to do is, still in the oscillator section, is just to detune oscillator two, slightly from oscillator one. We've talked about this, how detuning, maybe on the order of ten cents, will slightly fatten the sound and create a little bit more richness in the tone. Let's hear what this sounds like. Okay, I like that, that's working for me. So I'm going to keep that minus 10 cents just a little bit out of tune, oscillator two from oscillator one. And I think we're done for now in the oscillator section. Let's move down into the vibrato and LFO sections. So, this is going to allow us to create a little bit of motion in our sound as each note is struck.

And I'm going to click over to the vibrato section. Remember, in Retro, vibrato is simply just a low-frequency oscillator, that is attached permanently to the oscillator's pitch. So, if I keep the vibrato on this triangle-type waveform, and I'm going to turn the sync off, but I'm going to take a rate of, say, five hertz. So we're going to hear the pitch move up and down five times per second. And remember, up here is where I choose how much the pitch is going to move. So we'll start with something really big to hear the effects, say five semitones, we'll really hear this coming in and out.

Now the only other thing I need to do here, is turn this knob all the way down, because right now its the wheel, it attaches the vibrato to our mod wheel on our actual physical keyboard. And, since it's all the way up, you only hear this when you're interacting with the mod wheel. But we want to hear it all the time, so turn this down. And this is going to be a large vibrato pitch shift for each note. I think if I dial this back just a slight pitch variation, say on the order of 0.3 or so semi-tones, it'll just add a little bit of motion to our sound. So, that's with 0.3 semi-tones, if I move it down to nothing we'll hear what is sounded like with nothing.

Pretty cool, but I think it's a little more interesting when we add a slight bit of vibrato. Just like a voice will have a little bit of vibrato and pitch, a really good singer will have that part of their voice. And since this is a lead synth, it kind of is occupying that role in that song. So we'll leave that, 0.3 semi-tones at five hertz, and the last part of the equation here is how our filter is going to work. So, I actually like the sound of this filter. I might increase the resonance just a lit bit. Remember, just to add a more dramatic element to where the cut off is. And instead of moving the cutoff manually, I can actually move the cutoff with an envelope.

So, as each note is struck, if I add a value into the filter envelope, it'll allow the filter open up over time with each note. So, we keep the filter here, on low pass filter, and I added a little resonance. Now in the filter envelope, I'm going to go down and increase the attack a little bit. And what this will do, if I chose, say a really long value at first just to hear it, 1,200 milliseconds, you'll really hear the filter open up over the course of 1,200 milliseconds with each note. It's sort of automating the filter to open up over that value.

That sounds pretty cool, but I think we're going to want something a little sharper, a little bit faster. Let's try 150 milliseconds. It wahs in to each note, sort of opening the filter, very quickly over 150 milliseconds. And, you know, comparing that to. Of attack at nothing. The filter is in already. So, just opening it up slightly to about 150 milliseconds. Gives each note a little bit more definition there. And, before we play it with the song, to see if it's working, there's one more setting I want to talk about, it's called Glide.

And just like the name suggests, if I turn on Glide, it actually allows one note to glide into the next. It's especially useful when using a monophonic synth, like we have here. So, turn the glide value way up to hear what it's doing. I play like a low C and a high C. It's really gliding up into each note over a course of 1,400 milliseconds, but If I dial this back a little bit, say on the order of, 200 or 300 milliseconds, it can sound kind of cool moving from one note to another. I mean it's a little much, I'll dial it back slightly.

So again, that's giving more of a human voice thing, where from one note to the next, it kind of bends into the pitch. So I'm going to keep that at 200 milliseconds. Okay, great. I'm going to turn up the volume just slightly, which is just the overall volume of our synth. And, I have a song here that has this lead synth part, and it's got the rest of the song. So, first I'll solo out the lead synth part. We'll hear the sound we made on its own, and then I'll un-solo it, and we'll hear it in context with the song. There's the sound we made, by itself. And here it is in context with the song. Okay, so the overall tone, I'm liking, it's sounding great.

The one thing I'm not psyched on is, the glide maybe, is still a little much, I'm going to dial that back, and the vibrato I'm going to take down just a little bit. I'm also going to move the cut off a little higher, so I get a little bit more bite. And I'll dial the attack back a little bit. And let's hear it just on its own. Yeah, it's sounding a little more solid to me. So it's just a simple tweak of some of these settings we worked on. And let's hear it back in context with the song. So there we go, that's just one of many lead synth sounds that could work with this song. I definitely encourage you to experiment with these settings and make your own sound for practice.

When you get something you like, remember we can go up to User Default menu here, and choose Save As, and save your settings so you can recall it at any other time.

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