The glorious Korg MS-20
By Daniel Rothmann – danielrothmann.com
So, you’ve made it this far. If you’ve read my previous articles in the EGE series you should have a pretty good overview of how electronic music actually works. In addition, you should also be able to put together some pretty cool beats for your tracks! So, what’s missing? You guessed it: Synthesizers. Electronic music is all about synthesizers. You may be wondering how the heck these things work, right? I can understand that many people are intrigued by synthesizers; all those knobs and buttons can certainly seem very confusing! In this article, I’m going to give you a basic overview of how the common synthesizer works and what important parameters you need to know of in order to produce the sounds you want.
Choosing your synthesizer
Before we can get tweaking, we need a synthesizer to work with. Depending on which DAW (if you don’t know what this means, read EGE#1 – Getting Started) you have chosen for yourself, you may already have one or two basic synths included in the package. Or maybe you already own a hardware synth that you’d like to explore. I highly recommend that you start by using a simple synthesizer like Reason’s Subtractor or Togu Audio Line’s VST synth, TAL-Elek7ro. Both are what you call “subtractive” synthesizers. You can always get a more powerful synth later – You don’t have much gain of the power if you don’t know how to use it, right? I’m going to be using the TAL-Elek7ro synthesizer for the later tutorial since it is free and available for both PC and Mac.
Basic schematics of subtractive synthesis
There are several ways of synthesizing sounds with machines – Subtractive synthesis (also sometimes called “analogue”) is one of them. Subtractive synthesizers work by producing a harmonically rich sound (a periodically repeated waveform) and then subtracting elements of the sound, actually removing harmonics to achieve the sound you want. I don’t want to get into technical talk, but I will give a short introduction to the various elements of this technique:
Preset tweaking – The essential parameters
I’m going to quickly go through the parameters you need to know in order to begin tweaking your sounds. Choose a random preset on your synthesizer and try changing these parameters:
This parameter will change the raw oscillator sound that you’re working with. The waveform defines the basic sonic characteristics of the sound. TAL-Elek7ro doesn’t actually have a parameter labeled “waveform”; it has four buttons with different symbols illustrating the waveform.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Try it out.
The cutoff parameter defines the frequency where harmonics are cut off (duh) the waveform, either above or below. If you’re unsure what his means, try it out, and you’ll notice immediately.
By raising the resonance, you put additional emphasis on the cutoff frequency, making for some cool filter sweep effects. Also sometimes called “Q” or “Emphasis”.
The amplifier envelope (ADSR):
Defines the time the sound takes to go from no volume to full volume. A big attack value would result in a long “fade in”, while a small value would make the sound punch in very quickly.
The time taken for the sound to decay from full volume (when the attack reaches its maximum) to the sustain volume.
Sustain defines the volume of the sound after the decay – If trying to emulate a flute sound, you would use a high sustain value, while trying to emulate a piano, you would use no sustain.
The amount of time taken for the sound to “fade out” when you let go of the note on your keyboard.
Let’s get designing!
So, now that you have all the synthesizer fundamentals in place, all there is left is to start working with it. The best advice I can give you, is to start by fooling around, trying out all the essential parameters. Then, when you’ve developed a sense of how these things work and how they each affect the sound, try to imagine what kind of sound you would like to make, and imagine what characterizes that sound. Can you emulate the desired sound using the essential parameters? There is no way you can memorize how every cool synthesizer sound is made, so the best thing is to learn how the synth works and make it work for you to produce any sound you want, maybe even a sound nobody has ever heard before!
Tutorial: Creating a synthesized bass
Here’s a short tutorial to help you improve your sound designing skills. We’re going to be making a house bass/lead sound from scratch using the TAL-Elek7ro VST synthesizer. This is what we’re going to be making: House Bass
1. Load up TAL-Elek7ro. If it is not already set, choose the “BS Startup” preset.
2. Let’s start by setting the oscillators. The sound we’re trying to make is made up of 3 oscillators; The fundamental note, the octave below and the major 3rd. To get the rich and fat sound, we’re going to use the saw waveform for all oscillators. Let’s start by turning SYNC off, and turn the sub oscillator (also called “OSC 3”) down a bit:
3. Now, we’re going to turn up the second oscillator. We want this oscillator to play the major 3rd above oscillator 1, to give it that house feel. Adjust the “SEMI” knob until you find the major 3rd.
4. Let’s move on to the filter. For starters, we have to choose our filter type. Let’s take “BassLine 18 dB” since we’re going to be making a bass sound.
5. The first thing I’ll do is to take down the cutoff value and raise the resonance value. It sounds a bit dull at the moment so we’re going to add some movement using the envelope below. Raise the “CONTOUR” amount, and you’ll begin to notice a difference.
6. Let’s set the filter envelope. At the moment, it is just quick attack, quick decay, full sustain and some release. You shouldn’t actually be able to hear a difference in cutoff movement at the moment, but you’ll notice the sound is brighter when contour is raised. What you’ll want to do is to lower the sustain and raise decay, and you’ll notice the sound is becoming more punchy and percussive.
7. Increase the amplifier envelope release time (we were working with the filter envelope before) and decrease the filter release time and adjust the cutoff until you like the sound.
8. As our final touch, let’s add some velocity control to the cutoff (VCF) to make the sound more expressive. This means, that when we play the notes harder, the cutoff will increase. This may require that you decrease the cutoff.
9. That’s a pretty cool sound, isn’t it? Congratulations, you have significantly increased your sound designing skills!
That’s all for now, hope to see you again soon!"