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How to Program a Synthesizer

by TweakHeadz Lab

Rich was part of the programming team for the Alesis QS series synths and Q-cards

Lets say you want to go beyond tweaking factory patches and doing simple stuff like changing the instruments, octave etc., and want to develop voices all your own.   This article illuminates the process I find successful programming synthesizers.  Whether the synth is hardware or software, analog or digital, the process is the same.  When you know how to program a synthesizer you are no longer dependant on other sound developer's sounds.  You will find you are in  total control and your own work will become much more meaningful.  Ain't no store bought loops here! 

Korg ms20

This is a Korg MS20, an analog mono synthesizer from the 70s. Today's hardware synthesizers replicate the signal flow on microprocessors,  and in the case of software synths, in data models made of code.  Yet the flow is primarily the same for "analog style" synths.  Oscillator-->filter-->envelopes-->amplifier


Tips and Good Work Habits for Programming Any Synthesizer 

First, some basic practices or habits to get into.  These will help.

1. Naming and renaming programs. When I am experimenting I always assign a name with a lower case first letter and I add a number at the end of every significant crossroad, so the name will be something like "sonic hell1" or whatever. That way you can always go back in case you really screw things up. As the patch nears completion, it might be named closer to the final name, perhaps Sonic Well9. When the patch is done, I delete the number, so I know anything without a number is the final, definitive, version. 

2. Do I need to tell you to save your bank often and send the bank to the synth at regular intervals? Nah, you know that, and you know what happens when your computer crashes or synth crashes, or both crash at the same time. 

3. Think of practical matters as you program. You create a patch in order to use it in a composition. Keep your sequencer fired up as you make patches and use them in a test sequence. Is the level right? Does the velocity and AT work as it should? Is it named so you will remember what the sound is when you see it in a list of 127 other sounds. 


Programming synths is less confusing if you do things in this order. 

dude,here's one right way to figr it out!

Step 1: Set oscillators
 (or samples)

Step 2:   Filter

Step 3: Envelopes

Step 4: Velocity

Step 5: LFOs

Step 6:  Effects


1. Oscillators

All the orchestral instruments can be and have been emulated with SAW, SQUARE, TRIANGLE, RECTANGLE and NOISE waves.   Those are the basic analog waveforms that are the stuff of Oscillators.  They got their names by the way they look on a sound oscilloscope.  They Oscillate (or change, move) in this shape which can be raised and lowered in pitch depending on how they are set.  If you are programming a synth with samples, consider the samples themselves to be waveforms inside the oscillator. 


Oscillators on a Moog Voyager


Note how the oscillator is setup.  You choose a basic waveform, set the octave and adjust the pitch more with the Frequency control.  (Pitch and frequency mean the same thing for our purposes).  The raw waveforms on an anlog synth are full bodied waveforms full of harmonics yet sound very plain unmodified.  To make the sound interesting we move to the Filter.


2. Filters


Think like this:  The Filter CUTS away.  Resonance boosts a narrow (or wide) band with of what is left.  There are low pass filters which cut the highs.  High pass filters which cut the lows.  Band pass filters that only let a selected bandwidth of frequencies get through.  Don't underestimate what you can do with a good filter.  With a single low pass filter you can transform a generic analog sawtooth waveform into hundreds of timbres.   The filter gives these plain sounding waveforms character. (If you are programming a digital synth, like a DX7, you have SINE waves that are combined and added together to make usual and unusual timbres.) 

3. Envelopes

OK you got it sounding better than raw.  So move to envelopes.  Do the Filter Envelope and then the Amp Envelope then finally the Pitch Envelope. Why do they call them envelopes?  Just like when you put a letter in an envelope you completely cover, ecase the letter in a container.  When you put sound in an envelope, you put the whole thing in its "container", which controls the way it starts, how long it goes on, and how it ends.

So think of how your sound behaves over time.  Usually, there is a collision of high frequencies at the attack which slowly or rapidly settle down into tone.  Think of a guitar string being plucked.  The filter should start wide open but rapidly cut out highest frequencies.  For the Amp, it starts out 100% loud then drops down to about half that for a second or 2 then dies. Emulate that with the amp envelope.Then think, is there any Pitch Variation in this sound?  Is the attack slightly sharp? (Tip: Drums are always sharp on the attack, and many instruments like winds, brass, strings, and vocals come in a touch sharp or flat).  If so then go to the pitch envelope and set a fast attack and decay with sustain at zero, or where it is in tune after the little pitch burst settles down.  OK you got envelopes! 



Filter and envelope section of the Access Virus TI Polar  Most synths have similar control


4. Velocity

Now on to Velocity.  Consider in detail the sound you are making.  What does it do when played hard, soft?  It gets louder.  Yeah.  They all do.  Now consider timbral changes.  Are they "way different" or just slightly different?  If way different, you may need to velocity switch to another waveform.  Go find it and stack it on top.  Note you might have to tweak that waveform too to get what you want--yes it gets complicated and irritating when that waveform isn't there, 'cause now you have two programs to make.  But take heart, do it right and you will get exactly what you want.  Flip on the sequencer at this point and play a little ditty. Now play with the velocity control.  Is it working as it should or is the setting not useful?  Fix that.  Ok you got your velocity cool enough to move on.  Do not go to FX!  Do not collect $200.  Go to LFOs.  Now listen up!  FX are like candy.  Sure its cool while you are doing it, but who wants a half done synth program drenched in FX to cover its lack of character?  Is that why you came this far?  


5 LFOs

The LFO, the immortal Low Frequency oscillator, is a modulator.  Think of it as a time machine.  You can rhythmically alter your patch in ANY time sequence from very slow to very fast.  LFO's do vibrato, yes, but they can do way more than that.  The trick is to carefully examine what you are trying to make.  What changes in the course of playing a single note?  Volume?  Pitch?  Or Harmonics?  This tells you what to route the LFO to.  Tips:  Use slow lfos to modulate panning and volume.  You will get a 3 dimensional sound.  Use LFOs to do a miniscule rise and fall of pitch. 


When you do this in stereo, at slightly different settings, you will get something that falls in and out of flange, or like a delay, or like a phaser, and if you can find the ONE tick that works you can even get exotic effects like having the sound suddenly jump behind your back, dance on the ceiling, or if you are hunting good, find vocoders, hear harmonics that were not there in the original sound.  Yep these are one tick wonders.  Meaning you have to hunt these anomalies down by rapidly stepping through parameters and listing to the subtle change each tick makes.  Suddenly, you will get an Omygod!   And they are also the key to better filter sweeps on analog-ish gear.  Who needs FX when you got LFO's!  With the exception of reverb, you will find that most FX programs do exactly what a LFO does, but they do it by sampling the audio first, adding unwanted noise and grunge.  Do it clean.  Do it right.  Do it with an LFO tonight!  lol.


6. Effects

Ok, you are tweaked.  The patch sounds so good now you don't want to add FX to it because it can stand on it own.  Dude, now its finally time to go to the effects alter. The TweakMeister smiles and unlocks the gate and lets you in.   This is your reward.  Now you can scoff at all the wanabee programmers who rushed to the FX first.  Fools, are they not? Of course we agree. Adding FX?  Do reverb last.  Consider it the final sweetener.  And ask yourself now--do you need it?  Might be a good time to go back to envelopes and see if a longer release time might do the trick better than some crap synth reverb that destroys the delicate overtones in your hard worked program. 

If you found some cool overtones, let me remind you now to save your work, with an upper case letter.  Save it twice.  You don't want to lose this fundamental inspiration.  

Play with delays first.  You will probably find something you like.  Everyone loves a great patch through delays.  Find out where you dig it the most.  Then set the FX send to near Zero and make it come in with a continuous controller.  Viola!  You have a great dry patch and a great wet one now.   Now add a touch of 'verb.  Think of the applications you have for this patch.  If its a snare drum, yep you want a ton 'o 'verb.  If its a kick, just some ambience.  Go out there on pads.  Don't mess with basses.  Stuff like guitars, you know how you like to hear it bounce off the back wall, egotist!  But always, always always, bring in FX with a CC and keep it near dry as a default.  If you hate the dry sound--well, I accuse you of being a wanabee.  Go Back to LFO's. 

If you have followed me through this article, you are 97% ahead of the synth owning population. Congratulations!  Do this a few times and you will build your confidence of a TweakMeister, where you know you can get any sound out of any synth. You now enter the the realms of psychoacoustics, and the philosophical exploration into what sound is and how it affects us and why.  

OK, I gave you some of my little secrets, you now know how to start.  Where do you stop is the better question. You stop when you are having a tremendously great time with your new creation and can't think of anyway to improve it. For me, the keyboard starts feeling "different" when I have a solid program. The hands, without any thought on my part, find things to do with the sound. Its that good. Go and explore.

Its quite a boundless sonic world in a synth as well endowed with samples like the Fantom, Motif or M3 (or their derivatives).  Its just as fun to program up a more analog focused synth like the those in the Virus family.  any of these synths have software editors, which work great with the less expensive modular versions.   You can also learn to program like the old masters did.  Get a Moog Little Phatty or if you have the bucks the Moog Voyager, both of which are fabulous  mono synths.  Even on the most austere of budgets you'll probably get a soft synth or 2 with your sequencer.  Program that!   As you get into programming, you realize there are really no rules, just habits. (Some philosophers say that its habits that keep our world orderly, not rules and laws and let me say one last word here--programming methods are habits--you are as good as you habits.) 

Of course there are more. I hope this helps a few of you get into the joys of sound creation. No one in the world can make THE sounds for your unique musical statement like you can. 


Waldorf Largo Software Synth

You certainly don't have to have hardware to program.  Waldorf's Largo has excellent organization to help you with programming.



    Tutorial: Using Copy Functions to Create Complex Programs 

1. To start, set up a default patch 

With preferences you nearly always use so you don't have to start from scratch each time. On the QS, I use the following defaults, which are followed by many synths that have 4 knobs or sliders for real time controllers.

    • FX level is set to a level where you can hear it, but its not in the way. 
    • Controller A is routed to Filter Cutoff so the sound fades out as you move the slider up. 
    • Controller B is routed to change an FX parameter. Delay 1 level works well. 
    • Controller C is routed to amp envelopes--greater release time is a good default. 
    • Controller D is routed to boost the FX send about 50% from zero. 
    • Pitch LFO is set to a reasonable level at a speed that mimics vocal vibrato and is routed to the mod wheel. AMP and Filter LFOs at level zero at the same speed as pitch LFO. (if you are doing techno sounds, set all the above to sync to a BPM of 135.
    • Aftertouch is set at a subtle level. 
    • Use a standard FX configuration of Reverb and Delay.

Copy this default program

to every location in an empty bank. Of course you change these as you get into editing the patch. You only need to do it for sound 1 as before you get too far you need to learn... 

2. Copying layers

You'll grow old or mad or both if you don't learn to copy sound layers, either in your editor or on the front panel. This is usually very easy, but you'll need to look up the procedure in your manual.  Lets say you have a Fantom, which has 4 layers or "Tones" in each "Patch".  You can copy Tone 1 to Tone 2, then go inot Tone 2 and make some edits.  Some favorite edits of mine are very simple.  Change the waveform from SAW to SQUARE if on an analog synth, then you have both waveforms sounding together, which sound quite fat. On a sample based synth say, using a 6 string guitar multi sample change the guitar to a tight clav like square wave.  Done right, you'll start hearing a Stratocaster type tone.  Or go wild and put guitar samples in Piano envelopes and Piano samples in Guitar envelopes.  What you get from these simple copy functions might really sound great.

As you get more advanced with your copy functions you can use pieces of other patches to build new ones.  Take that chattering amp envelope off the harpsichord preset and put it on a distorted guitar with pick noise.  Cool!  Get the filters off a dreamy synth pad and stick it on reversed piano waves and toast the psychedelic sunrises. 


3. Instant Gratification for the Intermediate Programmer  

I will assume you understand what envelopes, LFOs and other basics are. If not, check the manual that came with your synth. 

  • a. Tweak Sound 1 (whatever sample you find most interesting at the moment). Get the envelopes right. Get the FX right. Get the velocity right. Set the controllers/modulators. Don't forget lfos and AT. Keep in mind anything you neglect to tweak now will have to be done times two or times four after you copy. 
  • b. Now copy Sound 1 to sound 2 
  • c. Pan sound 1 left and sound 2 right, detune them a few ticks. You now have a giant “stereo-ized” image. 
  • d. Now make a few micro-edits to sound 2's envelopes and filter. You might be surprised how just a few differences between the sounds can add depth and dynamism to the sound when you have the L/R thing going. So you got it sounding real cool. Well wait, we're not done yet. 
  • e. Copy sound 1 to sound 3 and 2 to 4. 
  • f. Mute Sounds 1 and 2 
  • g. Choose similar instrument samples (i.e a different horn, string, drum kit and use the same on for both sound 3 and 4. It probably already sounds pretty good, as its panned, detuned, envelopes are tweaked, etc. Do whatever adjustments you have to. So now you have two patches in one program--now we have to blend them. Here's the easy way. 
  • h. On sounds 3 and 4 go to the filter and give it a negative setting so you cant hear it--that's right till you hear nothing. (Remember sounds 1 and 2 are still muted so you can't hear them either.) Now go to Controller A which is already assigned to filter cutoff but give it a positive value to when you move the fader up, the sounds 3 and 4 become audible. 
  • i. Unmute sounds 1 and 2. Controller A should fade smoothly from sound 1/2 to 3/4. If it isn't smooth go back and make adjustments to the filter cutoff amounts--you should be relatively close. 
  • j. Now go back over the program and add things that will really make this patch a standout
  • So now you have made your first complex program. Using the copy functions made this quite painless. You will probably start wondering, "hmm... wonder what it would sound like if I used 4 wildly different instruments in this program". Welcome to programming, friend. There are many paths that may open in your imagination at this point. Every road you take will open up a dozen more roads. 


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Arturia Origin Virtual Modular Synthesizer
Get Arturia's Origin Synthesizer and get the most powerful synthesizer on the market. The Origin goes much further than you've ever seen a synth go. It surpasses the traditional definition of synthesizers. It is a hardware DSP system that houses several synthesizers in one machine. Some of these synths come from the past, such as the Minimoog, some are totally new and innovative.


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More Articles by Tweak on Keyboards and Synths

Keyboards and Modules INDEX
Choosing the Right Keyboard for your Studio
Synthesizer Comparison Chart
Guide to Compact MIDI Controllers
All about Synthesizer Modules
The Roland Fantom Family
The Yamaha Motif Family
The Access Virus Family
The Korg Triton/M3 Family
Roland V-Synth GT
Yamaha Motif XS
Korg M3 Resources
Triton Rack/EXB Card Review
Novation ReMote 37 SL
How to program a Synthesizer
Proteus 2000
Keyboard Price List


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