How to create an ambient synth pad from scratch

Pads are a staple of ambient music, and we can show you how to create one that's all your own...

When you're filling out a track with depth and intrigue, what better way than the humble synth pad? While the name derives from a way of 'padding out' a mix, a good pad done right can give a song a completely new atmosphere.

In this tutorial, we'll take you through a basic pad-making process, then tart our patch up a little to finish the job in style. You can apply these principles in any synth, but we've got the hardware out for this job!

For more advice and inspiration on adding atmosphere and ambience to your music, be sure to pick up your copy of Future Music 316!

Step 1: Start from an initialised patch. Choose a triangle wave for oscillator 1 and a square wave for oscillator 2. Add a little detune, and filter the signal down using a low-pass for a darker sound. Tweak both the amp and filter envelopes for a soft attack and long release.

Step 2: Balance the filter cutoff, resonance and envelope settings together. Add in an airy-sounding digital/PCM wave and add some long release on the amp/filter envelopes to flatter the analogue layer. Tweak the volume between the analogue and digital layers to taste. Add white noise for some gritty texture.

Step 3: Add another digital layer; this time a flutey/breathy sample. Balance the volume to taste. Add a touch of portamento. Dial in a sample & hold wave on an LFO and send to the filter at a medium rate. Tweak the ‘fade in’ time of this layer for smoothness.

Step 4: Now add some reverb across the pad to give it space and depth. Add some delay too, to see what it can do for the sound. Choose a reverb which has a long and warm tail, and which becomes part of the sound, rather than sitting on top of it. Balance and tweak to taste.

Step 5: For extra width, 3D depth and movement, add a subtle chorus effect across the whole pad, then experiment with panning each layer within the entire sound. Keep the darkest sound down the middle of the mix, with the two brighter, breathier layers panned left and right.

Step 6: Finally, keep tweaking away and ‘massaging’ the sound until it sits exactly as you want. Save your sound, then experiment using mapping controllers (such as aftertouch pedal and mod wheel) to manipulate the fading in and out of layers, effects levels, LFO rate, or anything else you fancy!

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