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Studio hacks: 6 pro synth programming techniques

Sequential Prophet-5 Rev 4
(Image credit: Future)

Do you find yourself relying on stock patches and not using your synths to their full potential? Ditch those presets and program standout synth sounds for yourself! 

1. Modulation fades

Heavy modulation of oscillator pitch or filter cutoff can sound a little over-the-top if applied to the entire duration of a sound. Many synths allow a ‘fade in’ to be applied to modulation routings though. 

You might find this as a ‘fade’ parameter attached to an LFO, or within your synth’s modulation matrix. This can be a great tool for adding tremolo to just the release tails of synth chords, or creating bold EDM-style bass with distinctive ‘wobbles’.

2. Looping envelopes

It’s common to find modern synths offering a ‘loop’ function for envelope generators, but what does this do? Well, exactly what it sounds like – once the envelope reaches the end of its final stage, it will retrigger from the start of the ‘attack’. 

In effect this creates an entirely customisable LFO. Adjusting the attack and decay/release controls will adjust the speed of the LFO, as well as letting you tailor its shape.

Heinakroon Positron16 concept for Behringer

(Image credit: Heinakroon)

3. Noise as a mod source

Alongside standard tools like LFOs or envelopes, many synths let users use a noise generator as a modulation source. The benefit? In modulation terms, noise provides very rapid randomisation, with the effect of sounding gritty and atonal. 

Apply a little noise modulation to a filter cutoff for an alternative to distortion or, in small amounts, to modulate oscillator pitch.

4. A filter as an extra oscillator 

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UNO Synth Pro

(Image credit: IK Multimedia)

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Analogue-style filters sometimes have a capability called ‘self oscillation’, which is what happens when the resonance is increased to a point that the filter generates an audible pitch by itself. This means the filter can be employed as a sine wave oscillator.

What’s more, if your filter features ‘keyboard tracking’ – meaning the cut-off point moves in sync with incoming notes – you can play this filter/oscillator melodically. Raise the filter resonance to full, tune the resulting tone to a ‘C’, then play some notes to hear this in action.

5. Sync and sweep

Oscillator sync is a common feature on both hardware and plugin synths. Simply put, it means the wave cycle of a secondary oscillator is reset in sync with the primary oscillator. So when osc 1 returns to its ‘0’ point in the wave cycle, osc 2 jumps back to ‘0’ too. 

Sonically, this works best when manipulating the pitch of one of the synced oscillators. Use an LFO to modulate pitch, or manually change the octave/course tuning of osc 1 for classic sync sweep effects.

Retrologue

(Image credit: Retrologue)

6. Take control

Try to include at least one ‘expressive’ modulation routing in each synth patch. By this we mean make use of controls such as a mod wheel, macro dials, aftertouch or a foot pedal input. 

Anything that allows you to get physical with key elements of a patch can really bring your sound to life. Good parameters to map include filter cutoff, oscillator detune or LFO modulation depth.