How to build a classic '80s pad sound

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Although perhaps not the cornerstone of electronic music that it once was, the big, swirly, back-combed pad is still a sound that many producers like to put to use in their contemporary tracks. Indeed, with the ongoing popularity of synthwave, it's more in the spotlight than it has been for a while.

In this walkthrough, we'll show you how to work up just such a pad sounds. We're using Logic’s built-in ES2 synth, but any virtual analogue equivalent will do…

Step 1: We’re starting with a ‘scratch patch’ in Logic’s ES2 synthesiser, one that bears little resemblance to the warmth and richness of an ’80s pad. We have a single sawtooth wave oscillator with a wide-open filter. We program a chord progression which feels harmonically ‘of the era’.

Step 2: We start by shaping the filter, keeping the 24dB low-pass response but dropping the cutoff point dramatically, so that the tone becomes smoother. We set an envelope to control the filter, with a 280ms attack time, a long decay (2.5 seconds) and a 50% sustain level.

Step 3: Next, we shape the amp envelope. This gains a longer attack (300ms), full sustain level and a release time of 730ms. This softens the beginnings and ends of each note. We tweak the filter envelope, dropping the envelope-to-filter-cutoff amount a little more.

Step 4: Next, we shape the amp envelope. This gains a longer attack (300ms), full sustain level and a release time of 730ms, softening the beginnings and ends of each note. We tweak the filter envelope, dropping the envelope-to-filter-cutoff amount a little more.

Step 5: We add a third oscillator, this time using a square wave with variable pulse width. We audition a few ‘positions’ for pulse width before settling on a position that suits the other oscillators. We also detune this oscillator by 6 cents before setting a blend between all three waveforms.

Step 6: Alongside our pad, we program Kick, Snare, Hat and Clap parts, as well as bringing in a classic ’80s synth bass sound and pattern. Effects-wise, we add two reverbs from UAD’s AMS RMX16 and Valhalla’s VintageVerb, plus some sheen from the Maag EQ4.

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