The 10 best synth presets ever used, and where to hear them

10 presets
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SYNTH WEEK 2024: Preset synth patches are either a boon or a bane, depending on one's programming prowess. For many ‘serious’ synthesists, they represent something of a cop-out - easy selections of spoon-fed solutions to impress the inebriated denizens of the local Holiday Inn lounge. 

However, the vast majority of keyboard players depend on presets to compose and record their arrangements.

It's not a coincidence that the first synth ever to enjoy truly blockbuster sales was packed with excellent presets. Indeed, Yamaha's fabled DX7 was also notoriously difficult to program, and virtually single-handedly kicked off the third-party patch industry.

It's often the case that an instrument is defined by a handful of presets - Korg's Wavestation being a good example. Chocked to the brim with complex, motion-filled, rhythmic soundscapes, it's a safe bet that few people bought a Wavestation for its bass and Clav sounds.

Some presets have been so heavily used (and abused) that they have become instantly recognisable, shouting above the din of the popular music that they helped to define. Let's take a look, then, at 10 of the most famous preset patches, the synths on which they were supplied, and the songs that burned them into our cultural consciousness.

1. Sync (from the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5)

Before Sequential Circuits unleashed the Prophet-5 in 1977, synthesizer presets were a rarity – most often relegated to non-programmable instruments like ARP's Pro Soloist. Sequential's slick combination of patch storage and polyphony ensured the P5's popularity, with a then-impressive 8000 units being sold, many to big name performers.

One such player was Greg Hawkes of The Cars, who promptly exploited one of the Prophet's wicked oscillator sync presets for the memorable riff that propels the band's Let's Go, the lead single from their classic Candy-O LP. This ripping, nasal lead patch would - like many of the Prophet's presets - become wildly overused in the years following the instrument's release. 

2. Vox Humana (from the Moog Polymoog Keyboard)

Released in 1975, the original Polymoog was a 71-note synthesizer that offered organ-style divide-down polyphony and a miserly eight presets. Troubled from the start, this cantankerous instrument nevertheless found favour with a number of high-profile users, Rick Wakeman among them.

It was, however, the second, pared-down version - the Polymoog Keyboard - that would burn its sonic signature into synthesizer history, thanks to one its additional presets – the fabled Vox Humana patch.

This sound was much-loved by Gary Numan, figuring prominently on The Pleasure Principle. It is, in fact, the very first sound on that album. Ideal for mournful leads and low, scrubbing string pads alike, it's easy to see the appeal.

3. PPG Choir (from the PPG Wave 2.2/2.3)

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When Wolfgang Palm unleashed his PPG Wave synthesizers back in 1981, few had heard their like before. A devilishly clever combination of digital wavetable oscillators and analogue filters, only the moneyed elite could afford them.

Consequently, though relatively few of them were sold, those that were seemed destined for the charts. Many of the instruments' presets would become identified with the New Wave of the ‘80s, the famous PPG Choir being but one example.

Tangerine Dream used the haunting metallic vocal patch on their epochal Exit LP, and Depeche Mode would drop it into See You, from their second LP, A Broken Frame.

4. E. PIANO 1 (from the Yamaha DX7)

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Few synthesizers have ever had such a lasting impact as Yamaha's DX7. From its stellar playability to its sterile, knob-free front panel, it was nothing like the analogue instruments that dominated the synthesizer market in 1983.

It certainly didn't sound like anything else. With its crisp, spiky percussion, crystalline bells and clinical basses, it was the perfect antidote to a decade of analogue waveforms.

Unfortunately, the instrument that ushered in digital synthesis would bring with it a nearly impenetrable architecture consisting of operators, algorithms and unusual envelopes, all accessed through tedious menus and a diminutive display. Good thing it was loaded with presets, then. Indeed, most DX7 players never bothered making their own sounds, and a third-party patch industry grew up around the instrument.

That didn't stop far too many balladeers from employing the now-famous DX Rhodes emulation, a sound that would become an obligatory inclusion in every keyboard workstation for decades to come.

5. What The (Hoover) (from the Roland Alpha Juno)

Upon its release in 1985, Roland's Alpha Juno was a harbinger of things to come. Retaining the Juno name that had previously been associated with inexpensive, slider-laden polysynths, the spartan front panel of the Alpha Juno lacked the immediacy of its predecessors. Nevertheless, at $895, it was more affordable than the Juno 106 that came before it.

Upon its release, it found favour with many a cash-strapped musician, but it would be future secondhand buyers who would hone in on a single preset called What The - a buzzing sonorous blast that would become widely known as the ‘Hoover’.

6. Digital Native Dance (from the Roland D-50)

Wildly successful upon its release in 1987, Roland's D-50 offered a new take on subtractive synthesis that combined sampled attack transients, synthesized waveforms and a smattering of looped samples that could be mixed, filtered and processed by built-in EQ, chorus and reverb effects. It was a brilliant recipe, gobbled up by a staggering 200,000 musicians worldwide.

Subsequently, a number of D-50 presets wound up on the airwaves, though none so instantly recognisable as Digital Native Dance, a skittering atmospheric patch that started life as a novelty whipped up by one of Roland's PCM engineers. Lead patch programmers Eric Persing and Adrian Scott were duly impressed, using the loop to create what would become the D-50's signature sound, which would be used by everyone from OMD to Miles Davis.

7. LatelyBass (Yamaha TX81Z)

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The 4-operator TX81Z was yet another synthesizer that was largely unappreciated in its day only to become popular among dance music producers years after its release.

Much of its newfound notoriety rests squarely on this biting bass sound. Unashamedly digital, the LatelyBass patch would wind up in countless Italo disco tracks as well as a fair few pop songs. Producer Eliot (Spice Girls) Kennedy was reputed to keep a TX81Z around solely for this sound, while Babyface's dual, detuned TX81Zs are said to be permanently dialed in to the patch. And, of course, there’s Madonna’s Vogue.

8. Universe (from the Korg M1)

Released in 1988, Korg's M1 forever changed the synthesizer industry. Designed as an all-in-one workstation, the M1 offered multisampled instruments of unprecedented realism and matched them up with a sophisticated multitrack sequencer and a comprehensive selection of digital effects.

Never before had so much production power been crammed into one instrument. Relatively convincing pianos, organs, basses and guitars, full drum kits with velocity sensitivity, and loads of evocative synthetic timbres made the M1 the synthesizer to own.

It sported plenty of now-cliched presets, including Universe, one of the finest choir patches anyone had heard at the time. Even Queen - who once proudly proclaimed their records free of synthesizers - couldn't resist the call.

9. Ski Jam/The Wave Song (from the Korg Wavestation)

If any ROMpler had the power to transcend the limitations of sample-playback synthesis, it was the Wavestation. Why, then, did so many players feel the need to get stuck on Ski Jam, the very first - and utterly identifiable - patch?

Mind you, a few may have jabbed the right-most cursor button a couple of times, landing on The Wave Song, a nearly identical demonstration of the instrument's powerful wavesequencer, but it amounts to the same curious lack of imagination.

Admittedly, programming the Wavestation could be an exercise in frustration, and the sound is indeed very cool, but this particular rhythm was ubiquitous in the early 1990s, finding its way onto loads of pop songs, soundtracks, and seemingly every local broadcaster's station ID.

10. The Super Saw (from the Roland JP-8000)

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Virtual analogue synthesizers aren't exactly thin on the ground these days, but once upon a time they were a new and exciting rarity, promising an idealised version of classic analogue synthesis in a modern, stable and dependable package.

Roland's JP-8000 was one of the very first such instruments to hit the scene. While paying homage to instruments of the past, the JP-8000 included many modern niceties such as the ability to remember knob and slider movements and the soon-to-be overused Super Saw waveform, which consisted of seven detuned sawtooth waves played back from a single oscillator.

A much-imitated sound, Super Saw patches would become a favourite of trance producers.

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