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About two or three years ago, I bought Logic Pro X. Since then, I've been learning how to use most of the synthesisers that come with it. My favourite is definitely Alchemy, which I use for almost every synth sound I want to make. I know how to use almost all of it, and can make some basic sounds:

•Synth "plucks" using an additive source, an ADSR modulated filter and a very short envelope on the overall pitch to add some punch

•Supersaws using multiple slightly different saw oscillators each with a fair amount of unison

•Basic pads (filtered unison oscillators with slow envelopes)

•Basic leads (very basic)

But then I listen to music online and find that nearly all of the synth sounds are beyond anything I've been able to make. (Genres like dubstep especially)

I doubt that Alchemy isn't powerful enough and have no idea how highly complex sounds can be made with even the most (seemingly) simple synthesisers.

How do I get from knowing how to use a synth to knowing how to make good patches?

I'm interested in making better pads and keys, as they seem to have the most complicated sounds.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

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    define "better" and make it something everyone can unanimously agree on – Tyler Stone Feb 7 at 19:41
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    Two notes: First, "synth sounds" that you hear in songs are often not only synth sounds. They are synths that are then processed with other effects, or they might be using entirely different kinds of synthesis. Second, no discussion of how to make sounds is complete without a link to the Sound On Sound magazine Synth Secrets series. – Todd Wilcox Feb 7 at 21:09
  • To clarify, when I talk about "better sounds" I mean pulling a wider range of timbres out of synthesisers. Presets use all the same settings that I use, but sound completely different to what I've made. – David Varner Feb 8 at 15:58
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    It sounds like you've already looked at some of the presets but I'd suggest looking a little closer at them. You should find that the Logic presets include a lot of plugins outside the synthesizer itself. Try loading up a few presets you like, turning off all of the plugins, then listening to the synth itself and trying to figure out what it is about that sound that you like or is different from what you've been doing. Then you can analyze the plugins being used and notice what overall effect they have on the sound. You should see that a few parts of what you like come from both aspects. – Basstickler Feb 8 at 18:31
  • Thanks Basstickler, I've also found that copying each setting one at a time to another instance of the synth helps a lot. – David Varner Feb 8 at 19:35
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I think you are asking a broad question, so I can give answers from a few different angles.

Firstly, to make better and more unique sounds, keep practicing and experimenting.

To dig deeper, ask yourself what specific sound you like, and then research and experiment on achieving that exact sound. I have seen a few odd questions here on how to re-synthesize very particular sounds, for example in this post.

In Dubstep, a lot of music producers enjoyed using Xfer's Serum. While it's true that Alchemy is a very powerful synthesizer, people find that some instruments click better than others, in this case the Wavetable synthesizer very dominantly focuses the user on creating high quality wavetable sounds - this in turn, along with the synth architecture and visual engagement, leads to lot of characteristic 'Serum' sounds. So it also helps to try other legendary synthesizers.

Further down the track, the FX rack on the synth (a very beneficial set of tools) adds a lot of edge to the sounds. So try applying FX or an FX chain.

One other point that I find interesting is that while we are listening to music, there may be in fact more than 1 sound that we are hearing that creates so much interest. It is possible that we are making assumptions about what the sound is, when in fact it is a combination of simpler sounds or instruments. In electronica it is more ambiguous. I would not underestimate the power of using simple sounds together - a typical synthesizer is made to combine simple sounds.

I find that the subject of timbre plays a big part here, and there are more areas to look into. Subtle techniques include Mixing Oscilators at low volume levels, using very short (enveloped) sounds, using layers and tuning oscillators in Chords, and Synchronising oscilators (also wavetable sound).

Reverse-engineering presets is another great way to learn. You can watch some tutorials here on how these sounds are made, I have blended different sounds in a preset pack (Ambient Soundscapes), although with Native Instruments Absynth. This Youtube channel that I have been building focuses on how the timbre of sounds relates to its spectrum, and how to synthesize unique sounds. This is a video on comb filters in Absynth (similar with Alchemy but not identical) on how they can affect the sound.

There are endless ways to create sounds!

  • Thanks Joel. When it comes to things like comb filters (looking at your video), I think that it will help a lot if I take a deeper look into how harmonics relate to the waveform and vice versa. I don't really want to buy a wavetable synth yet, because it seems (I hope I'm right) like custom wavetables just skip a few steps done in additive/subtractive synthesis. It looks like I've got a lot of reading to do 😀 – David Varner Mar 15 at 13:08
  • I have veered away from waveforms once I saw the value of tweaking sounds in spectrum view. Basically, square is hollow, saw is thin/warm. In some sense, I think you understand that, custom wavetables (I.e. drawing waves) is an experimental technique and doesn't give direct insight into timbre as a spectrum would. However, sounds in Dubstep for example, wave morphing/scanning and so on, are not based on spectrums so much as the wave-sculpting. So it depends what you're looking for. Do you have more question on this? A great text book is 'Sound Synthesis and Sampling' by Martin Russ – Joel Pinteric Mar 17 at 1:44
  • Thanks again Joel. It looks like the book you recommended covers any question I would have on the technical side of things. I'll do some research, play around, and if I have any more questions I'll make sure I ask. You've been a great help :) – David Varner Mar 18 at 17:06
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To get to the good sounds, you have to go through a lot of bad sounds. Also, if everything you've done so far isn't getting you what you want, one clear answer is to start doing things you've never done before.

Start playing with modulation sources and destinations. Use envelopes to modulate oscillator pitch. Use an envelope to modulate LFO frequency or amount. Use an oscillator as an LFO to modulate the pitch of another oscillator. Make things sound as bad and crazy as you can. You'll find as you try to make "bad" sounds that are unmusical, you will accidentally create some interesting musical sounds.

One of my favorite tricks is to use an oscillator that is following the keyboard to modulate the cutoff frequency of a lowpass filter. Bring the filter down and you get a mellow sound with a fuzzy top end.

Don't think about those bizarre and arbitrary categories that synth makers have tried to saddle us with, like "pads" and "keys" or whatever. Just try to make sounds. Explore all that a synth can do.

Also, do web searches on how to make a "dubstep scream" and a "dubstep wub".

  • Thanks for the answer. It makes sense how categories limit sounds to just that category. I'll make sure to play around with the synth as much as possible. – David Varner Feb 8 at 16:02

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