With the proliferation of knob-heavy analog synthesizers today, it has become easier than ever to sit down and make great sounds. Fortunately, the simplest, most common patches on these synthesizers sound incredible, but there is an infinite constellation of other sounds hiding in plain sight, waiting to be discovered.
Presented below are four tricks that go beyond the obvious and will kick your sound design endeavors into inspirational overdrive.
1. Filter Feedback
This trick is a classic, going all the way back to the first portable synthesizer, the Minimoog Model D. On the Minimoog, there were two audio outputs: low and high. By connecting the low output to the external input, an entirely new and raunchy world of sound opens. Depending on how high the external input level is, filter sweeps become more extreme, resonance is more pronounced, and there is a huge, crunchy yet musical and controllable distortion applied to the existing sound.
Of course, it’s also possible to push it and get more extreme effects that sound like the synth was trying to eat itself alive. While many modern synthesizers have external input functionality, few have dedicated level controls for it, but this is easily worked around with a volume pedal.
Speaking of pedals, the next level of sound design craziness is to patch effects pedals in the feedback path. My favorite pedals to do this with are the Earthquaker Devices Rainbow Machine, for an extremely controllable variation on the Magic setting, and Minifooger Trem, for a fascinating screaming helicopter effect that glides in on top of the existing sound following the contour of the VCA envelope.
2. Sneaky Sequencing
Of all the advanced patching techniques, this one is probably the most difficult to dial in, but it is certainly worth the effort, for the results are unlike anything else in the synth world. I first experimented with this on a friend’s Korg Arp Odyssey, which has one of the most interesting modulation sections of any synthesizer ever. However, it is possible to do this with any synthesizer that has two or more modulation sources, LFOs, sample and holds, etc.
On the Odyssey, you can mix two source signals for the sample and hold, including the waveform outputs from VCO-1 and VCO-2. This allows you to control the pitch of VCO-2 with a sample and hold that is sampling its own square wave output as well as square or sawtooth waves from VCO-1, or control the pitch of VCO-1 with the white noise and its own square or sawtooth waves! This makes for fascinating, fun, awesome sequences that are not random, but not strictly defined in the way a standard step sequencer is either.
On other synths with multiple LFOs, such as the Moog Sub 37, sneaky sequencing is as simple as setting both LFOs to different rates and controlling the pitch of the oscillators. From there, different sequences can be dialed in through careful setting of the LFO depth controls and changing the LFO rates. Combining square or random waveforms gives the most “sequence-y” results, but if you’re looking to go for some really extreme effects, try all of the waveforms and feed the LFOs to other locations, such as the filter cutoff frequency or any of the assignable destinations.
3. Resonant Filter as Extra Oscillator
Credit for this trick goes to a great friend and very talented synthesist, Jon Sonnenberg. He first showed me this trick using a DIY ARP 2600 clone called the TTSH, but it works on other synths just as well. The basic setup for this is very simple: set the keyboard tracking for your filter to 1v/octave (assuming your synth’s oscillators follow the 1v/Octave standard), turn any envelope or other modulation of the filter cutoff frequency all the way off, and turn the resonance up until the filter self-oscillates.
From there, your options really start to open up. Tune it to an upper octave for a screaming chirp to make a lead line stand out, or tune it to a 5th for massive, one-finger power chords. One caveat for this trick is that, assuming you tune the filter to a specific, fixed note, you lose the ability to sweep the filter, as the cutoff frequency is what determines the note the filter is self-oscillating.
That said, you can get around this if your synth has a keyboard CV output by combining the filter feedback trick and a voltage controllable filter pedal such as the Moogerfooger MF-101 orDwarfcraft ARF. For that arrangement, you would set the filter pedal to self-oscillate and connect the keyboard CV to the pedal’s cutoff frequency input, and then use your synth’s built in filter as usual. Some of the wildest textures and drones I have ever heard have come from variations on this setup.
4. Turn it Down!
This trick is probably the simplest of them all, so much so that I went back and forth on including it or not because I couldn’t tell if my personal preferences were clouding my judgement. It is the perfect “hidden in plain sight” synth trick. The long and short of it is, turn down your oscillators! With synths like the Arturia Minibrute and Microbrute, Moog Sub 37, Korg Arp Odyssey, and many others, there is a ton of built in opportunity for distortion, which can be leveraged into a dazzling array of sonic variations.
Today synths are designed with a huge range of overdrive/distortion capabilities; the Brute Factor knob on Arturia synths, Drive switch on the Odyssey and the Sub 37’s Multidrive are all capable of raging, screaming distortions when hit with cranked oscillators. But what happens when you dial back the volume a little bit? Suddenly, an entire world of subtle variation opens up. Square waves get a bit of wooly fizz, triangle waves cut through without getting overly buzzy, the possibilities are literally endless. Guitarists have been doing this for decades by rolling back their volume knobs while playing through cranked amps, but where a guitar does little more than clean up with the volume knob rolled back, synths become entirely different animals when the oscillators are turned down predistortion.
Julian Ludwig é diretor do Pro Áudio Clube, produtora de áudio Jacarandá, Loc On Demand e Jacarandá Licensing. Trabalhou para empresas como: Guaraná Antartica, TV Gazeta, NET, Chivas Regal, FNAC, Prefeitura de São Paulo, Mukeca Filmes, Agência LEW’LARA TBWA, Agencia MPM, Agência Content House entre outras. Fez trilhas para programas de TV como: Internet-se (Rede TV), Você Bonita (TV Gazeta), Mix Mulher (TV Gazeta), Os Impedidos (TV Gazeta), Estação Pet (TV Gazeta), CQC (TV Band) Vinheta Oficial TV Gazeta, entre outras. Também atuou em vários longas e curtas metragens, incluindo mixagem em 5.1 e serviços de pós-produção.