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Principles of Sound Design (Part 1)
Written by Simon Cann - © 2007, Coombe Hill Publishing. Reprinted with Permission.
This article is an excerpt from the following book: How To Make A Noise - A Comprehensive Guide to Synthesizer Programming.

The comments below are my personal opinions and should not be taken as facts. If you disagree with me, then your opinion is probably correct—I cannot know the context in which you will be using your sounds and so it would be presumptive of me to suggest that I could ever know better. So if you disagree, that is fine with me, but please don’t write and tell me.

Programming with a Purpose
There may be many reasons to design a sound. For me the most pressing reason for building a patch is the need to find a specific sound that works for a specific track (or a specific sound that is needed in some other specific context). If you stumble across a sound that you think is interesting, it doesn’t really mean much unless you can then use that sound appropriately. While you may program “just for fun”, the remainder of the book is predicated on the assumption that you will have a specific goal when creating any sound.

Only you know how and where a sound is going to be used. And while it is something of a chicken and egg conundrum, I always find that it is more difficult to program the nuances of a sound without having a rough MIDI part playing. In practice, if you separate the arrangement of the part from the programming of the sound, you will always be at a disadvantage.

By equal measure, I would encourage you to try sounds in a different context from the one for which they were originally intended. For instance, many bass patches make great stab sounds. Don’t do this as a last ditch measure when nothing else works, but rather as an exercise to find how different sounds can fit in a different context.

Many people will also encourage you to “just experiment” with programming. Personally, I dislike the notion behind this comment. I’m not saying that experimentation is bad or that you shouldn’t try things. My only argument here is that the “just experiment” philosophy is used by those who can’t be bothered to learn how to use a tool properly. Equally this argument is used by developers who can’t be bothered to explain to people how to use a tool properly, or who have developed a tool which may be interesting but is ultimately without purpose.

Arrangement of the Track
There are many ways to get to a sound—use a preset, use a commercially available sound bank, or even hit the random button until you find something interesting. All of these are valid ways of getting a sound, so why would you bother programming your own sound?

As I have already mentioned, there is one simple reason why you would program your own sounds—and within the scope of programming, I would include tweaking a sound from another source—to get the right sound for your production.

When you are mixing a track, each instrument needs its own space or else the mix may get be cluttered, indistinct, and generally bad. You may have the best bass, pad, stab, and lead sound available in your synth, but do these elements all fit together? Does your bass muffle the kick drum? Do the bass and the stab occupy different sonic ranges? Does the stab stand out over the pad and does it then clash with the vocal?

These are all elementary problems associated with the mix which are often addressed with equalization.

Even if the sonic ranges occupied by your synthesizer parts aren’t the problem, have you found the right sound for the track? Does the bass fit that pumping rhythm you’ve worked so hard at? Does that lead cut the top of your head off, or is it just a flaccid preset that seemed alright when you sequenced the riff? Does that stab really lock in with the bass to give a perfect performance or is it an unequal match for that bass? And what about that pad? Does it sound like something from a 1970s string machine? Or worse still, does it sound like a cheap VSTi when you want it to sound like a 1970s string machine?

Automation is an important part of the mixing process, so why not also consider automation in the production of your sound? Don’t just automate a patch’s level, but think how the timbre can change over time—control this with player controls and with track automation (for instance, open and close the filter slightly as the track plays).

Can’t I Just Go and Buy Something?
A simple question that is often asked is “what is wrong with commercial banks and the banks that come with my synthesizer?”

As simple question deserves a simple answer: there is nothing wrong with presets. The only downside to presets is that they’re just not designed to fit your specific track and you may not know how to control them: for instance you may sweep the filter when it may be more appropriate for the sound you are after to sweep the depth of the envelope modulation of the filter.

People (including me) use presets for many reasons—some are excellent, they save programming time (so you can make music), they sound good, the results are better than you can program yourself, the style is outside of your usual programming style, or the presets give you inspiration. As I said, I use presets and will continue to use presets in addition to programming my own sounds.

However, it seems that you’re being very hopeful that you could take a sound that has been programmed in a vacuum (in other words, the sound was programmed by someone who knows nothing about your track), and that the sound will then be used in a context of a mix, and will work perfectly. I can believe that a patch programmed out of context might be right for your track—I find it hard to conceive that it would fit the mix perfectly and would fit the playing style of the MIDI track where it will be responding to velocity and other playing techniques.

I think you also need to consider the purpose of factory presets and what sound designers have to do to persuade people to purchase a bank of patches. Presets that come with a synth have one purpose—to display the capabilities of that synth. This is a sensible thing to do and is exactly what I would do if I were in the business of making synths.

However good the presets are, however well they demonstrate the synth in question, they are not necessarily right for your track. So what do you do? Most people consider buying some presets from somewhere else. Which presets do they choose? Usually the one that sounds most flashy—not necessarily the one that fits with the track they are trying to construct.

Some (but not all) commercial banks are not very playable (for instance they don’t react to velocity or other playing nuances and they don’t have controllers set up). They are also often drenched with effects (where this may not be wise/appropriate)—for instance you will often get a bass swimming in reverb. This may sound good when one or two notes are tried, however, in the context of a track it often just sounds muddy.

Don’t get me wrong. Some commercially available presets are genuinely inspiring—especially some of the more modern dance focused banks made by guys who are actually making modern dance music. These are patches that have been designed for a purpose by people who actually understand how to deploy the patches—that is why their demos sound so good.

If you have a choice between bad programming done by yourself and a good preset, then the good preset should win every time. Sound programming should never detract from the music and the music making process. You should also remember that there is no rule that the sound design has to be undertaken by the creator/producer of a composition: it is a perfectly valid decision to use external sound design, provided the result works for the track.

Finally, please don’t form the view that I think you have to program your own sounds to create a musically valid piece. I’m just as critical of the use of presets you have created yourself if they are inappropriate for a track. For more information, see How To Make A Noise - A Comprehensive Guide to Synthesizer Programming.

This article is continued in Principles of Sound Design (Part 2).

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