3 Tricks to Get Your Synths Just Right

Even with the most powerful, expensive synths, the sounds may not quite hit the spot. This isn't through the synth's lack of ability, it is simply because further processing and playing about may be needed. Remember, a synth can sound amazing when solo'ed but all of a sudden it holds no weight in a track. Here are three tricks to improve how your synths sound in the context of a track and some ideas to implement them.

1. Layer Your Synths

One of the best ways to thicken your sound is to use several layers on your synths. You may be familiar with one of the most basic methods - Unison. This is where you set how many voices are played by a synth's oscillator which can then be detuned ever so slightly to thicken it up.

The free synth T-force Alpha Plus is a great example
of a synth with voice and detune control in the 

This same process can be applied using more than one synth/synth preset. Often when using two different synths you don't need to detune, but that is an option. What you want to look for when choosing extra layers are listed below:

  • Percussive-ness: is great for adding that snap or hit to the start of a note. Choose a really short punchy note and layer it in gently. If your main synth sound is a more drawn out note, it may not have the initial hit you want. This is of particular use when your synth only has one or two envelopes to offer.
  • Spectrum Breadth: When you are mixing sounds, it almost always sounds better to cover a wide range of frequencies to create an overall balance. By layering much brighter synths on top of your main lead, you can add extra shimmer. This does add much more work to the mixing stage where you want to remove frequency clashes and masking but it will fill out the spectrum much better than using EQ boosts on a single synth.
  • Tone: By having different synths with different tones mixed together, you can subtly change the character of the overall sound by playing with the balance. Perhaps the track takes a moodier turn, just fade out some of the volume on the brighter layers and bring a darker sound up slightly.
When layering synths, I strongly suggest grouping the layers together in a synth bus. If you have many synths in your track, it may even be ideal to use a sub-bus. (See part 3).

2. Panning

One easy trick is to spread your sounds away from the centre. Much like with frequency coverage, a wide spatial coverage can also add a lot of complexity to your sound. It has the ability to trick your brain into thinking your are hearing the music in a much vaster environment, and by placing sounds around the stereo field they can each occupy their own space.

There are two types of panning which I will discuss:

  • Stereo Spread: where the individual oscillators of a synth in unison are spread across the stereo field. This widens the whole sound but does not allow for good positioning. Use this for high pads which sit across the whole stereo field.
  • Track Panning: The synth itself may have a pan button, but more likely, you will have to use the track pan. This is useful for positioning sounds to the left or right of the listener. Main elements are great with this type of panning as giving them an exact location makes them easier to focus on. Try double tracking slightly different versions of a preset and pan one to each side. 

A few things to note with dealing with stereo enhancement, whether it is via panning or a dedicated plugin, never widen your low frequencies. They should, for phase reasons, always remain in mono. This doesn't affect the sound as bass is essentially omni-directional and so much harder to locate anyway.

3. Synth bus processing

If you don't already group instruments into busses/folders I recommend you do. With this trick, you want to place all "like" synths into a bus for further processing. You can add some effects to each one individually (EQ is a good example) but adding certain effects to the group makes the sound a lot more glued.

Homebrewaudio do an excellent guide to making a folder for
instruments in Reaper if you need more information!

An example of this is to add reverb to the synth bus instead of each individual synth. To see the reason for this, we must consider the reverb plugin as a virtual room with reflections and echoes. If we add reverb to each different synth and play them together, it would be like the sound of several different rooms mixed together.

We want the sound to be tight so we want all the elements to be present in the same, single "room". With just one reverb, there is likely to be a lot more clarity (the mud that three reverbs will add can accumulate), and it will bind the sounds together.

In the same vein, adding a compressor to individual synths may be useful in some applications but by putting a compressor on the synth bus, again will glue the sounds together.

If you need to add a compressor to just one of the synths as well, do so but remember it can compress a lot gentler as it will be followed by a stage of compression in the bus FX.

Bear in mind all the instruments which you want sidechained to the kick as you can group them into a bus for sidechain compression so only one instance of a compressor is needed.