Sound Design

I recently, finally, got an analogue synth after only ever using digital ones. I have always been a bit suspicious of digital synths. There was always something off about them. Now that I have had the chance to use an analogue synth first hand I have had my suspicions confirmed: analogue synths sound better by far.

Now, some digital synths are designed to do things that only digital synths can do, so comparing those to analogue synths is a bit unfair. It is true that digital synths have a wider range of timbres and easily do arbitrary control routing; limited only by software architecture, CPU and UI/EX, but digital synths all suffer from the same artifacts.

If you hunt around online you will find people raving about how particular digital synths so well recreate the classic analogue sounds. To some extent this is true, analogue model synths do a good job of recreating the overall tonal characteristics of analogue synths but they also suffer from some of the following:

  • Aliasing – they all have some amount of nasty harmonic distortion caused by sample aliasing. Some do reduce this to a minimum bit it’s always there.
  • Scratchy transients – they just can’t seem to handle situations involving high/short envelope settings in which you get nasty split, crackly distortion in onset transients. You often want a spike at the onset of a sound to give it a snap that your ear can catch hold of, so you might have a short envelope opening a filter momentarily, but this often introduces some scratchy high frequencies or crackly transients.
  • Gritty high end – By far my most serious complaint. The thing that always puts me off. The high frequency component in every digital synth I have ever used always has a kind of brittle, rough texture. The sound is like subtle bit-depth reduction all over the top end. Digital synths never fizz cleanly and I always find it distracting.
  • Bad aliasing during even subtle pitch modulation – one of the main characteristics of analogue synths is looseness. Pitched oscillators will slide around, if only very slightly. Many will recreate this via slight pitch modulation, say settings an LFO to wobble oscillator pitch or using some pitch shift plug-in, but these, even very subtle, variations immediately incur aliasing with a lot of digital synths.
  • Break down at all extremes – digital synths always break apart with extreme settings. You can’t have LFOs going too fast, fast attack envelopes crackle and spit, high resonance sounds aliased, high register notes sound scratchy.
  • Unstable low end – I have noticed that, to my memory, every digital synth I have used unravels on very low frequencies depending on settings. The low end seems to be detached from the rest of the signal. Maybe something to do with phase coherence of digital filters. Dunno.

It took me about 5 seconds using an analogue synth to hear that none of these problems exist in the analogue world. You can get an analogue synth to play a note at very high pitches and while the sound is whiny and difficult to listen to it sounds pure and intact. The high end is generally exactly as you would want to hear it.

On a subjective note analogue synths also have a kind of unruly quality that not many digital synths really have. With digital synths you set something and the synth hits it bang on every time. Analogue synths (and in fact gear in general) seem to be a bit more squirmy and springy. The sound also has more depth than many, but perhaps not all, digital synths. You can somehow tell that you are listening into a mechanical device, which you are. The sound is coming from a real thing and exists. Digital synths often have a flat, two dimensional quality, as if you are listening to cardboard cut-out impression of a sound.

Analogue synths probably aren’t for everyone. Sound is very subjective and I am only following my own taste. They are also kind of a pain in the arse to use compared to a VSTi. I now have ground loop issues for a start, but I have already had a quick test using the synth in a track and found it just added something great, processed beautifully and joined right in with the rest of the track. It recorded in one take and the result was just… perfect.

I guess for many amateurs this balance isn’t obvious. Beginners likely don’t do much sound design at all, rather relying in presets and sequence samples. Over the last couple of years sound design has become a far bigger part of my process. First, to make sure I’m not being misunderstood, I’ll define what I’m talking about. Sound design is fairly obvious, this is making sounds at a low level. Designing synth presets, building drums and programming loops. Then there is composition, which I define as what you do when you turn sounds into music. However you do that.

The first balance you need to make is simply a matter of time. You have to give some time to each. How much depends on, fundamentally, how much you value the need to make your own sounds from scratch. For some genres, or some… musically career strategies… no-one cares whether sounds are made by you or anyone. For them presets are fine, so they may as well use them. Many can even get away with using 10 presets for their entire musical career. If you are an amateur, you make the rules. If you have the time I think you should definitely start to think about making your own sounds. I say if you have time as it may well seem time consuming. The advantage is that you can truly say your music is your own.

Anyway, I wanted to point out a more pragmatic balance that needs to be made. If you set about making a sound from scratch, there are two extremes of ways of doing it. At one extreme is making a sound with a very definite use in mind, to the extent that you have a precise place in a specific track for it to go. The other extreme is making a sound for its own sake, with no specific use in mind.

Making a sound for a very specific use is hard. This is because you will likely have a very small frequency space for it to live. The exception is when the track you want it to live in is bare. In this case you have all the room you like for your new sound, there are no other sounds for it to compete with. The problem with this is that if a sound like that, one that sounds good on its own, you will have a hard time fitting other sounds into ‘its’ space (i.e. the track). I think many tracks are made with some random hardware synth noise that was captured from hours of playing with the synth, looped into a hook. In this case that feature will often be a primary feature.

Anyway, back to the point. Making a sound for a specific purpose is harder than just turning on a synth and playing with it until it makes a sound you like. The trouble is that it can be equally difficult to make a sound for no reason, with no purpose in mind. If you want to do undirected sound design you tend to have to produces many sounds, create your own preset library, that you can come back to when you’re in composition mode. If you have loads of time to spend you can spend it making a huge custom library. For more experimental types of music you can probably make more bizarre combinations of sounds work.  The more ‘nonstandard’ your sounds become the harder it will by to mix them together well (one of the reasons so many mainstream producers use the same sounds over and over: they can just recall the same presets, processing and effects) I think you will find yourself making a mental balance. You will have a rough idea of the type of sounds you might want for some projects, but won’t be so fixed as to make sound design too difficult. How you balance that is something you’ll have to figure out.