With new synths coming out all the time, how could one be expected to keep up? It can be especially hard if you’re not a synth-person by nature. Indeed, if I say the word “modular” and you think “well, that’s an annoying corporate buzzword,” this article is for you, because what we’re going to do here simple: I’m going to lay out my easy, three-step process for learning any soft-synth in a way that’s sure to stick.
Instead of focusing on cramming every detail of the synth into your poor, overloaded noggin, we’re going to use your innate sense of creativity to explore the instrument, and ultimately, to demystify it. This article should be particularly helpful to all you preset people—to anyone who loves to slap on a preset, but feels overwhelmed in tweaking its settings.
The game is simple: you are going to open your favorite DAW and compose a short loop, four to eight measures in length. You’re only going to allow yourself three tools for this task: your faders, a limiter on your master bus, and the software synth in question, spread out across however many tracks it takes. That’s it. Okay, maybe some metering on the master outputs if you’d like. But really, that’s it.
The faders will help you balance the level of each track. The limiter is there to protect you from going into the red on the occasional peak. With the synth, it’s a bit more complicated: yes, you’re going to use the instrument to compose music and create soundscapes. But eventually (and this is key to the process) you’re going to use the synth as a mixing tool—as a means of creating fully fleshed out sonic arrangements. The plan is to get as close as possible to a finished, polished product; in doing so, you’ll test out the limits of the synth’s filters, oscillators, envelopes, and effects.
Fair warning: This piece is going to assume you like to compose music. If you don’t, and you only cycle through synthesizers while mixing as a form of sound replacement (to supplement cheesy synth patches from a client, for example), you’re still welcome to stay and read.
1. Play with presets
Yes, we’re going to start with presets. Don’t let that turn you off, for presets make excellent teaching tools, equipped as they are with the designer’s idea of the synth’s quintessence. In creating a piece of music with presets, you will get a feel for the synth’s innate timbre, as well as its capabilities (not to mention its CPU load across multiple tracks). Also, you’ll see just how versatile the synth can be; its limits will be exposed as you stack its unaffected tones against each other.
Psst! Download free Iris 2 presets.
As you’re composing, ask yourself, “how close can I get to a finished product using just the presets, the faders, and the limiter?” If the answer is “very close,” then ask yourself why it’s so close. Do more than ask; seek the answer by investigating the panels of the synth, investigating the graphic user interface (GUI), locating where the filtering section is, where the effects are located, etc.
After you compose your piece, play elements of the loop in solo and watch the GUI in action. See what’s happening in front of your face. Are there any animations that indicate a modulation affecting a parameter? Try to trace where this modulation might be coming from: is it linked to an LFO, an envelope, or something else? It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what an envelope generator or an LFO happen to be; just watch how the GUI interacts with what you hear.
One other word of advice here: It’s been said by better people than me that you can divide an arrangement (or mix) into several key categories—bass, percussion, harmonic content, sustaining harmonic content (i.e., pads without rhythm), melodic content, and effects. Therefore, try to compose your loop accordingly, so that everything will gel into a coherent picture; look for a bass sound that grabs you, some percussion that fits, chordal sounds you can stab, harmonic sounds you can sustain, a nice lead, and whatever effects suit the sound design.
For this article, I was given a copy of Iris 2 to work with, iZotope’s sample-based synthesizer, which luckily I had never used before. I started off by making the following loops. I’m sharing them with you as I created them, warts and all. Warts are part of the process—that’s how we learn. This is where we start, and you’ll definitely get a kick out of where we end up.