How To Better Your Soft Synths - Pt 1

Posted by The Audio Hunt

Treat your synths to something special - make them buzz or glide just like they were originally intended to while still having the luxury of saving and recalling presets or editing automation with just a few clicks of the mouse. Introducing the power of Analog Processing!

How To Better Your Soft Synths - Pt 1

Nowadays, there is a whole world of digital tools out there – everything from the latest in noise cancelling, mud-editing magic to classic outboard emulations and indeed high-end digital recreations of classic synthesizers. These can even replicate all the noise and grit of the originals, all at the click of the mouse and yet, there is still a huge demand for classic analog units on both the new and used markets.

Part of this phenomenon has to do with the act of owning a piece of classic hardware for its value or as a collectible. But apart from the nostalgia of owning such a synth, there are also sonic aspects which one must not neglect. For example, a vintage Minimoog will not necessarily sound better than some of the emulations out there, but it will most certainly sound different. This is due to the fact that analog synthesizers use voltages which are ultimately converted into soundwaves. These voltages are never perfect nor are they the same with one another – it’s in the very nature of this technology to have minute changes induced by the passing of electricity through the various components which make up the instruments. Consequently, these can produce the small differences, audible wobbles or slight detuning effect which sounds so pleasing to us as listeners or performers.

A digital recreation, no matter how complex its design might be, will struggle to reproduce these exact (or better said, inexact) changes that occur within its hardware counterpart. The plugin will indeed replicate some of the effects with great precision and even slightly alter the parameters each time a key is pressed for example, yet still the two will sound somewhat different when played side by side – and this is absolutely fine; nobody should be after perfection because it’s actually the imperfections that make these things sound the way they do – fat, beefy, buzzy, creamy and generally amazing!

Here are our first 3 ways to process your digital synths through analog hardware units.

Pedals, Stomps & Magic Boxes

One of the most popular techniques of altering the sound of a synth, from both a creative and a sonic standpoint, is to pass its output through a series of guitar pedals. This is a popular option and perhaps one of the easiest to implement, as it often requires the use of inexpensive units such as basic distortion, modulation or time-based effect pedals. While there is no right or wrong option, it’s always best to start with a clear vision for the end-result and to experiment as much as possible.

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For example, where the end goal is to infuse some character and grit into a digital pale-sounding synth, one can use a combination of distortion, overdrive or harmonic enhancement coupled with a compressor or a dynamic boost pedal. Some of our recommended options are the amazing-sounding BYOC ESV Silicone Fuzz fitted with NOS BC108 transistors and the Xotic Effects BB Preamp pedal.

Another scenario would be to add interest to a static pad patch by using modulation and filtering stomps to achieve subtle tonal changes which can add an element of ‘ear-candy’. For this approach we recommend trying the Mellow Yellow Tremolo, MXR Script Phase 90 and the Strymon Ola.


Reamping is Revamping

Moving on from the easily accessible guitar pedals, the next option would be to reamp the soft synth bounces through classic guitar or bass amps or through speakers in general. As is the case with guitar pedals, impedance and level matching should be treated with care to allow for a correct reamp.

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One of the main advantages of reamping a synth is the fact that one can control the amount of ‘room tone’ or natural ambience, allowing the engineer to correctly place the instrument in the mix without the use of artificial reverberation. For many, this reason on its own is worth going through the reamping process.

As mentioned the first and, perhaps one of the common scenarios where reamping is a useful treatment for soft synths, is when the end goal is to carefully sit a digital synthesizer part within the context of the mix by micing the amp or speaker from a distance. As always, experimentation is key to achieving a pleasing result. Any amplifier and cabinet combination can be used in this scenario; similarly, a regular set of PA speakers can also achieve the same effect but with less coloration.

Where warmth is required, we recommend using a classic amplifier and slightly driving the input signal to achieve the desired saturation level. If the synth part in question is a bass line, a transformer-based bass amplifier recorded using a microphone with a strong transient response is advisable. Some of our top picks include in terms of amps and combos include this 1960s Marshall BHW, this gorgeous 1964 VOX AC30, the super-warm all-tube early 70s Fender Twin Reverb, or a classic 1971 Fender Bassman 50. [Click the links for photos – they’re gorgeous]

A more boutique option which will add interest to your synths is to reamp the digital files through a Leslie cabinet. This will add movement and can create interesting effects where a more creative type of processing is required. 


Keepin’ it Reel

Tape is sought-after nowadays for its smoothing and rounding effect. Any sound passed through a magnetic tape machine will inherit some pleasing-audible artefacts. The frequency response usually gets musically skewed – the high end is usually slight smoothed and the lows are rounded off. Driving the input usually equates to saturating the signal thus allowing for a warmer sound. Dynamics are also slightly reduced in the process making the synth sit better in the mix, for example.

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We recommend using tape on harsh sounding digital synths. The fuzziness is usually tamed and the part will sit better in the mix. Pushing the input stage will increase the amount of coloration while also warming up the bottom end. This can work wonders on a thin sounding power chord or a stab. While soft waveforms will sound good after being passed through a tape machine, we recommend trying these on squares, saws, noise or complex waveform – it will polish any digital dust away.

Some of the regular culprits include the ReVox G36, Studer C37 and an Ampex ATR-102, but feel free to check out our collection of vintage tape machines to see which one sounds best on your synth lines.


What's Next

Check out next week's Part 2 to find out three more techniques to enhance your digital synths and have them sound like those heard on world famous records. 


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