Recording Virtual Synthesizers: The Art of Imperfection

Synths can make perfect sounds…but is that always a perfect solution?

by Craig Anderton

Recording a virtual instrument is simple…you just insert it, hit a few keys, and mix it in with the other tracks. Right?

Well…no. Synthesizers are musical instruments, and you wouldn’t mic a drum set by taking the first mic you found and pointing it the general direction of the drummer, nor would you record an electric guitar by just plugging it into a mixing console. A little extra effort spent on avoiding an unnatural sound when mixing synths with acoustic instruments, improving expressiveness, tightening timing inconsistencies, and other issues can help you get the most out of your virtual instruments.

But first, remember that “rules” were made to be broken. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to record, only ways that satisfy you to a greater or lesser degree. Sometimes doing the exact opposite of what’s expected gives the best results. So take the following as suggestions, not rules, that may be just what the doctor ordered when you want to spice up an otherwise ordinary synth sound.

THE SYNTHESIZER’S SECRET IDENTITY

The paramount aspect of recording a synth is to define the desired results as completely as possible. Using synths to reinforce guitars on a heavy metal track is a completely different musical task from creating a all-synthesized 30-second spot. Sometimes you want synths to sound warm and organic, but if you’re doing techno, you’ll probably want a robot, machine-like vibe (with trance music, you might want to combine both possibilities).

So, analyze your synth’s “sonic signature”—is it bright, dark, gritty, clean, warm, metallic, or…? Whereas some people attach value judgements to these different characteristics, veteran synthesists understand that different synthesizers have different general sound qualities, and choose the right sound for the right application. For example, although Cakewalk’s Z3TA+ is highly versatile, to my ears its natural “character” is defined, present, and detailed.

Regarding sonic signatures, perhaps one of the reasons for a resurgence in analog synths sounds is digital recording. Analog synths tended to use low-pass filters that lacked the “edgy” sound of digital sound generation. Recording the darker analog sounds on analog tape sometimes resulted in a muddy sound; but when recording on digital, analog sounded comparatively sweet. Digital also captured all the little hisses, grunts, and burps that characterized analog synths. This is a case where the “imperfections” of analog and the “perfection” of digital recording complemented each other.

Another thought: look at guitars, voices, pianos, etc. on a spectrum analyzer, and you’ll note there is little natural high end. If you’re trying to blend a virtual instrument in with physical instruments, remember that a virtual synth has no problems obtaining a solid high end. Using the ProChannel’s LP filter set to 48dB/octave and lowering the frequency just a little bit can introduce the “imperfection” that matches the spectral characteristics of “real” acoustic and electric instruments more closely, so the synth seems to blend in better with the other tracks (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: The ProChannel QuadCurve EQ’s lowpass filter can help digital synths sit better in tracks that use multiple physical or acoustic instruments. (more…)

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Making A Kick Drum in Z3TA+ 2 (Video Tutorial)

Z3TA+ 2′s powerful synth engine is capable of creating all kinds of different sounds. Creating your own EDM Kick Drum is a great way to learn how a synthesizer works – especially when it comes to routing. Check out this free video tutorial on creating your own custom kick drum in Z3tA+ 2.

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Feature Spotlight: Addictive Drums 2 (Now in SONAR X3 Producer)

In this video we review some of the great new features inside of Addictive Drums 2. SONAR X3 Producer now includes a free upgrade to Addictive Drums 2.

  • New sound shaping and kit building features
  • More legendary drums. New sound engine
  • New rhythm creation and transformation tools.
  • More kitpiece slots,
  • New studio-grade effects (including delay and saturation/distortion),
  • Brand new Tone Designer and Transient Shaper modules,
  • Easy kitpiece linking, and new electronic sounds that can take your drums to exciting new territories
  • Drag-and-drop drum hits and complete loops straight to your music software’s timeline for maximum ease of use.
  • Say goodbye to boring beats. Our new Beats page helps you locate or build interesting beats quickly and to transform existing beats to make them uniquely yours.
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The “Punch” Factor with Synthesizers

What exactly constitutes “punch”? Find out here

by Craig Anderton

We all know a punchy recorded sound when we hear it—but what exactly constitutes “punch”? It seems that perhaps punch is something that can not only be defined, but quantified.

This all started because years ago, I wondered why seemingly every musician agrees that the Minimoog has a punchy sound. Then, when I started playing a Peavey DPM3, several people commented that my bass patches had a punchy sound, “like a Minimoog.” Clearly, the technologies are totally different: one was analog, the other digital; one used voltage-controlled oscillators, the other sample playback. Yet to listeners, they both shared some common factor that was perceived as punchiness.

Analyzing a Minimoog bass line revealed something interesting: even with the sustain set to minimum, there was about 20-30 milliseconds where the sound stayed at maximum level before the decay began. There is no way to eliminate that short period of full volume sustain; it’s part of the Minimoog’s characteristic sound.

I then looked at the DPM3’s amplitude envelope and it exhibited the same characteristic—a 20-30 ms, maximum level period of sustain before the decay kicked in. Also, both instruments had virtually instantaneous attacks. Could this combination be the secret of punch?

For comparison, I then checked two synths that nobody considered punchy-sounding: an Oberheim OB-8, which is generally characterized as “warm” and/or “fat” but not punchy, and a Yamaha TG55. Both had fixed attack times, even with the attack control set to zero, that lasted a few milliseconds. I also recalled some experiments ex-Peter Gabriel keyboard player Larry Fast ran in the mid-70s, when he was curious how fast an attack had to be for a sound to be “punchy.” His research indicated that most listeners noticed a perceptible loss of punch with attack times as short as one or two milliseconds.

So it seems the secret of punch is that you need an extremely fast attack time, but you also need a bit of sustain time at maximum level. This sustain isn’t long enough to be perceived as sustain per se; it’s more of a psychoacoustic phenomenon.

Wondering if this same technique worked with other sounds, I took an unprocessed snare drum sound and tried to add punch by normalizing each cycle to the highest level possible for the first 20-30 milliseconds. Comparing the processed and unprocessed sounds left no doubt that the edited version had more punch.

When I designed the Minimoog Expansion Pack for Rapture, I made sure that where appropriate, the envelopes had that characteristic Moog attack (Fig. 1). Note that the second node sustains the sound for 27.5 ms. Rapture’s tight attack time and ability to create “high-resolution” envelopes made it easy to add punch.

Fig. 1: Adding the “punch” factor to a Rapture Minimoog patch. (more…)

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Free: Old-School Video Game Presets for Z3TA+ 2

June is Virtual Instrument Month at Cakewalk so we thought we would remind you of these great free presets for Z3TA+2 in case you missed them! Stay tuned to the Cakewalk Blog for Synth tips and other special offers all month long.

 

The Polybius video game expansion pack is a free set for Z3TA+ 2, inspired by all your favorite old-school video game titles. Includes video game themes, game over themes, boss themes, attack effects, blaster effects, and even some timeless sounds you are sure to recognize. The Polybius expansion pack proves the true power behind Z3TA+ 2’s synth engine and best of all, it’s totally FREE!

Polybius Video Game Sound Pack Info:

  • 100 Free 8-bit Inspired Sounds
  • Title Themes
  • Game Over Themes
  • Level Themes
  • Blaster Effects
  • Run, Jump, Attack Effects
  • Classic Sound FX
  • Additional MIDI Arpeggios
  • Both Simple and Complex Presets
  • Great for shaping your own sounds!

How to Download Polybius: If you already purchased Z3TA+ 2, you can download the free Polybius Sound Pack from your My Account page on the Cakewalk Store. If you have not yet created an account, you will need to use the same email address as your Z3TA+ 2 registration. Then proceed to the My Account section and under “My Registered Products” you will see the Free Polybius Expansion Pack for Z3TA+ 2.

If you buy Z3TA+ 2 through the Cakewalk Store then the free Polybius Sound Pack will be included with your Z3TA+ 2 download.

If you purchase Z3TA+ 2 on Steam the Polybius Sound Pack is Free DLC.

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Vocal Month: Extreme Vocals – Picking the Right Vocal Microphone Part III

Last but not least we engineered a session with Eric Alper, the lead vocalist for the Punk band “Knucklewagon” to see how these microphones performed under an extreme style of singing.

Screaming is common in Heavy Metal and Hardcore styles – both of which have a massive underground following throughout the world. If you’re into this style of music then you’ll understand that there is much value in understanding how the microphone you choose will later sit between the instrumentation of this type of music.

Listen intently on the way his vocals sit between the drums and heavy guitars. Keep in mind there is little to no processing on these vocals so that you can understand where the mic will naturally sit in the mix. For the most part, vocals in the extreme style tend to sit above the snare and close to the “crisp” sound of the guitars. It’s hard to reduce the harshness of this style of vocals with EQ – so pick a microphone that brings the aggression you need as well as a smooth dip in the 1K range.

Decisions, decisions…

As we stated in Part 2 of this series, it’s hard to shape your understanding of which microphone is the best due to the different styles that we’ve presented in this series. At this point you have to sit back and think about a few things.

  • What’s your price range?

  • Do you have a microphone that already does what you need to do?

  • Do you want 1 vocal microphone for everything?

  • Do you want options?

Think hard about these questions before making your purchase and try your own shootouts. Some places have trial periods that guarantee a date range of time that you can own the microphone, decide if you like it, and then return or exchange it. These are all great options when picking a microphone. Don’t let someone TELL you what you want. Figure it out for yourself and gather your own opinions.

Missed Part 1 & 2? Check them out here:

VOCAL MONTH: PICKING THE RIGHT VOCAL MICROPHONE PART I

VOCAL MONTH: BEATBOXING – PICKING THE RIGHT VOCAL MICROPHONE PART II

Want to learn more about SONAR X3? Check it out free for 30 Days.

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Vocal Month: Beatboxing – Picking the Right Vocal Microphone Part II

To continue on our quest of choosing the right vocal microphone we tracked another style of vocals to help understand the caliber of the microphones for the shootout. Gene Shinozaki is a local Boston resident that performs on the streets and in the in the studio. You can subscribe to his page here. Here’s the beatboxing mic shootout that we did with him in less than 1 minute:

Interestingly enough, recording a beatboxer is a pretty useful way of understanding the true range of a microphone without having too much setup involved. Beatboxers use all different types of techniques to warp and skew their mouth in ways that span a wide frequency spectrum. Producers like Timbaland and the like will even use this on their tracks to enhance them.

A Beatboxing Perspective

Let’s look at the set of microphones from a beatboxer’s perspective now that we understand how they sound on a female vocalist. (more…)

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Vocal Month: Picking the right Vocal Microphone Part I

Having a go-to microphone is always a great policy to have, but understanding the way specific microphones sound and perform is an even greater depth of knowledge every engineer or aspiring engineer should understand. To a trained ear – different microphones sound drastically different in character, response, and tone. The best way to start understanding these differences is easier thank you think. Start comparing microphones – and get nerdy about it!

Here’s our own Cakewalk microphone shootout displaying 5 different microphones on Ingrid Gerdes.

(more…)

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Beatboxing – Watch What Happens to the Frequency Analyzer in SONAR X3

Within the Vocal world  there are all different styles of singing and beatboxing is one of the more complex and percussive styles that the human voice can produce. Typically there is a single frequency range that vocalists stay within but beatboxers span the entire frequency range to achieve the sounds that come from their mouth. Check out this video with a local Boston street performer as he shows us how it’s done:

Wanna try the QuadCurve EQ? Check out SONAR X3 30 Day Trial

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How to use a vocal-double to enhance lead vocals

One of the toughest things about working with a lead vocal track is getting it to pop out, while allowing it to still sit in the track nicely in context with its surroundings [other tracks].  Every mixing engineer has her/his bag of tricks, but here are a few ideas to utilize a “vocal-double” which may help support and embellish the lead vocal track.  For this demonstration I am using the lead vocal track of NBC’s The Voice Season 1 winner Javier Colon.  Note that you can click on images to get a bigger perspective.

(more…)

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