This is a post for people who have been using presets in Serum/Massive and are want to take that next step into making your own sounds. These two synths have a lot of similarities so they are good to explain together.
I'll go over the following things:
Serum and Massive are what we call subtractive synthesizers. Subtractive synths start with a lot of tone/noise. We then chip away and remove parts of it until it sounds the way you want.
Kinda like carving a sculpture. You start with a big block of stone, then remove some stone until you get the final shape. Keep this in mind as we explain more.
The oscillators generate the initial sound that you will later shape and move. Kinda like that big stone you are about to carve. Choose a wavetable, then choose the "position" of the wavetable.
It's kinda like many sounds within one sound. The position knob lets you morph between them all.
Most of the sound design magic happens here. The other upcoming sections are much more standard. You will find them in most synths. But it is often the oscillators and the options they have available that makes a synth unique.
The filters cut parts of the sound away. They are going to shape our stone sculpture. Some common filters are...
Those are the main types, but Serum and Massive do have more that you can experiment with.
Think about where you want your sound to live in your mix. If it is a bass that lives down low, you want LPF. If you are making an airy pad use a high pass filter if it is an arpeggio you might like a BPF. If you are unsure, go for LPF, it is the most common and versatile.
An envelope lets you move a parameter of your choice with each keyboard note press. It’s kind like a little piece of automation that fires each time you press a key. It helps you shape things over time. Most of the time we use it for volume, filter, and pitch, but we can way more creative 😉
The controls a value over time. e.g. volume over time, filter cut off over time, pitch over time etc.
You can use the Attack, Hold, Decay, Sustain & Release to shape this.
You will most likely need to set you volume envelope to shape the attack, sustain and length of your sound. The same goes for your filter. These are pretty standard. Things get much more interesting when you apply this to your wavetable position or warp mode.
An LFO is like an envelope, but it continues and loops. It lets you move a parameter backward and forwards and repeat that movement. Often used for wobbly filters, panning and pitch bends.
LFO stands for Low-Frequency Oscillator. Which kinda means that it moves something slowly. Slower than the speed of audio anyway. But, some LFOs can go into the audio rate, which makes for interesting sound design.
LFOs are great for introducing movement into your sounds. Anything from a subtle pitch/detune waver, to a full-on filter wobble. Or get crazier and try it on your wavetable position/warp mode.
These are nice to have, but they rarely make your sound unique. It is what you do with the oscillators and modulation that makes a bigger difference.
I recommend to save the effects for the end of the sound design process for a bit of icing on the cake.
When starting out, it is great to find a preset that is close to what you want, then modify it from there. Pay attention to what settings the designer made. What effect did that have on the sound? Was it something you have tried before? Look for the new things.
There are many sounds in each wavetable. Some more than others. Move the wavetable position knob to discover what’s available for each wavetable you load.
Find some good wavetables and use modulation to make them move. try assigning an envelope to the wavetable position, detune, or warp mode.
Use warp mode to make the oscillators interact. try using FM from B, or RM from B, etc.
Now that they are interacting try assigning an envelope or LFO to control the warp mode.
Choose a filter that suits your sound. Low pass filter for darker, high pass filter for brighter etc. Or something else for a weirder sound. Then, assign some envelopes and LFO's to give it movement
Ask yourself, What kind of volume shape should this sound have? Should it have a hard/soft attack? Should it hold it's level? or Slowly fade away? Should it continue playing after you let go fo the key? or stop instantly?
These are all things you can set up with your ADSR envelope.
Once you have chosen your settings, do the same for the filter. Then experiment with envelopes on other parameters. You can make anything move
Introduce some movement to your sound with LFOs. They can be slow or fast, or a combination of both. Some common things to move with an LFO would be volume, pitch, filter, and pulse width. Serum and Massive let you move anything with your LFOs so we can get much more creative. Try using it on your wave table position, warp mode, or modulation oscillator.
One of the main things that make analog synths sound nice is that they are not perfect. They fluctuate and seem a little different all the time. You can mimic this in plugins too.
Add some slow, subtle variations to things like detuning, fine tune, volume, filter, and drive. Even better, if you have Serum, try using the Note on Random modulator with a small value for this. Every note will sound a bit different in a pleasing way.
Experiment with the modulation oscillator. This is powerful for fresh and weird sound design. I love the phase mod option on this. It is very unique to Massive.
This is where the FX come in handy. Try a little overdrive to thicken the volume of your sound, a little chorus to make it feel a little wider, and a little reverb and delay for depth. This helps to fill out the 3D spectrum of your sound stage.
Many old hit records were made with very basic synths. Serum and Massive are far more powerful and flexible. It is rare that you would NEED to layer many synths on top of each other.
Keep in mind how many oscillators, you have. Each can be transposed and processed internally in 1000s of ways. As a bonus, you can then save it and recall it.
The best synth sounds usually come from one synth. Not 5 synths layered together.
Now it’s one thing to make a fresh sound, but to make it sound powerful, clear, and fit into your final song is a different matter. In fact, it is a different skill.
This is under the category of mixdown.
If you have been making some great sounds, but are struggling to get them to sound powerful, bassy, clear, cutting, present, or epic in your final mix then don’t beat yourself up...
It’s not a sound design problem, it's a mixdown problem.
You see, when you sound design, you are usually doing it in solo, or with few other sounds playing. Your sound has nothing to interact with. It’s all alone.
Mixdown is different. It is not about making every sound big, it is about making every instrument complement each other.
A good mix has a priority. We make some instruments big, and some instruments small. It is all about how the sounds relate to each other.
The real way to make your new synth sound amazing is to nail your mixdown.
A great sound in a lousy mixdown will never get the attention it deserves.
To help you out with this, here are my top tips to make your sounds big, and help you fit your synths into your mixdown.
If you want more of thise, you should definietly try some overdrive. EQ is also going to help a lot for presence in particular. Try a wide band boost around 2khz for presence on your lead.
Don’t have too many sounds playing at once. Try to stick just drums, bass, + a lead/vocal, and some supporting melodic parts like chords or an arpeggio. That should be plenty. Just because you can load as many synth plugins as you want, doesn't mean it's a good idea.
Don’t put instruments in the same octave/frequncy range. Be conscious of the frequency placement of your parts. if they are clashing, try shifting the instrument up or down an octave.
Make sure your bass is low enough. You can add bass with an EQ but it will never feel as big as a lower pitch bass.
So make sure your bass line is not too high up, or too low. Try transposing it up and down until you find the sweet spot. You will know when you go too low because it will lose tonality and become too rumbly.
Choose the king of the low end. Your bass and kick cannot both be big. Only one or the other.
I have a rule for this. If you write a house based genre such as tech house, future house, progressive, deep, etc, then your kick should have more sub than your bass.
If you write dubstep, breakbeat, drum and bass, etc, then your bassline should have more sub than your kick.
Keep this in mind next time you reach for a High Pass filter.
Be careful to not cut too much low end out of your synths. People are often so scared of bass clashes that they cut all the size and power out of their synths.
Rather than cut, sometimes you may find you actually need to boost. A broadband boost around 150hz adds more size than you would expect. It’s one of my favorite EQ tips.
This is achieved by the order you do things. Start your mix by getting your drums and bass rocking. Then bring in the most important lead part/vocal and make that huge! Let it take up all the available space. Then squeeze in the remaining melodic parts into the leftover space. This forces the drums, bass and lead to have priority and size in your mix.
To add some 3D depth and epic feels to your synth, try a nice stereo reverb and or an analog style delay (like Echo in Ableton). The combination of both can be great too. The longer the delay time, the more epic it will feel.
Sound Design and mixdown goes deep. There is a lot you can potentially do and learn, but hopefully the above will help you get started and have fun along the way.
For a more detailed lesson check out my course The Road To Main Stage. It covers everything from writing, sound design, arranging, mixdown and mastering.
What sound design tips have you found helpful when starting to make your own sounds?
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