You have probably found yourself sitting in front of your project, selecting that favorite preset from your favorite synth again and again. But, when you listen back, the preset doesn’t provide the IMPACT you’re looking for. By using layering, you can achieve a genuinely MASSIVE sound that is both impacting and balanced in the mix.
PICKING A GOOD SOUND TO START WITH IS VERY IMPORTANT
In modern electronic music genres like Trance, Dubstep, Electro, etc.… most of the enormous sounding synth lines you hear are built upon a basic sawtooth waveform. Following this further, the sawtooth gets its name from its shape (a steep vertical rise followed by a sudden downward drop to the next osculation). We will use this waveform for the basis of this lesson due to its popularity.
A good technique is to divide copies of your synth across the frequency spectrum. This prevents phasing issues caused by overlapping frequencies, especially in the low-end.
Let’s start by making three separate sounds: low, mid, and high. This will cover most of the frequency spectrum.
In MIDI language, the low-end of the spectrum is approximately C-2 to C1, the mid-range is C2 to C5, and the high-end is C5 to C8. Also, most VST synthesizers default to this specification. Keep in mind, the “true” pitch triggered by these notes may vary depending on the plugin’s publisher and whether or not the patch is transposed +/- an octave.
This is your starting point – where you chose the right sound for a PHAT low-end. In most cases, waveforms like “sawtooth” and “sine” will provide the best result.
Furthermore, record your desired sequence in your piano roll and, on a synth of your choice, select a “bassy” sound that you like. In most cases, the sound will be monophonic and will contain just one simple oscillator.
Then, enable a low pass filter to pass, roughly, 300 Hz and below.
Experiment with parameters of the oscillator’s waveform like “position” and “intensity” for a unique identity.
Try using “unison” – a feature on some synths that multiplies the output, adding up to 15 simultaneously triggered copies to it. Also, synths that include unison allow the user to adjust the number of multiples (voices) and modify their pitches. Subtly detuning voices creates an effect much like chorusing – making the source seem more substantial and more present.
Copy the sequence you played from the instance above and move it to another track. Starting from an initialized patch, make two sawtooth oscillators. Drop one down an octave and subtly offset the other just a few “cents” to introduce some “beating.” High-Pass filter the synth at roughly 300 Hz. This will occupy both low and mid-range.
Here you can use the same synth as above or a fresh one. Again, two sawtooth oscillators; this time, with the “detune” parameter (often called “fine”) of one oscillator offset a little. Transpose up the other oscillator by one octave. Then, on a third oscillator, add noticeable white noise. But, be careful not to overpower the sound. THIS IS A HUGE TRANCE SYNTH TIP 😉 If you wish, use some filtering to take the edge off of the noise.
Now that we have established a solid group of synths occupying the entire frequency spectrum, it is an excellent time to start adjusting levels until we achieve the desired balance.
With our synths in a group, it is time to do some group processing.
Firstly, it could be interesting to add some harmonic distortion to the low-range synth. This will create a certain richness and depth. Furthermore, we could use side-chain compression on our low-range synth to make room for the kick drum. This will make the kick drum more present and minimize low-end phase issues. RULE OF THUMB: Limit content occupying low-range frequencies in your mix if you can…
In order to get that “big room” club sound in the mid & hi range, we could add a “large hall” reverb effect in series, or, in parallel using a return mixing channel. Therefore, parallel processing is probably the best option for this next step. Put a compressor after the reverb on the return channel, “key” the side-chain feature with the kick drum and adjust the “ducking” to your taste. Drastic ducking (high ratio, low threshold) can make the effect sound cheap, gimmicky, and lifeless. However, subtle amounts are great for taming low-end reverb and cleaning up the mix.
Finally, you can send the high-range synth to a return track containing a delay insert in series with a high-pass filter with a sharp Q (quality). Automating the parameters on this return track can create the illusion that the sound is moving around a large space.
After processing, the result sounds like this…
Now, we can apply EQ and a limiter to the group channel. EQ should be applied to balance and optimize the overall spectrum. Try boosting areas of the spectrum that are lower than average or cutting areas that are greater than average with a wide Q. Try cutting out the audio information below 25 Hz and above 20 kHz using a brick-wall high-pass and low-pass filter (similar to those found in iZotope’s Ozone 6.) The limiter can be used to maximize the volume to the threshold of clipping. Finally, Make sure you have a light hand on the limiter. You don’t want to ruin your dynamics by over-compressing the output.