It’s tough to make a successful instrumental piece of music these days. Vocals reign supreme. Just about every song on the radio has vocals, up front and focussed. The reason it is so difficult to replace the role of vocals with an instrument is their rich and dynamic character. The are so many sonic aspects and “parameters”, if you will, of the human voice. Think about it… it is impossible to sing something completely static, with nothing changing at all. Tone, level, pitch, direction, articulation and the vowel sound (formants) are almost always all discretely changing constantly when you speak or sing. With this in mind, you can imagine the critical listening and sound design skills that designers of vocal synths must have, especially before the digital era. Anyway, let’s talk about how to go about controlling and emulating these factors synthetically in a zippy pop lead.
~ Zippy Pop Lead
The operator design is very simple. It consists of 2 carriers and one modulator. All sine waves. The first sine wave, operator F, is transposed an octave up and is being modulated at an amount of 46 by operator E, which is phase inverted and transposed 2 octaves up. Operator D is a carrier transposed a perfect fifth above operator F, at half the level. We will automate the level of this tone later. Be sure to enable key sync and velocity sensitivity on all of these operators. Also, put the synth in mono mode and add a little portamento in the master section to give it that zip.
Carrier F has a pretty standard ADSR shape – just enough decay to hear a distinct attack and just enough release to prevent pops. Modulator E supports the initial transient, so its envelope is very short and abrupt. Operator D is a supporting harmonic that will be automated – all it needs is a release lengthened a bit to prevent pops.
In this step I will make a vibrato effect controlled by the modulation wheel. FM8 actually sets this up for you in the default patch automatically, but I will walk-through the standard method so that you can do it on any synth with LFOs. Go to the LFO or modulation section of your VST and activate one of the LFOs. Set it to a sine wave contour. Route (Patch) it into the master pitch or the frequency input of both carriers. Bring the amount up a little. This will be the amount of vibrato that occurs when the mod wheel is down. Vibrato is a very subtle pitch change compared to other types of pitch modulation – it should not go faster or deeper than the human voice would when it does vibrato. A rate of about 5 Hz should be good. Turn off any key scaling or velocity scaling features on the LFO.
Your VST will probably have a place to select a “CC” for the LFO amount in its modulation window. If not, it probably allows you to click and drag some modulation wheel icon onto the LFO amount parameter. In the FM8 modulation tab, it automatically sets the modulation wheel to control about a quarter of the range of LFO 1, so all I had to do was offset the zero point a little by bringing up LFO 1. Now I can play the synth and use the mod wheel to control vibrato and it will never go out of range or be static.
Use Lumit’s “Read” function in the rack module for this instrument to create an automation late for the amount that operator D is modulating carrier F. Then draw in some smooth changes. Try MIDI mapping a control on your keyboard to this parameter using Lumit’s mapping window. This way, you can perform the automation. Remember, my goal is to make an instrument that provides a lot of control – like vocals.
Overdrive is really important for this sound. Since the design is fairly simple, you can drive the volume a lot without adding prominent harmonic content. Peak EQ provides a little more resonance, making it sound more like a chamber (vowel sounds).
To start, try laying down a 4-on-the-floor pop beat and some side-chained noise with its bandwidth automated to accompany the lead.
~ My Context