Sound design is probably the most frustrating part of producing. You’ve got the sound in your mind, but getting your synth plug-ins to deliver the goods can feel like you’re trying to build a rocket ship.
The good news is that once you get the hang of sound design you’ll find it as fun as writing riffs and making beats. And mastering the skill will finally allow you to put your own creative stamp on your music.
Here are a few things you can do to up your sound design game.
1. Watch tutorials.
It seems like a no-brainer, but when I started producing I wanted to discover everything myself. I get that, but you’ll learn a lot faster by watching the pros. YouTube is full of tutorials for how to use all the major DAWs and synth plugins, and this is a great place to learn how to use your shiny new VSTs.
One of the guys I really respect at the moment is SynthHacker, who has managed to recreate patches from artists like Rufus and Flume with extraordinary accuracy. He flies through each tutorial in around 10 minutes, and it just goes to show how attainable this kind of result actually is. Once you realise that sound design is not as hard as you thought it was, you’ll want to dive in and spend all day making sounds.
2. Try to copy other sounds.
Now that you know how to use your synths, your next step is to try and recreate some of sounds you already admire from within your music collection. This helps you to understand how producers go from a raw sawtooth to a lush pad.
It also gives you a clear goal – a point at which you can stop and say “It’s done, I did it!” You’ll notice when you start making your own sounds that it can be difficult to know when a sound is really ‘done’. You feel like it could always be better and you can’t stop tinkering with it. But by copying someone else’s patch you have a tangible target, and by hitting that target (in other words, by accurately recreating the sound) you’ll feel good about yourself and ready to move onto bigger and better things.
3. Have sound design sessions.
Instead of designing sounds on an ‘as-needed’ basis, you should devote some of your studio sessions entirely to making new patches. Cycle through some of the sound types you’re often looking for, whether it be pads, keys or basses, and just rattle out as many sounds as you can in an evening. Make sure to organise all your patches into folders so that they’re easy to grab when you start putting tracks together. You’ll start to find yourself using your own sounds instead of factory presets, and maybe even building entire arrangements around them.
The great thing about sound design sessions is that you always finish your session having achieved something. If you spend all of your sessions working on tracks that never blossom into anything, it can quickly get discouraging – but with sound design you’re always producing something for your efforts.
4. Pay attention to detail.
Once you know you can whip up a bass or pad pretty easily, start thinking about subtle tweaks to make the sound better. Little faux-analog vibratos, LFO tremolos, note or velocity-based filtering, all of these things will make your patches a bit more sophisticated and edgy.
Start learning about effects and how they can make a difference. But instead of just throwing a stereo delay on your track, toy with the parameters until you have something really cool. You’re starting to understand now that many aspects of producing are easy to do, but the mastery is in doing everything well and sculpting those little intricate details.
5. Look for consistency in your sounds.
Now that you understand what goes into crafting a sound, you can really take your tracks to the next level by creating ‘families’ of sounds that all have something in common. For example, popular synths like Massive and Serum allow you to choose from hundreds of wavetables, many of which sound quite similar. Crafting a family of sounds, from keys to plucks, all using the same wavetable will make these sounds feel as though they belong together even if they have entirely different enveloping, filtering and modulation.
You can achieve congruence in many different ways, but one I would recommend is to use each sound you craft as the basis of your next sound, instead of starting from a blank sawtooth each time. By allowing your patches to kind of spawn their own offspring, you end up with consistency between sounds that really gives your tracks character and identity.