Making Digital Synths Sound Analog

In exploring online electronic music production groups and forums, you’ll see a lot of hate around the use of presets. Some people think it’s a lazy way to get things done, and others that it’s just less creative and adds to the pool of music that all sounds the same. I have no shame saying that I myself use presets. I use presets to help myself understand concepts, how my tools work, and to give myself ideas that are outside of my normal routine. However, I don’t use presets “as-is”; generally—at the very least—I’ll run the sounds through a hurricane of colouring tools. I’m mostly drawn to very, very bizarre sounds that presets are usually not made for, except for some made by Richard Devine (but he usually goes too far).

Personally, my biggest pet-peeve with presets comes from cold-feeling digital synths or pads—they sound like Kraft Dinner served cold with canned peas; plain and horrible. Not only do I dislike these sounds themselves, but I can’t get over the fact that very simple things could have been done to enhance them, which is why I am writing this post.

Why Digital Presets Sound Cold and Bland

Analog equipment involves slight, microscopic, ever-changing modulations. Digital plugins and presets do not have these variations—they operate in a linear way. Think of an analog watch—the hands slide from one number to another without pause. A digital watch jumps sharply from one number to another without anything in the middle. This is the simplest analogy I can think of to help you understand why digital synths often sound surgical and cold, and inversely, why analog synths sound round and warm.

There are things you can do with tools to remove a digital or cold feeling, which mostly involves embracing the world of subtleties and tiny modulations. Don’t be afraid to push things to the point of feeling slightly “ugly”. Let me explain:

One of the things that’s become more obvious for me lately is how a tiny bit of distortion and clipping can bring a lot more of precision to a sound in a mix. I’ve always been a fan of saturation (sometimes my clients tell me to reduce it a bit); in case you didn’t know, saturation is a mild form of distortion—wave-shaping that you can really push in a very subtle way. Subtle distortion sort of breaks a signal’s linearity, or coldness. Recently, I was in a studio with my friend Jason—a brilliant sound designer—and asked him how he turns something cold into something more analog sounding. While he could have applied a bunch of effects and processing to a sound, he said he was more interested in creating multiple layers around the pad or digital sound.

A good way to combat the cold side of digital sounding synths is to add a good dose of acoustic samples, field recordings or other organic sounding findings around it. The combination of digital and organic really guides the perception [of the listener] away from the digital aesthetic.

What makes some acoustic recording samples feel warm is a combination of a bunch of things. The quality of the microphone, for example, can translate a lot of the details and capture more depth. The sample rate of the recorder will also make a huge difference. Microphones are often overlooked, but they basically determine the level of precision in your recording; if it’s extremely precise, with a lot of high-end information, it will contribute in the definition of the sound quality. Another thing to consider is the preamp of the recorder. There’s a world of difference between preamps, and having high quality one will certainly add a lot to sounds. If your sounds are thin and lacking substance, you can also use preamp plugins. Some of the best out there are from Universal Audio, but you can also rely on Arturia’s preamp emulation for something quite impressive as well.

I had a talk with someone who was saying that one of the things that made Romanian techno so good was the combination of the acoustic kicks with the analog ones, to which I added that without good preamps, the acoustic kicks would sound like garbage.

If you have raw synthetic sounds, you can also pass them through some convolution—this helps create a space around it. The mConvolution Reverb by Melda is quite spectacular. It also has some microphone impulse response which mimics as if the sound had been recorded in a space. You can make it multi-band so you can assign specific bands to have a specific reverb type(s). This allows you to be very creative, and if you leave it at a very low wet rate, it will infuse the sound with a nice, warm presence.

Regarding warm presence, again, with distortion, I’d encourage you to look into trying various distortion plugins and use them with a wet factor of about 3-5% max. Depending on the plugin, you’ll see how they add a little bit of color to a sound. My way of using distortion is usually bringing it up to about 20% and then rolling down until I barely hear it. You want to hear it a bit, but not much.

Some nice distortion plugins I like include Decapitator by SoundToys, mDistortionMB by Melda, Wave Box by AudioThing, Saturn by Fabfilter.

Get Out of “The Box”

There’s no doubt that moving outside your computer will infuse your sound with some texture, presence, and some analog feel.

Use a little mixer for summing. If your sound card (audio interface) has multiple outputs, then you can send them to a little mixing board where you can group your channels into different buses. For instance, you can split them into a channel for kick (mono), stereo channels for bass and melodic elements, and another one for percussion. If your board has more channels, you can experiment with different things, but just these sound groups are a great start; the mixing board will give you a rawer feel than your DAW alone. For simple, affordable boards, look into Mackie’s latest series—pretty impressive and absolutely affordable.

Use external saturation. People love Elektron’s Analog Heat. It’s a good external distortion and does a pretty solid job of adding colour to sounds, out of the box. You can also look into using distortion pedals, reverb, or invest in a 500 series lunchbox and get some saturation modules—there are many to look into.

Use VHS, cassette, or tape. Some of my friends have been searching local pawn shops for cassette decks or old VCRs; they offer a static saturation that you can explore. There’s a whole world of possibilities too when you compress the recorded result—you’ll create something weird sometimes, but it will give you a lofi feel.

If you have other suggestions, please share!

SEE ALSO : “How do I get started with modular?”

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