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Electronic/Synth Recording Tips
Old 8th December 2010
Electronic/Synth Recording Tips

For myself I tend to write in the electronic music genre. I've done a fair amount of mix/mastering work as well for synth music as well. Over the last 15 years I've discovered a number of tactics that work well for synth based music I'd like to share.

1.) Hardware synths are awesome because you can do so much to them in the audio chain before you record them. Use an A/B splitter to take a mono signal to a stereo one and treat it with different FX for each stereo side, like phasing one side and chorusing the other. The possibilities are endless.

2.) Another advantage to hardware synths, especially analogs, is the ability to multitrack them. If you have a really big lead line why not record it twice--one for hard left and the other for hard right. Guitar players do this all the time to get bigger sounds! You can get awesome separation this way as well.

3.) Stereo spread: take a polyphonic line and reduce it to a number of monophonic lines. Thus, an Amin chord becomes three MIDI tracks--A, C and E. Now pan each of the monophonic lines separately. Turns any synth into an OB-8 with voice panning.

4.) After you've written a song take some time to go back and "tweak" all of the sounds so they work together better. Scrutinize. Can save you a lot of EQ work during the mixdown to get things to blend/separate.

5.) Turn off the onboard reverb on synths and softsynths. Use a global reverb via aux sends during the mix instead. Blends better in most cases.

6.) Related to the multitrack issue, but for deeper sounding bass synths try layering another pass of the same line/synth but with the filter cutoff much deeper. You may even consider lowering the oscillators/MIDI notes by an octave as well. Blend it in there around -8 db or so behind the main signal. For high resonance bass sounds do the same thing, but instead of moving the cutoff take the resonance to zero. Could almost make a Jupiter 6 sound big. Almost.

7.) Paradoxically, softsynths seem to sound more "real" when they are in tracks with hardware synths. Especially analog synths. Don't know why this is, but it's something I've noticed.

8.) You can fake the sound of a mic'd speaker with softsynths quite effectively with programs like Amplitube 3 or Izotope Trash. I recommend doing it as a separate track and blending between the clean and effected signal for maximum controllability. If you want to be really cool try automating level balances between the two--for example, during the chorus the "amp" track comes up 2 db for added grit.

9.) If you want a wider mix some elements, not all, should probably be hitting a stereo width enhancer. Personally I like Waves S1 or the SPL Vitalizer. Imagine your stereo field is 5 channels: center, left, right, far left and far right. You want stuff in all 5.

10.) Automate your goddamn mixes. Nothing is more boring than a mix that just sits there.

11.) If you own hardware synths and don't tweak them while recording you're missing out. You paid for 'em, may as well get the most out of them.

12.) Adding 10ms of delay (no feedback/repeats/100% wet) to one stereo side gives the illusion that the sound originates from the other side. This is called the Haas effect and it really works.

13.) One of the worst mixing habits electronic musicians tend to do is over-EQ their high hats. Leave them alone, they don't need any more top than they come with 90% of the time, especially if they are originated from analog circuitry. The 606/808/CR78 sounds are already thin enough. If anything add some **** around 500hz to beef them up.

14.) Saturation/distortion plugins are your friend for adding realism to softsynths. Antares Tube, D16 Decimort, Izotope Trash, Virsyn VTape and Soundtoys Decapitator are my current favorites. A little tickle goes a long way.

15.) 90% of every mix I've heard from unsigned electronic artists wimp out on the drums. Turn 'em up! Seriously! Compare your records to a host of other recordings to see if you measure up.

16.) Automate FX sends. 'Nuff said.

17.) Pricey audio cables are worth it. I like Mogami for general purposes, and Monster for guitar cables.

18.) Optimize your budget. Nowadays, chances are the software plugins you use to mix with sound better than anything you can afford. Skip out on the Alesis compressor, buy something you can't duplicate easily digitally.

19.) Every artist should have a handful of unusual devices that separate them from the herd, or make different things easier to do. Actually Korg are amazing lately at coming up with inexpensive, good quality devices that are very useful in the studio. Check out the Monotron or Mini-Kaoss Pad. Both are under 100 bucks.

20.) Layer synth sounds, even plugins. Have the Prophet V take the low end and mids, and PPG V2.0 the upper mids and top for a hybrid sound nobody else thought of before. Think about texture and the placement in a song for each part and make it work. Saves mixing time too.

21.) Your finished tracking session (everything recorded going into a song) should sound about 90% mixed due to the strength of the sounds. If not, you're screwing up. Mixing will make it better, but never THAT much better. Garbage in, garbage out. There's no excuse to record lame sounds and even less to give them the OK for mixing.

22.) A lot of electronic musicians tend to record/render everything in stereo. This sucks. Pick your stereo components carefully. Picture your mix before you start recording. A lot of elements should be in mono so you can drop them dead center, hard left or hard right. Be choosy about what you allow to be stereo--make sure that the end product benefits from that.
Old 8th December 2010
Lives for gear

Lots of good stuff thumbsup

Seems like you and I have reach many similar conclusions.
Old 8th December 2010
Gear maniac
mirror symmetry's Avatar

Soft Synths can become very different beasts when run through 'interesting' hardware combinations.

Further to faking a re-amp with soft-on's (amp sim/convolution room combo a personal fave), actually sticking the things through a speaker and recording them in unusual spaces is a lot of fun.
Old 8th December 2010
Lives for gear
synthoid's Avatar

Lots of good stuff there.

I've come to the conclusion that sound design (e.g., synth programming), arranging, and mixing are all part of a single activity in the case of electronic music. The more I do them as a single thing the happier I am with the results.

Old 8th December 2010
Gear nut
daubie's Avatar

Thanks for the great tips. I cant wait to try some of this stuff out.
Old 8th December 2010
Lives for gear
evangelista's Avatar

I generally run soft synths as hardware. i.e. I route them out of the sound card, into a re-amp, and then treat that output as i would any hardware synth. Improves the sound dramatically, IMO.
Old 8th December 2010
Gear Maniac

Great post.
Definitely agree with your views about the pertinence of recording synths in stereo.The "Bruce Swedien" approach isn't always necessarily the best one.
The arrangement aspect of the recording is also crucial to the end-result, and probably the main reason why "classic" records sound so great (the synth arrangements on "Thriller" spring to mind).
Old 8th December 2010
Originally Posted by evangelista View Post
I generally run soft synths as hardware. i.e. I route them out of the sound card, into a re-amp, and then treat that output as i would any hardware synth. Improves the sound dramatically, IMO.
Absolutely. If one has access to stellar preamps/outboard it can be quite a major improvement!
Old 8th December 2010
Gear maniac
tobias schuch's Avatar

Great tips.

95% of virtual synths in my sessions hit hardware. 100% of that 95% hits my fatso heh. The warmth control + tranny + high input really tames the digital texture of a lot of softsynths. I'm always amazed at how hardware can make a softsynth sound more...... for lack of a better word, real.
Old 8th December 2010
Gear Addict

Great tips! May I add, use a nice DI or pre for your synth on the way in to your DAW. The GTQ2 and Eclair Evil Twin come to mind. I have also tried combining hardware and software synth pianos. Much better than just one or the other!
Old 9th December 2010
Gear maniac
tobias schuch's Avatar

Originally Posted by mtl777 View Post
Great tips! May I add, use a nice DI or pre for your synth on the way in to your DAW. The GTQ2 and Eclair Evil Twin come to mind. I have also tried combining hardware and software synth pianos. Much better than just one or the other!
It seems as if SOO many people on this forum are all about nice clean recordings or just the right amount of colour... When i record synths i almost always run the pre/di into the red and get as much grit and grime as i can.

I hate the sound of my api pre in the red on vox, but on the right synth it can really add a nice amount of flavor :D
Old 9th December 2010
Lives for gear
Storyville's Avatar
mtl beat me to it, but I usually track synths through the DI built into a mic pre, rather than just going straight line in on an interface.

Also, I find adding one or two acoustic instruments, mic'd will bring a sense of natural space and sound which is a great way to build your other ambiances and colors.
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