Making Analog Synth Presets
SYNTHS, VOL. 1: ANLG, or just ANLG, is a collection of analog style Ableton Live presets inspired by artists such as Aphex Twin, Com Truise, Flying Lotus, Floating Points and Tycho. Since releasing the pack I've had a lot of interest and questions so I thought I'd write a blog post to answer some of those questions and explain some of the decisions that went into making the pack.
The motivation for ANLG (which is my first pack of 'presets') comes from a frustration with many of the Ableton Live packs that exist. I've had far too many experiences downloading a pack (often at the cost of $30+) that boasts, '300 Amazing Bass Presets' or something similar only to discover that most of the presets seem to have been hastily and thoughtlessly put together to 'fill the numbers'. In the end I've paid $30 for maybe one or two decent presets that I'll actually use. In addition to the essence of the sound being weak I often find the Macro controls that have been mapped are incredibly generic and don't provide useful ways to interact with the sound.
With this in mind I set out to build a pack that would be 'more quality and less quantity'. I wanted to make every Macro control do something useful and at the same time make the core sounds flexible enough that you can transform only a few basic patches into a myriad of possible sounds. I wanted to give the presets the same flexibility, fun and playability you get with an analog synthesizer but with the convenience of digital.
Why not use Ableton's Analog device for a pack of 'analog' synths, you ask? For one, Analog is only available in Live Suite. For all my packs going forward I want to try (as much as possible) to make them compatible with all versions of Live. In my experience as a teacher I've had a number of students who are using Live Lite or Intro and are frustrated that most of the packs out there will only work with Standard or Suite, so I wanted to make something that was available to them too.
Simpler is available in all versions of Live so it makes sense to use it for the presets, although I actually used Sampler to design the sounds before using Live's 'Sampler -> Simpler' function to convert all the presets to Simpler. This thought process also extends to the FX used to process the sounds in ANLG; I restricted myself to using only FX available in all versions of Live. These restrictions actually provide useful limitations, forcing me to think out of the box in order to make the most of the FX and controls I could use which ultimately results in more carefully considered sounds.
Another reason for using Simpler instead of Analog is that, if I'm completely honest, I find the waveforms in Analog aren't all that 'analog' sounding. By using Simpler I was able to use waveforms sampled from a real analog synthesizer that to my ear sound a lot rounder and warmer than the waveforms from Analog. As an interesting exercise I compared the actual look of the waveforms to see how they differed. Now I'll admit that its not the best idea to compare sounds based on how they look (see 'Listen, Don't Look' further down the page) but I thought the results were quite interesting!
You can see that the real analog waveforms even look a bit rounder than Ableton's Analog, which are a bit more precise and digital and sound a bit brighter and harsher.
Analog Modelled Filters
Another benefit of using Sampler / Simpler is that it gives me access to Live's analog modelled filters (OSR, MS2, etc.) which sound damn fantastic, although they do come at the price of quite a hefty CPU hit... When you combine the authentic analog waveforms with the analog modelled filters I think the results sound really good!
Good Old Analog Wobble
For me, one of the characteristics of an 'analog' sound is a little bit of pitch instability so in most of the sounds I have applied LFOs to the pitch of the oscillators. When working with Live's Sampler you have access to 3 LFOs, which gives a lot of flexibility. Most of the sounds in ANLG use 2 LFOS, one at a slow speed of 0.7Hz to create the 'wow' and another at 7Hz to create the 'flutter'. They are both set to modulate the pitch of the sound in very small increments to add a bit of subtle analog pitch instability.
Listen, Don't Look
A common problem with the modern music production workflow is that it is hugely influenced by the visual - flashy plugin interfaces and precise meters make it all too easy to get obsessed with looking instead of listening. When I was studying audio engineering, one of my lecturers was completing his Master's thesis on 'The Effect of the GUI (Graphical User Interface) in Modern Music Production'. Without going into too much detail, his results concluded that the GUI has a very noticeable and often negative effect on the end result.
With this in mind, for all of the tools I create I try as much as possible to reduce the visual. For a pack like ANLG this means that you'll find almost all controls have a generic value, for example instead of having a filter cutoff showing 3050Hz, it will be shown as a generic control that goes from 0 - 127. This allows you to forget about what the actual value of the control is and rather listen to the sound you are trying to achieve. This is also more similar to real analog synths, which often won't have precise labels for the controls. There are a handful of controls, such as the rate of LFOs, that I have left as non-generic because I felt it could become frustrating not having precise values for those particular controls.
What's In A Name?
One of the most difficult parts of creating presets is coming up with names! 😝 I deliberated a lot on whether to name the presets based on technical terms like 'Filter Envelope Bass' or 'Filter LFO Pad' but in the end decided to rather go with more 'descriptive' names like 'Neptune' or 'Desert Nights' based on how the sounds felt to me. Its almost impossible to name a preset completely based on the technical elements of the sound (without having an incredibly long name) and I imagine that most users will form their own association with the preset names anyway. Also, because I wanted all the presets to be incredibly flexible, I didn't want to restrict the sounds with particular terms like 'bass' or 'lead'. You'll find that many of the sounds work in various frequency ranges and in various playing styles, therefore giving them more generic names helps keep them open ended and doesn't impose a direction on the end user.
With ANLG I feel as though I have succeeded in creating a set of presets that are entirely useful and flexible and the feedback I've received from users seems to agree! That said, I'm always looking for ways to improve so if you have any feedback or questions please post them in the comments section below, I'd love to hear from you! 🙌🏻
As a thanks for reading all the way to the end you can grab ANLG for 25% off by clicking here!