Making Analog Synth Presets

ANLG, is a collection of analogue-style Ableton Live presets inspired by electronic artists such as Aphex Twin, Com Truise, Flying Lotus, Floating Points and Tycho.

Since the release of the pack, I’ve had a lot of interest in how it all came together. This post should answer some questions and explain the decisions that went into making the pack.

Why Make Presets In The First Place?

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 downloaded too many packs (often for $30+) that boast, ‘300 Amazing Bass Presets’ (or something similar) only to discover that most of the presets have been hastily put together to fill the numbers, or are too specific to be broadly useful. In the end, I’ve paid $30 for one or two decent presets that I’ll actually use.

Besides the essence of the sound being weak, I also often find that the provided Macro controls are very generic. They 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. Every Macro control should do something useful. At the same time, the core sounds should be 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, with the convenience of digital.

Why Simpler?

Once you’ve downloaded the pack, you’ll notice that all the sounds use Ableton’s Live’s Simpler device inside an Instrument Rack. Why not use Ableton’s Analog device for a pack of analog synths, you ask?

For one, Analog is only available in Ableton Live Suite. Building the instruments with Simpler means that they are compatible with any version of Live (Lite, Intro, Standard or Suite). This makes them useful to a much wider range of music makers.

In fact, the presets are actually built using Ableton’s Sampler device (which is only available in Live Suite), however, Sampler has a feature that lets you convert a Sampler instrument to a Simpler. This means you can design a sound with all the power of Sampler, but still make it available to versions of Live that only have Simpler.

Ableton's Sampler -> Simpler Function
Ableton's Sampler -> Simpler function

I’ve applied similar thinking to the FX used in ANLG, only using FX available in all versions of Live.

These restrictions also provide useful creative limitations. They force me to think out of the box and make the most of the FX and controls I could use, which results in much more considered sounds.

Really Analog!

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 🤣 

Using Simpler means I can use waveforms sampled from an actual analog synthesizer. To my ear these sound a lot rounder and warmer than the waveforms from Analog.

As an interesting (and totally unscientific) exercise, I compared the look of the waveforms from Analog to those from the real analog synth to see how they differed. Now I’ll admit that it’s 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! 👏🏻 

A waveform graphic of a square wave from Ableton's Analog
Ableton's Analog squares
A waveform graphic of a square wave from an MS-20 synthesizer
Hardware analog squares
A waveform graphic of a saw wave from Ableton's Analog
Ableton's Analog saws
A waveform graphic of a saw wave from an MS-20 synthesizer
Hardware analog saws

You can see that the real analog waveforms are a bit rounder and less precise than the digital waveforms in Ableton’s Analog. Sonically they are warmer and rounder too, while Analog’s waveforms are quite bright, harsh and digital.

Analog Modelled Filters

Yet another benefit of using Simpler is the access to Live’s analog modelled filters (OSR, MS2, SMP and PRD) which sound damn fantastic! 🔥 They do come at the price of quite a hefty CPU hit… but when you combine the authentic analog waveforms with the analog modelled filters I think the results sound really good! 🔥🔥

Good Ol' Analog Wobble

One of the characteristics of an ‘analog’ sound is a little bit of pitch instability. In most of the sounds I’ve simulated this using LFOs controlling the pitch of the oscillators. Ableton Live’s Sampler gives you 3 LFOs, which provides 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 in very small increments to add only a subtle amount of pitch instability.

Listen, Don't Look 👀

A common problem with the modern music production workflow is that its 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 studied music production, 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 the 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 lets you forget about what the value of the control is and rather listen to the sound you are trying to achieve. Its also closer to what it’s like working with real analog synths, which often won’t have precise labels for the controls.

There are still a handful of controls, such as the rate of LFOs, that I’ve 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 go with more ‘descriptive’ names like ‘Neptune‘ or ‘Desert Nights‘ based on how the sounds felt to me.

It’s almost impossible to name a preset 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 terms like ‘bass‘ or ‘lead‘. You’ll find that many of the sounds work in various frequency ranges and playing styles, so giving them more generic names helps keep them open-ended and doesn’t impose a direction on the end-user.

Conclusion

I feel like I’ve succeeded in creating a set of presets that are highly flexible and sound great. The feedback I’ve received from users seems to agree!

That being said, I’m always looking for ways to improve future packs. If you have any feedback or additional questions feel free to get in touch. I’d love to hear from you! 🙌🏻 

As a thank you for reading all the way to the end, you can grab ANLG for 25% off using the code ‘anablog’.

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