by Craig Anderton
Adding dynamics control after a synthesizer can be extremely helpful. This isn’t just about controlling levels, but also adding an effect, or compensating for limitations that are inherent in synthesizers.
Limiters make great post-synth processors, as they can keep peaks under control while preserving the synth’s character. On the other hand, compression can “thicken” the sound somewhat while controlling peaks. Experiment with a DAW’s dynamics options, and you’ll find certain processors are better-suited for particular sounds. For example, you’ll probably find that light compression works better on string patches than hard limiting.
So much for background; here are the five tips on using dynamics with synthesizers.
1. When using a compressor, set the controls for fast attack and moderate decay. If the main goal is to trap short peaks and transients, set the threshold fairly high, and use a very high compression ratio. This will leave most of the signal relatively unaffected, but peaks won’t exceed a safe, non-distorting level. Alternatively, use a Limiter to shave off the peaks (Fig. 1), and you won’t have to concern yourself with attack times.
Fig.1: SONAR’s Concrete Limiter being used to tame the peaks from the Z3TA+ synthesizer’s Techno Chords preset.
2. Detuned oscillators, though they can sound animated and fat, create strong peaks when the chorused waveform peaks occur at the same time. Although you can solve this by dropping one one oscillator’s level about 30%-50% below the other, using compression (Fig. 2) or limiting will allow the sound to remain animated—yet the peaks won’t be as drastic.
Fig. 2: Universal Audio’s 1176LN Limiting Amplifier is keeping the chorusing in a fat Arturia mini V patch under control.
3. Electric bass parts are often compressed to maintain a more consistent low-end level, and this same trick works with synth bass parts.
4. Drum machine sounds work well with compression, but processing an entire kit can cause undesirable side effects such as pumping and breathing. To avoid this split the drums into two submixes, with the kick, snare, and toms feeding a compressor and the assorted percussion and cymbals feeding a non-processed bus. The main drum sounds will be compressed, but the lighter, more accent-oriented sounds will retain their original dynamic range and not be subject to the side effects of compression.
5. High-resonance filter settings are troublesome; hitting a note at the filter’s resonant frequency creates a radical peak. To keep this under control, one option is to use as little resonance as is necessary—but what fun is that? This is another situation where a limiter can keep the levels under control without robbing the sound’s essential character.
Dynamic control is a beautiful thing—and that’s true of virtual instruments as well as other signal sources.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.