One technique I use often is to create variations on a single sound that has the potential to be multiple sounds. I begin whilst browsing presets, not looking for anything in particular, just hoping to be surprised. Searching for sounds outside of the context of making music can be dreary work: ninety percent of the time I find the presets either too aggressive, too one dimensional, or else so multi-dimensional—listen to me!—that they won’t play well with others. Also, many synthetic sounds don’t have enough ambiguity to them; put another way: there’s not enough missing in the sound that will spur my ears to fill in the difference. But when I encounter a preset that is roughly in the ballpark of the kind of sound I might want to work with, I start tweaking it.
My tweaking consists of very simple alterations to the sound. I’ll change its ADSR (attack decay sustain release) parameters, open up a filter, add delay, try compression, add a second delay, and usually, mute the reverb (because reverbs tend to blur sounds). If there’s a pulsation element to the sound, I focus on that—figuring out what is making the sound move (an LFO?) and then altering the rate of that movement. By chance and by labor, I tend to end up with a sound that is more interesting than the original. Not better, just less obvious.
It’s at this point that I save the sound as my own. Then I continue making changes to the new sound, and re-name new presets with consecutive numbers (e.g. pad 1, pad 2…pad 12 etc.) and sometimes add descriptive words like “noisy” (e.g. pad 12 noisy). My naming sounds doesn’t necessarily make work easier down the road, but it is a way to document the small changes I make as I work. The software company u-he makes this re-naming process easy: their software will automatically add a number after a patch name as you hit Save. How brilliant! And yes, I did email the company to thank them.
There is nothing original about altering software presets to make them your own and then saving the results, and many purists will prefer to create their own timbres from absolute scratch. But I find the alteration process essential for moving towards the original by taming the vast and ever- expanding landscape of sounds in the ecosystem of music software. Since I may never know (let alone remember) all of these sounds, my approach is to get to know a few of them well. When I save a sound as my own, I’ve narrowed down my library of searchable and useable sounds, because I only make music with sounds that I have made or altered myself. Some might call this a purist’s approach as well.
Most importantly, the technique of creating multiple variations of a single sound is a way to “populate” one’s musical system with meaningful materials to work with. Over time, my software instruments have become biased libraries of my favorite sounds. For example, a particularly evocative sound might have between 5 and 25 variations that I have spun on it. There are, as well, four other reasons why having such variated sounds may be useful to the producer/composer.
First, a preset with many variations is reliable indicator of a sound’s interestingness, a flagging of the sound’s importance. The fact that I have taken the time to make this many variations suggests that there’s something intriguing about the sound.
Second, these variations could be used on later projects.
Third, each variation is a foray into sound design—a micro-mastery of one parameter of a piece of software. Most software remains opaque to me; I mean to learn it more deeply, but…there are always other things to do. Even so, each variation incrementally helps me understand better what the software is capable of.
Finally, the variations are reminders of a practice I practice in the middle of writing music. Even as I find a sound that works (for now), I step out of the compositional frame for a moment and save a few more variations on the fly for future use—because you never know. I think of it as akin to noticing your breathing or footstep strikes whilst running fast—a sort of metacognitive moment of self-observation in the middle of doing something. Interrupting our own process in this way reminds us that as exciting as this track might seem, surely there could be better music tomorrow if we set up the right conditions to make it?