Updated: Aug 9
We’ve all been here: we’re working on a section of a song and it feels like it’s missing something… a layer or instrument that adds emotion and texture but stays out of the way of the vocals or lead. Synth pads are perfect for adding a melodic or harmonic element to a track while providing texture that compliments the feel of the music. Creating an interesting pad sound is a great place to roll up your sleeves and go deep with your sound design techniques.
While there’s nothing wrong with using presets, a lot can be said for transforming your own synth or sample into a unique sound that’s full of ear candy. Making an interesting pad sound can be approached in many different ways, and in the following paragraphs I’ll break down one of the methods I use.
The great thing about sound design is you can start pretty much anywhere you find inspiration, whether it’s a sample, a plugin preset, or a hardware synth. You can even make your own field recordings of sounds that inspire you and turn that into a pad or atmosphere!
For the sake of ease, I’ve started my sound design with Ableton Granulator II synth with sound re-sampled from another part of my song. Granulator II is amazing. If you’re not using it, get to know it. It’s excellent for pads, textures and atmospheres, and you can stick any sample into it.
Make It Dirty!
The next step is to add some saturation and light distortion to excite the pad and bring out some of the harmonic tones by enhancing the texture.
I start by adding some tape wobble with Ableton’s Tape Malfunction preset dialled back to a subtle setting, which sounds like the natural movement of a tape with slight defects passing over the playheads.
Then I’ll add some saturation to add some harmonic frequencies and a bit of overdrive to the sound. Make sure you lower the output volume to balance the increase in volume from from driving the gain.
I like to add multiple saturation effects in series in the same way I’ll use light compression. A little bit goes a long way, and interesting and unique distortions can be made when combining multiple overdrives. Next, I’ve added Ableton’s Hot Driven Tape for extra saturation.
Lastly, I’ll use a high-pass EQ to remove any unwanted low end, and remove the highest frequencies with a low-pass EQ to take any brittle frequencies out. I’ve also automated the Low-pass filter frequency with an LFO to create a bit of subtle movement in the high end.
Delay the Delay
Now that the pad has some energy it’s time to give it some life! I had a guitar player buddy use multiple delays in his effects chain years ago that had a lasting imprint on how I use delay. We experimented with feeding one delay into another in series and then sending each signal to two separate guitar amps. The sound we created could only be described as lush and wide, with delays cascading into delays and singing harmonic tones like a choir of psychedelic tie-dyed angels. I’ve recreated the signal path in Ableton Live to similar effect using both stock delays and UAD tape delay emulations. Either work well, so don’t sweat it if you’re using stock plugins! Shout out to my bandmate Derek from Little Black Stitches.
The multiple delay signal path looks like this:
Set up an effects send channel with a tape delay effect on it. Turn the sync setting off so you can dial in the tape speed/delay length without it being quantized to the BPM of your song. Dial in a medium length delay, equal to a 1/8 or 1/4 note. Pan this delay effect hard left.
See the Delay & Reverb Time Calculator link for an excellent cheat sheet provided by anotherproducer.com
Set up a second delay on separate effects send, and send the first delay to the second. Dial in a complimentary delay length so they start to move with and against each other. Pan this delay hard right. The reason we don’t use sync on either delay is so that we can create random and natural rhythms between the two delays that will shift over time, constantly creating new variations.
Use light compression after each delay to enhance the delay feedback noise and to bring out subtle artifacts created by each effect, and use EQ if needed
Set up a stereo reverb on a separate effects send and send both delays to the reverb. Use a Shimmer preset and dial in the time and amount so that it’s adding a sparkling tail without washing out your entire stereo field. This should be used subtly to add space and to enhance some of the textures from the saturation and delay.
If you find this helpful and want to learn more about how I use this to create electronic music from start to finish, please find the link below this post to my website Electronic Music Tips and download the FREE 6 Step Guide to making a dance floor and radio ready track that looks like this. It’s absolutely jam-packed with tips and tricks and it’s completely free. You’ll also be able to sign up for my weekly insider email where I provide tips not available anywhere else and is growing every week with thousands of people signing up who want to make better music using professional methods for composition and production, mixing and mastering all from your home studio or bedroom!