metallicpianoThink about how many years it takes to master an acoustic instrument. A synthesizer studio is a group of instruments, each one with a whole new set of freedoms and restrictions. The freedom is that any instrument is capable of hundreds of unique and exciting sounds. The restriction is that the technical and sonic structure of each synthesizer has nothing in common with another one. You’ll have to learn each synthesizer in your studio, one at a time before you can take it into battle on your next project. If this were a live player that you’d never heard of, would you trust him or her with a solo at your next recording date without even an audition? Same thing.

And yes you should read the manual, no matter how badly it’s written. It’s your only clue to what the manufacturers were thinking when they built the thing. When you open the box, take the manual out first and read through it somewhere else, ideally over a weekend. Then when you come back, you’ll have a peripheral idea of its workings as well as a general idea of where to find something in the manual.

In getting to know your new instrument you have to start with its existing sounds. A major fallacy is the instrument’s display that tells you what sound you are playing. Unlike looking at a real player who holds an oboe in his hands, the synth patch display that says “oboe” is no guarantee that you’re going to hear a convincing simulation. Synth technology is a combination of waveforms or digital data programmed by technicians and while some are amazing, some are downright awful. One might dial up “English horn” or even “bagpipe” and come up with an oboe sound that actually sounds more convincing.

So, ignore the display and use your ear. Go through your new synthesizer patch by patch and make note of the sounds that truly inspire you. Play with each sound for a long time (have your MIDI sequencer running to capture that musical idea too) and try the sound in different registers and different dynamics. Also decide where it would be placed in an ensemble situation. Is it a distant sound, akin to muted strings? Or a small but pointed solo sound that would perform the same function of a flute double for violins? Any ensemble skills you have, whether orchestrating or playing in a band are valuable here. Thinking in terms of layers now will help you blend these instruments later.

Now rename your sound. Give it a practical name that relates to its timbre, eg. “metallic piano” or “breathy flute”. Patch names like “DemonGod” or “Angela’s Pad” serve no useful purpose and you should rename these patches to something more useful. If your synthesizer has ROM presets only (non-rewritable memory) then you won’t be able to rewrite the patches. In this case use a notepad or a database to log your favourite sounds and their memory location.

This auditioning exercise is crucial because it allows you to get to know the personality of the instrument, and help you instinctively write for it. This also allows you to give the instrument your own unique trademark since you’ve chosen the sounds that appeal to you. Just as in acoustic writing, it’s not the sound, but how you blend that sound with others, that will make or break a good arrangement. In time you’ll start editing patch parameters and actually change and create new sounds.

After the above exercise you can then consider taking your new synth into battle with the rest of your toys and tricks on your next gig. Don’t do it before. How many times have we had a friend call us over to “Check this out,” only to be greeted with malfunctions and “That’s funny, it never did that before … Oh I know … nope that’s not it … just give me a minute …”

Time is precious. Use it and your new gear well.

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