Easy Synth Programming – Detune
There’s nothing worse than opening up a synth, hitting a key and being greeted by the most boring and annoying sound in the history of man: the unfiltered saw wave. Luckily for you, it’s actually pretty easy to take that simple buzz and transform it into a swirling, or pulsing, or even wobbling masterpiece. All you need to do is click your heels and detune your oscillators.
Make sure to check out Syntorial before proceeding. It’s a free download which includes 22 lessons on topics like oscillator identification by ear, mastering the intricacies of filter modulation and so much more.
If you’re new to synths then you might not know about the detune feature. You might not even know why you would want to detune your synth. I mean, this is music so shouldn’t everything be in tune?
Yes, that’s true that we should strive to be in tune. However, sometimes by modifying the pitch of our oscillators, we can create some very unique, analog, and even human tones that make the mechanistic synth more palatable to hear. As you may have guessed, adding detune also can create problems of it’s own.
In the past, I always thought synths were less cool that guitars. Guitars allow you to bend strings, add distortion, and play very expressively. When you hit a string hard, it goes up in pitch a little bit. When you overuse the whammy bar, the whole guitar goes out of tune.
Hang on, it’s almost like I just described everything a synth can do. So if you’re having hang ups about synths being lifeless, mechanical, or cold then listen up because this article is for you.
If you’ve already begun messing around in your synth then you may have noticed that your patches aren’t quite interesting. Sort of like how I talked about in a previous article about modulating the synth’s volume or filter cutoff, adding some out-of-tuneness to your sound can create motion.
Another symptom you can be encountering as a result of not using detune is that your sounds are too thin. Just like a single violin is no match for a whole section of strings, a single oscillator will never get you to where you want to go. However, just adding another oscillator isn’t the answer either.
Maybe your sounds are all smooshed together in a single plane on your mix. Great mixes have depth. Synths speak the same language as the rest of the audio world, I like to say. So if you want to have great synth sounds then you’ll need to add some depth. Later, I’ll show you how.
Interestingly, the exact same technique we’ll be using to make the sounds thicker can also make them thinner. But why would you want a thinner sound? The reason is that in order to have thick sounds then some have to be thin. I’ll go into exactly how to accomplish this when I walk you though instruction inside of Syntorial‘s Primer.
The key to fattening up your sounds is to use more than one oscillator. However, you can’t just start turning on oscillators and expect your sound to thicken, swirl, or move at all. In fact, adding identical sounds on top of identical sounds will only sound like the one sound but louder.
Previously, we had a look at transposing. Transposing refers to any musical operation which takes one note and moves it somewhere else in pitch by a distance of at least a half-step, also known as a semitone. What we’re going to look at here is something known as detune.
Whenever you add a different sound to an existing one, you make the overall visage more complex. Whether it’s better or worse is a matter of personal taste as well as being subject to some technical restrictions. Regardless, we have many ways to add complexity to that boring waveform I mentioned at the beginning of this piece.
What Is It?
Detuning is what happens when you go to transpose an oscillator but stop before you reach a full semitone. It’s a subtle shift in pitch that, when added to another sound, will thicken it in a similar way as two people trying to sing the same note. Another analogy would be as if a guitarist was tuning two strings to the same pitch, like the high strings on a 12-string guitar, but deliberately left them slightly out.
With synths, we can get very specific about exactly how much we want each of our ‘strings’ to be detuned. Indeed, we must be for the very artistic and technical reasons mentioned above. I will get into the exact way you can go about this inside of Primer below.
There is nothing stopping you from performing this action using additional synths. It’s true that many producers like to stack sounds for the ultimate fat chord stab, for instance. It may even be the case that some of these other synths or sample layers are not completely in tune with the main one so the result will be similar to what we’re going to accomplish here.
Another great effect you can get with oscillator detune is that of mimicking an old VCO analog synth which is beginning to age. You may know that old synths are known to what’s known as ‘drift’ as they age. That means the oscillator, crusty and wrinkly as it has become, will no longer ‘sing in tune’ as it were. In the modern time of digital perfection, adding it a bit of happenstance can add some life and charm to your productions.
Any sound can benefit from detune and not just synths. For example, you may have heard about the Eventide H3000 being used on Pop vocal productions. Singers like Chino Moreno of Deftones have made this a signature part of their sound. Even groups of strings like you might hear in an ABBA track are very unlikely to be exactly the same frequency.
Adding detune is very similar to adding distortion to a sound. Usually less is more but sometimes a lot is great. The main difference is that you can’t really add detune in parallel unless that signal is internally balanced around an axis pitch. I’ll talk about that when I walk you through the details of setting up detune in your synth.
Lots o’ Boxes
You can see that there are many types of effects which can be accomplished using detune. Even actual effects like chorus rely on this for their sound. The difference between chorus and detune is that, with chorus, the detuned voice is slightly delayed as well as constantly changing pitch. With standard synth detune, the oscillators typically remain at a constant offset and usually have their onset at the same time.
I’ll talk about some of the sonic side-effects of detune later but, for now, keep in mind that adding additional oscillators and voices to your patch can also cause unwanted distortion and clipping in your signal path. Like I’ve previously stated, adding identical sounds just makes one sound louder. Well, even if you slightly modify that second sound, your overall gain will increase so look out for that.
The Nitty Gritty
The way that you go about doubling and detuning your oscillators depends on which synth you use. If you’re going to use Primer then you’re in luck because that’s how I’m going to describe it. If you want to learn how to do it in massive then please become a patron who supports me for three dollars a month.
Previously, in Primer, you were taught how to double and transpose oscillators. Detuning is slightly different. Whereas transposing is by semitone, or half-step, detuning is by cents. There are 100 cents in a half-step. Remember the dollar metaphor and you’ll be fine.
In the oscillator section of Primer, notice that there is a knob labeled ‘fine’ next to each waveform selector. This is what you will use to detune your oscillators. There is just one problem of which you need to be aware.
If you just detune one oscillator and have your mix knob all the way to the left then you’re going to effectively throw your synth out of tune. Actually, this could be a useful thing to do if, say, you’lre playing with a band or vocalist who’s just slightly flat or sharp. In most cases, however, you are going to want to maintain your central intonation.
Just For You
The way you keep your synth in tune is to use two different oscillators. You will tune them in equal and opposite directions. Then you set your mix knob to 50/50 so each oscillator balances out the other one.
There is one exception to this, though. Let’s say you don’t want a massively detuned sound. In that case then you can just detune one oscillator to about one single cent. You still need to set your mix knob to half way but your pitch integrity will not be compromised by such a small decrement.
But what if you do want to detune your oscillators very far? You can do that but, be aware, it will compromise your tonality. You see, the further you separate your oscillators, a few different things will happen.
One, like I just said, is that you synth will no longer sound like it’s playing a single pitch. This can be a neat arrangement trick so keep it in mind. There’s more that applying a lot of detune will also do.
A sort of potential drawback, or double-edged sword, of detune is that it will push your sound back further into the mix. This can be great for something like a pad but might not be what you’re looking for with a lead.
As you know, your lead should be out front and center. Although this is true, it’s rare that you ever want your lead to be totally dry and up front. Detune is a great way to ever so slightly pull your sound back so it blends in with the other instruments.
Detune can have other negative consequences. Although we are familiar with the famous ‘Reese’ or ‘hoover‘ bass, in fact, detuning a bass can create instability in your low end. This is a little different than the tonal problems which can come with pads but is still related.
In Primer, try setting up a 50% mix between two oscillators and then just detune one of them a cent. Now play in the C1-C2 range like you would for any other bass. More than likely, if you hold down a key and have your amp sustain up all the way, you’ll hear that the bass kind of disappears in a periodic way.
Clearly, this is going to be undesirable about 90% of the time. The way around this is to either use more oscillators or a different synth. Either that or just don’t detune your bass.
If you want to use more oscillators then you can take advantage of whatever current processing you have going on inside of one instance of Primer. Things like filter modulation, pitch bend (which we’ll go into in a future lesson), and effects will all color your sound cohesively.
The way you make this happen is to use a sub oscillator, which again we’ll learn about in a future lesson, for your low bass. In Primer, you have the option of a saw tooth waveform as well as a pulse waveform. Unfortunately, these aren’t very commonly used in modern synth sounds.
Still, you can either use what Primer makes available to you or use a VSTi like Native Instrument’s Massive. In my Patron Exclusive Ninja Training for Synth Pulsating, I use Massive’s modulation oscillator as well as all three wavetable oscillators to make a fat, stable bass. Become a patron to gain access to that, and other, helpful video.
To summarize what I did, I used the first oscillator in Massive as my sub bass and it was set to a sine wave. I played my notes in the C1-C2 range and then I activated the remaining two oscillators. Those are the two that I first transposed up an octave and then subsequently added and subtracted about three cents of detune from each.
This is really the way most modern producers do it. Naturally, there will always be monophonic basses with just a single voice. Still, you should be able to create both sounds and Syntorial will definitely get you started mastering the basics. From there, your imagination is your only limit.
That is the gist of doubling and adding detune to your synth sounds. You can go as far as you want and make the sound completely unstable or add just a bit of flavor. Just bear in mind any potential unintended side effects of such actions.
Bus Me Home
Up until now we’ve looked at a number of issues that arise as a consequence of either using too little or too much detune. Like the Buddha said, the middle way is usually best but sometimes you need to go at it with a little gusto.
Leaving a synth as a single-oscillator sound can have it’s place. Don’t leave here thinking you have to have each oscillator 99 cents apart like some crazy rage face at a dinner party. Some sounds call for more subtlety to be appropriate.
In order to have thick sounds, you’re going to need thin ones. Detune can make a sound stand out or it can push it further back into a mix. The key is to not make every sound the same. Make one sound be the most important at any given time and let the rest lay back and support it.
We went over how you have to watch your levels when adding multiple voices. Distortion can be a wonderful thing unless it’s creeping into your work unexpectedly. Back off your oscillators’ amplitude to get a comfortable working level and you’ll be fine.
I talked about how you can make a sound thinner by using detune. A neat trick you can use in your next track is to resample portions of your sound when it’s thin and load that into a sampler. deadmau5 uses a similar trick when using analog gear to capture that one perfect sound so he can copy pasta that piece like some kind of madman.
I walked you how to specifically create detune sounds inside of Syntorial‘s Primer. Primer is a very neat synth because it’s easy and versatile. It doesn’t hurt that you’re getting direct instruction on how to use it by it’s developer! I actually made the intro to my Easy Synth Programming series videos 100% inside of Primer.
Naturally, you can apply this technique to virtually any other synth on the market. Some will allow more flexibility than others. I walk my patrons through how to implement this inside of Massive using Ableton Live as I create eight bar loops each week using all the techniques we’ve covered until now and even some advanced ones.
Thank you guys very much for reading this article. I hope it’s very helpful and at least somewhat entertaining. I’ve already said this but the main reason I’m doing these is to reinforce my learning by sharing this program with you.
Currently, I’m spending more time learning music. Right now it’s all about Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose. Putting out these Easy Synth Programming articles and videos allows me to keep a fresh look instead of only posting once a month or however often I would otherwise.
Patrons have already received early access to the exclusive Ninja Training for this week. In it, I make an ambient eight bar loop using almost every feature inside of Massive. These are the kinds of videos I wished someone had shown me when I first started doing synths.
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