Easy Synth Programming – Resonance
I get it: there is a big disconnect between loading a killer patch compared to beginning with a blank slate. There is nothing less inspiring for some producers than listening to a basic sawtooth come out of an initialized synth. However, if you want to accelerate your sound design progress, then you must master filter resonance. If you really want to skyrocket your skills then just get the free download of Syntorial here.
Peak Me Up
Besides helping you in all areas of audio, mastering synth filter resonance will put you in charge of your sound design. Want a dull sound that doesn’t interfere with your lead? Check. Want a cutting bass that competes nicely with your kick? Check. Want alien sounds that put you in the year 3018? Resonance is the genie fulfilling each and every one of these desires.
Resonance, on the surface, is one of the most innocuously seeming parameters. All it does is boost the frequency range around the filter’s cutoff frequency, right? Well, yes but that tiny feature can transform your sounds in amazing ways as I’ve shown in this week’s Ninja Training on resonance.
More than any other synth parameter, filter resonance is that finishing touch which lets you transform your sound from a generic synth patch into something unique, powerful, and interesting – and that’s when the patch is in isolation! One you master filter resonance, you can transfer all your listening and programming skills into the larger field of sound design, film scoring, composition, mixing, mastering, and every other audio-related field including Acoustics!
Think of a guitar and its six-or-so strings. When you’ve tuned a string and then pluck it, what’s happening is that it’s mass is responding to your energy induction by resonating at that tuned frequency. Even when you play, say, an E on the 4th string, second fret and that same E on the 5th string, 7th fret, resonance is at work to make those two identical pitches sound different.
Speaking of guitar, who doesn’t love those sexy wah sounds of the 60’s and 70’s? Where do you think they came up with the idea for that? If you didn’t know, analog synthesizers and electric guitars both come from the same family tree.
Again, even if you have minimal interest in synth programming, almost every area of your music life can and will benefit from understanding a few lessons from the synthesis cauldron. Later on in this article, I’ll give you specific examples on how you can parlay what you’ve learned today into many other musical avenues of expression. For something that’s so easy to use, filter resonance sure has a lot of benefits.
Prime the Engine
As I’m primarily using Syntorial’s included Primer virtual instrument to complete this tutorial, I’ll show you how to use resonance in that first. Secondly, I’ll show how you can use a more well-known synth, Massive, to create similar effects. Lastly, we’ll discuss the myriad ways which this technique can play out in your day-to-day musical life.
Let’s get into how to implement resonance inside of Primer and then we’ll take a look at how we can perform similar actions inside of Native Instruments’ Massive VST. The two are different in a number of ways, as we’ll see. We’ll begin with Primer since, after all, it is primarily a training synthesizer.
Primer’s resonance controls are very basic. In fact, the only option you get is how much resonance you want. Right now, we’re only using low pass filters but, if you feel so inclined, feel free to experiment with other filter types.
Down the Tubes
So open up Primer, if you haven’t, and leave your filter cutoff knob at maximum value. One of the first things you’ll notice, whether you have a good monitoring solution or not, is that, when you bring up the resonance amount knob, it sounds like the midrange drops in level. Do not be alarmed!
If you’ve taken any time to explore the morph filters inside of Ableton Live‘s Sampler instrument, then you’ll know that you can make filters do some amazing things. Now, I realize that we’re just getting started here so I don’t want to confuse you. The bottom line is that, with some filters, by increasing a narrow frequency band, here we call that resonance, you will simultaneously be lowering the levels of the other bands.
Of course, I don’t know why the Syntorial team decided to implement this kind of filter. On one hand, it is one more sonic cue, besides the ‘pointiness’ we’ll discuss in a second, that helps you determine exactly what parameters have been adjusted to obtain the sound you can hear. On the other hand, I don’t find many other filters operating in this way so I can see why this might cause some confusion with some of you. Regardless, that’s how it works in Primer so, having established that, let’s move on.
The main characteristic, which I just alluded to, that upping your filter resonance brings out is that of giving your sound more of an ‘edge’ or ‘point’. If you’ve ever heard a TB-303 bassline, for instance the one in Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been” produced by Calvin Harris, then you have certainly heard filter resonance. It’s a ‘squelchy’ sound at times and, when used more mildly, can just make a little bit more prominent the audio band where you have placed the cutoff of your low pass filter.
The problem with low pass filters is that they have a tendency to make your sound dull. This, in and of itself, isn’t really a problem unless it is. It will become a problem if you, for some reason, want to dull your sound a bit yet don’t want it to totally disappear behind other sounds. If you want your patch to stand out in the mix then you had better do something for that effect to occur.
Let’s say you want to create a pad sound. Well, though some mix engineers won’t call it this, you can achieve some depth in your mix if you use a low pass filter to ‘push’ the sound back a little bit. Naturally, you’ll probably want to couple this operation with a touch of reverb or other spatial effect but distant sounds have less of the extreme ranges of frequency in their make up.
In this case, you won’t want to use much, if any, resonance on your filter. Again, a pointed sound, of course, is something that will ‘cut through’ and pads, by their functional nature, are happier behind everything else – even to the point of not being consciously noticed at all. No, you don’t usually want to use a lot of resonance on pads but leads, on the other hand, may benefit from a little boost of this piercing effect.
A Way With Words
By now, we’ve mentioned a few adjectives which can help you distinguish the effect that filter resonance has. Words like: ‘cutting’, ‘piercing’, ‘edginess’, ‘pointiness’, all refer to what you get when you crank that resonance control. I think it’s worthwhile to explore some of the antonyms so you can group sounds into their relevant functions.
I already mentioned the word ‘dull’ to describe a high cut sound that lacks any, or a low amount of, resonance. Some others you can use are: ‘dark’, ‘distant’, ‘muddy’, ‘bassy’, ‘muted’, and ‘dim’. For sure, there are disadvantages to using such subjective language to describe sound.
Also, not all ‘muted’ sounds will be ‘bassy’. Still, be aware of your sonic descriptions when it comes to producing music. Another set of terms, like ‘choppy’, and ‘fluid’ can help you describe rhythmic interest. Taken together, all these variables can help you break free of the eight bar loop and into the light of finished tracks and possibly musical world domination.
So balance out your sonic fingerprints. By all means, add resonance to everything in the beginning. Just be aware of how other sounds will interact with your patch so you can make an interesting overall picture.
Another advantage of using the resonance function on your synth is that you’re getting two EQ effects at once. As opposed to using, say, Waves Q2 equalizer to add a LPF and then add on a resonant bell at the cutoff, you can just use the resonance control for a two-for-one effect. Try this for electric basses with your cutoff around 5-800Hz and listen as annoying highs disappear while biting midrange emerges.
With that all having been said, let’s take a look at the venerable Massive VST. It’s GUI being bigger, bolder, and more intimidating. It also has several more filter types than Primer has and some additional controls for them. The resonance control also seems to have even more power than that of Syntorial‘s included synth.
In my Patreon-Exclusive Ninja Training video on resonance that I released yesterday, I showed how Massive‘s resonance control go beyond the expected and into the territory of weird. Whereas Primer’s resonance control will cause the filter to self-oscillate, the LP4 filter in Massive is different. It has so much resonance that it starts to sound like electric guitar feedback. ‘Self-oscillation’ is another word which means it rings a lot. So much so that it creates another note on top of your fundamental note. It’s a really neat effect and I encourage you to experiment for yourself. Or, you can become a Patron Hexspawn and I can walk you through it.
Other than that, Massive’s resonance function is very similar to that of Primer’s. Of course, in Massive you get additional modulation controls but those aren’t intrinsic to the resonance function itself. Regardless, open up Massive if you have it and initialize a patch. From there you can hear for yourself of what a synth that’s been used on countless hit is capable.
Something that I haven’t noticed when using Massive is the same kind of ‘midrange frequency drop’ that plagues Primer. Naturally, these are entirely different filter algorithms so some difference is something you can expect. Still, if you want that Primer effect inside of massive, you can always use the EQ master effect. Also try routeing your low pass filter into another filter. Try this in series and parallel to hear what effects are possible.
I want to talk now about some sounds that are possible using the filter resonance control. This feature allows you to expand your synthesis sonic palate beyond boring saw tooth waveforms and the usual squares. Using resonance, you can get more compelling instruments and sound effects so let’s explore those now.
One of the first cool effects that I started making once I discovered the resonance control is ‘zap’ sounds. You know how lasers go ‘pew pew’? That sonic signature can definitely incorporate resonance as well as a pitch envelope modulation, which we will explore in another article in this Easy Synth Programming series.
Another essential function of filter resonance is the tried-and-true filter sweep. You’ll hear this in noise sweeps which are so ubiquitous in Electronic music. They’re especially prevalent in breakdowns and risers such as in Kylie Minogue’s hit tracks. Though these sounds use a filter, their effect is enhanced by the use of resonance.
In some cases, you may want to use a heavily resonated sound. However, for these sweep effects I have found that often less is more. It’s easy to take someone’s head off with too much resonance amount. Overdoing the pointiness here can really remove your sweep from the mix. It does this by drawing too much attention to itself.
More is More
By using a lot of resonance you can make your filter self-oscillate. You can also get some neat effects by assigning a modulator to the filter cutoff when resonance is high. For some cool robotic vocal effects, try assigning a noise LFO to your filter cutoff when your resonance is up all the way. What you’ll get is a sort of futuristic melody. It will play as your filter frequency makes hard jumps from position to position.
I’ve mentioned this already but basses also benefit from a bit of resonance around the low pass filter cutoff frequency. You can use the filter in your synth to effect the whole bass sound. Or, alternatively, you can split up your bass. Divide it into sub, low mid, and high frequency ranges and apply a different filter setting for each. By manipulating the resonance amount, you can get the sounds to either gel together or separate. This is just like oil and water or milk and coffee.
The great thing about learning synthesis is that it’s lessons apply to all areas of audio. For example, if you are layering drum sounds then you can use EQ filters and their resonance settings. These effect the same changes you would when using a synth. EQ techniques are somewhat beyond the scope of this series. But, given that a low pass filter is a form of EQ, I wanted to mention this here.
Found in Translation
The whole point of undertaking this journey of learning synthesis is to make your own sounds. Another is to decipher what you hear when listening to your favorite tunes. When listening to songs by your favorite artists, try to determine which sounds are making use of filter resonance. Do you want a bonus challenge? Try to identify resonant sounds in places you might not ordinarily expect to find them. Listen in places like: video voice overs, classical instruments, and the sound of interior spaces.
There’s another peculiar aspect of filter resonance. It’s that it might not give you the same effect based on playing range. For example, if you’ve designed a cool lead sound then your resonance and cutoff setting might not be appropriate. This happens as you approach the upper and lower ranges of your part. There is a solution for this problem. That is a synth function called ‘filter key tracking’. That too will be a topic which we will explore at a future time.
That pretty much covers everything that I know about filter resonance at this time. Remember that this Easy Synth Programming series is a result of me having finished the Syntorial program and, by sharing what I’ve learned, reinforcing that knowledge in the process. If you haven’t picked up your copy of this amazing training tool then be sure to download it now. It’s 100% free, no payment info required, and includes 22 effective lessons to get you started.
I discovered Syntorial originally through word-of-mouth. In fact, I think this is how most people have heard of it. Unfortunately, when something this great is just whispered about in music forums, there’s usually no support content. By making these videos and articles, I want to make the experience that much better for you.
The training starts off relatively easy. That’s not to say you will breeze through it. It does mean that it begins accessibly. One thing that will really help you accomplish this mission is to have a good monitoring solution or two as well as have your room set up correctly. Check out that playlist and make sure to download my free ebook on the topic here.
In summary, we have covered the fact that a synthesizer’s filter resonance control gives you mad sound-sculpting potential. In fact, in my Ninja Training, I demonstrated just this. Additionally, we’ve noted that this awesome force is one that manifests itself in virtually all areas of audio and music. By harnessing it’s vitality, you too can move closer to that state of mastery. The last thing which I have shown is several real-world musical examples. In those, you can use resonance to make sounds fall back, stand out, and fit together. You can also inject your personal tastes and vision.
Thank you very much for sticking with me to the end. I must first thank my support system on Patreon. While I don’t write solely for money, that is the lifeblood of any business so I appreciate any and all support. Consider becoming a Patron Hexspawn as it will enable me to expand my creation powers and deliver you better material.
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Thank you very much and I’ll see you next week!