Easy Synth Programming – Sub Oscillator
It’s scary to think about the problems which lurk around the corner for music people. Specifically, in dealing with audio, the problems are particularly tricky because they can be invisible. Inaudible, actually. Even if you have the world’s greatest room, if you don’t realize that your bass is too thin then your music will never sound professional. Make sure you have enough bass by adding a sub oscillator, when appropriate, and also getting a demo of Syntorial for free here.
Voice of God
The problems we audio musicians face when getting our bass together are formidable. First you need a good room, then you need to treat it. After you’ve done all that, you still probably aren’t able to either remember to check your bass or even get it right. The thing is that you need to have bass there to begin with and that’s where a sub oscillator can help.
Not only basses can benefit from the use of a sub oscillator but also kick drums, snares, leads, and just about every other instrument. Sub oscillators can also help your low instruments stand out on smaller speakers. I’ll explain why below.
Sub oscillators come in a variety of shapes. You may have heard to use this waveform or that but I’ll make sure you know once and for all which one is right for your track. We’re going to cover the basics but, by the end of this article, you’ll also know a few advanced tricks I haven’t heard mentioned anywhere else!
Make sure you have a good listening environment in which to do your Syntorial challenges or your own sound design. One thing I’ve noticed when doing this program is that I have to use more than one monitor system to really hear everything that’s going on. Be sure to get some acoustic treatment, or maybe some good headphones, and consider also getting a mixcube.
I did a whole video on 16 reasons to get one. Every day, I learn to appreciate the mix cube more and more. Regarding synth programming, sometimes full-range stereo systems give you too much information. By reducing everything to one mid range speaker, you ironically make things more clear for yourself. With those preliminaries out of the way, let’s design some synths!
Into the Fray
To implement the sub oscillator in your synth, consult your manual. What I will do now is walk you through how to create one in Syntorial’s Primer VST as well as Native Instruments’ Massive instrument. Each of these synths has a unique way of doing this but, combined, reflect how sub oscillators manifest themselves in most subtractive-type synths.
Once you’ve opened up Primer you need to turn your attention to the oscillator section in the top left hand corner of the interface. There are actually a couple different controls which let you dial in your desired sound. You have both a selection for the waveform as well as a level control that lets you add as much extra weight as you wish.
The two available waveforms for your sub oscillator are triangle and square. A triangle wave is just one step brighter than a pure sine. Though a sine wave is technically the weightiest, since it’s the easiest waveform for your sub woofer to reproduce, a triangle wave might actually be best in most cases. The reason for this is that small speakers, like those found in laptops, earbuds, and smart phones, do not reproduce those frequencies at all.
Don’t Be A Square
The other sub oscillator waveform, the square wave, is usually pretty weighty on it’s own. The benefit of using this waveform is that it will blend better in the mid range with your higher layers. You might like this effect and you might not. If you prefer the separation then be sure to use a triangle wave.
You will definitely hear a square wave on small speakers. Another benefit to using a square wave is that it will sound grittier on the bottom end than either a sine or triangle wave. A similar effect can be achieved by using FM synthesis to modulate a bass tone. Just set your modulating oscillator to a less than 1 value, so 0.1 for instance, and hear the rumble of a lifetime!
Now that you’ve selected your waveform, it’s time to blend that baby into your existing sound. You’ll immediately notice that a square sub oscillator sounds much louder than a triangle sub oscillator. The reason for this is that there are more upper harmonics contained in the square wave than there are in a triangle or sine. The way to offset this is to use the level knob so you get just the right amount of bass.
To Bass and Beyond!
Let’s talk about instrument-specific implementation. I didn’t cover this in the video but I’m sure many of you will be curious about it. You can use a sub oscillator for a number of different instruments including: bass sounds, leads, pads, and even drums. There really isn’t an instrument that adding a sub oscillator would necessarily hurt. Let’s start with drums.
In the case that you’re synthesizing your drum sounds, it’s easy to imagine how adding a lower layer can help. Rather than pitching down your sample on another track or using a sampler, you can add that lower layer by using a sub oscillator on your synth. There is a catch, however.
in the event that you are making a kick drum, your initial layer might already be plenty low. Maybe you’re making an 808 style kick and it’s booming. Then, when you play it back on a crappy speaker system, it doesn’t stand out anymore. How do you make your 808 stand out using a sub oscillator?
I Can’t Hear You
The answer might surprise you. The secret is to actually pitch up your whole kick drum up one octave. I can hear you asking whether that will take away all the weight. The answer is that no it won’t because now your upper layer will be audible on small speakers but your sub oscillator is doing the work it was born to do: pushing air with your sub.
Let’s take a look at another example. You may have a lead that you really like but have you tried adding a lower layer to it? Though sometimes you want a thin lead sound, even a little bit of sub oscillator added to it can give a surprising amount of depth.
Don’t think that just because you add a sub oscillator that you need to have super thick mud screwing with your mix. Just a little blended to taste can make a big improvement. The more bass a sound has, the closer it sounds to us. Make your leads stand out by adding more bass!
One thing you need to keep in mind when adding any low frequency sound to your mix is that, if you don’t have your sample cut on a zero crossing or if your sub oscillator isn’t triggering at exactly zero phase then you will get a click every time that event plays. You can combat this by adding a little fade in to your sample or moving your attack setting on your ADSR envelope up a few milliseconds.
Remember that you don’t always have to route your main sound and your sub together. In Native Instruments’ Massive, for instance, you can use the third oscillator as your sub and route it wherever you want. Just use an envelope other than number 4, assign that to your sub oscillators amp knob and you can have as much control as you’d like.
A cool thing about Massive is that you can use literally any waveform you want. Beyond that you have all those other options like intensity and formant to really give your sub oscillator a unique character. Just make sure you don’t have too many clashing frequencies and you’ll be good to go.
I want to thank my supporters. It’s actually surprisingly difficult to get content out each week. What I’m doing here with the Easy Synth Programming series is to revisit what I’ve learned with Syntorial. Hopefully by teaching and sharing I’ll be learning as well.
In addition to writing these articles and creating the related videos, I am always working on my own music. Currently, I’m doing a lot of scale work and cover songs. I am writing but you’ve got to hit the muscle from multiple angles!
If you guys have any questions, comments, or concerns then feel free to leave a comment below, hit me up on social media @hexspa or send an email. You can also become a patron and take private lessons with me.
Keep it Synthetic
If you’re into synthesis but maybe haven’t gotten the start you need then please allow me to recommend Syntorial. Though I went through the Berklee Online Master Certificate program for Music Production and Technology, that course almost left me with more unanswered questions than with which I started. There certainly was not enough synth programming education!
So when I got out of school, I started looking around for a good option to get my synth game on. This was right around that American Dubstep craze was happening. I have always been into Electronic music but, until around 2012, I actually thought a lot of it was corny 🙂
To be honest, I think a lot of it is still corny. That goes for any genre of music, I suppose. The thing is, modern music is predicated on the fact that these computer sounds are ubiquitous. You can’t listen to Folk music now like you could in the 40’s even if you could listen on a wax cylinder sitting on a retro sofa.
The reason is because people hear things based on what they just heard. They also base it on what they grew up listening. If you’re an Acoustic Rock act with nary an oscillator to be seen, you can bet your bottom E string that your audience will compare you to that DJ they saw last week at Festival X.
Do yourself a favor and learn some synthesis. I used Syntorial, in addition to some other resources. Syntorial helped me get into the synth game and I’m happy it did. Now I get to drool not only at new guitars that come out each year but at the sexy new four oscillator jing a mcdoovies Behringer, Roland, and Elektron keep pumping out.
Seriously, Syntorial also is great for regular old listening skills. Besides being able to pick out subtle waveform differences on your favorite records, I can almost guarantee that you’ll be hearing guitar sounds more accurately, penetrating deep into the layers of reverb and spatial effects, and perhaps even your relative pitch will improve. Syntorial is audio ear training on performance enhancing medication.
That’s all from me. Thanks for reading. I usually publish my stuff on Mondays, 4PM PST. You can subscribe on YouTube, sign up for the Hexie Dose Newsletter, or become a patron to stay up to date with my releases. New music soon 🙂