Easy Synth Programming – Unison
Thin, limp, and narrow. My girlfriend doesn’t like how that sounds and neither do your listeners. Sometimes you need a sound like that. However, if all your sounds are needles in your haystack of a mix then no one will listen. Come with me on a journey, along with Syntorial, to make thick, wide, and full synthesizer sounds with unison.
Say it With Me
Unison, polyphony, and legato are all related parameters. Some synths let you set max voices and some don’t. Trying to understand how all these concepts work together can be tricky.
Think of it like this: polyphony means different notes. Back in the history of human music, there was no polyphony. After we got sick of banging on logs, we sang just one note at a time.
However, more people joined in. Sure, they probably sang different notes but we have no record of it. For all intents and purposes, they sang the exact same note.
This is what’s known as unison. Later in this article I’ll use a choir metaphor to elucidate how synth unison relates to people unison. I’ll also show you how to use unison in Syntorial’s Primer VST as well as Native Instruments’ Massive.
The one thing I want to clear up before we get started is how oscillators work in this metaphor. In fact, when using unison, the entire signal path of the synth is duplicated and modified. Even so, oscillators play a special role here.
Oscillators, in our choral example relate to the various resonators that a human has in their body. Most vocal instructors will speak about ‘head voice’ and ‘chest voice’. If you’re Mariah Carey then you probably are very familiar with ‘whistle register’ as well.
For now, just think of your entire synth, when not using unison, as one voice. That’s how the synth understands it so you should think like that too. It becomes confusing with unison since it happens endogenously, or from within.
Unison is like a cheat code for wide sounds. Once you master this technique you might not have to achieve wideness at the mixing stage. You can do it right from your sound design.
Unison is also great for creating super huge sounds. Whereas with doubling and transposing or doubling and detuning oscillators you get one voice, unison gives you more. If Yngwie Malmsteen played synths, he’d love unison since he thinks “more is more”.
Another awesome side effect of using unison is the attack portion of a sound. You just will be hard pressed to get more punch any other way. Just like with wideness, this can be done from inside your synth using this function.
Some songs that use this technique are “Flashing Lights” by Kanye West and also “SexyBack” by Justin Timberlake. Specifically, these sounds are unison but with the ‘start button’ turned off. In non-Primer parlance that means the oscillators are not retriggered via gate.
Let’s talk about how to physically perform this technique. First I’ll walk you through how do do it in Primer. Secondly I’ll show you some details in Native Instruments’ Massive VST. Then I’ll babble about my own unique perspectives.
We’re using Syntorial’s Primer first because it’s so basic. After all, it is a training synth. This is the perfect virtual instrument to use if you’re just starting out.
Open up Primer and look at the GUI. You’ll find all of your unison settings in bottom middle. There are a few different parameters. Let’s take a look at each now.
The first setting you need to notice is the on/off button. It’s very obvious on this synth but not all synths are like this. If you turn on this button then you immediately get unison.
To the right of that you can see a drop down box. In it is contained two values: 2 and 4. This is how many total voices the synth will produce.
If you just want a little bit of swirl then choose 2 voice unison. Another reason you pick this value is so you can hear both voices clearly. Two voice unison is a nice clean option.
In contrast, if you’re interested in thick and dense sounds you should pick four voice unison. By adding this many voices you can really muddy up your patch. Experiment with both settings in a variety of contexts.
Another unison feature that Primer has is called ‘detune’. It does exactly what it says on the tin. This function progressively separates your voices in pitch.
If you have the detune knob all the way to the left then your sound will just be louder. Doubling a sound perfectly, as a synth can, will just make it louder. Even if you separated the sounds to two speakers, they’ll still appear in the center.
Turn the knob slowly to the right. Hear as the two voices begin to separate. Initially you will just hear a swirl. Soon after you will notice them becoming more and more disparate.
Try adjusting this detune knob while selecting 2 and 4 voice unison mode. By adding and subtracting voices, you get a more or less dense sound. These two functions work together very nicely.
Though I just mentioned it, there’s another feature in the unison section. This feature is called ‘spread’. Dirty jokes aside, this is what wraps your sound around your head.
Interestingly, spread will do nothing if you have no detune amount. This is the fact I previously mentioned. Let’s explore why that is right now.
If you’ve ever tried to get stereo separation in a mix then you know what’s happening. Let’s say you have a guitar track and want it wide. What do you do? You just copy the track and hard pan them, right?
Wrong. In fact, this is a great lesson. Two stereo speakers produce a phantom image exactly like this.
Stuck in the Middle
Let’s say you have a vocal panned dead center. How is it happening if you don’t have a center speaker? Well, what’s happening is it’s own form of unison.
If you have the same sound in both speakers playing at the same volume, this is the result. The two unison sounds appear in the middle. I don’t know why this happens but it does.
So what’s the answer? You have a variety of tools at your disposal in a mixing scenario. Your options inside of a synth are usually a bit more limited.
Synth unison allows you to make your panned sounds different. Once you have two unique, but related, sounds they’ll envelop the whole stereo field. Syntorial’s Primer VSTi let’s you do this with just two knobs.
You can try this for yourself. Adjust the spread knob in the unison section while keeping the detune knob fully left. If anything your sound will just get a little quieter.
The Far Side
As a side note, this phenomenon is due to some thing called ‘pan law’. I’ll have to make another article on that topic at some point. It’s very interesting especially since Ableton Live didn’t have true pan until version 10!
I don’t know exactly how Primer is separating the stereo image. It probably has to do with delaying one side slightly. This is a phenomenon called the Haas effect. Once again, I have not written about it but a quick search will give you answers.
Let me give you the brief version. Your ears, in part, determine where something is coming from by which ear hears the sound first. The physical size of your head creates a short delay. Mimic this electronically and – boom – pan.
Not the Only One
Ok, up until now we’ve gone over the unison options of number of voices, detune, and spread. As far as Syntorial’s Primer is concerned, that’s all you get. However, Primer is not the only synth on the internet. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that.
My patrons and I do a deep dive into Native Instruments’ Massive this week. Even so, I’m happy to share my knowledge here with you all. Please do become a Patron Hexspawn if you want to get bonus content on unison.
Massive is a great synth. Used on countless hits, you might expect that it’s too complicated to understand. While that’s true if you’re brand new, let me assure you that it’s a tamable beast.
It actually took me quite awhile to fully understand its unison options. This is partially because its unison functions are also tied in with its polyphonic and legato modes. We will go into legato in a future lesson.
For now, let me describe some of what Massive gives you. Not only do you get similar options to what Primer offers but also more control. Not just control but you also get more functionality in its unison mode.
You can open up Massive and look in the center window. From there, choose the ‘voicing’ tab. That’s where you can find the unison options for this synthesizer.
Look and see that there are polyphonic and monophonic settings as well as legato settings. Above those buttons you can see the ‘max’ voices and ‘unisono’ settings. Do not ask me why they call their unison mode ‘unisono’.
By default, your initialized patch will have a max voice setting of 16 and a unisono setting of 1. This is what you can expect from most software synths. You don’t expect a synth to play in unison by default so Massive doesn’t.
The maximum number of voices matters. For some reason, Primer does not tell you what its value is for this parameter. With Massive you need to consider this factor.
Using the metaphor of a choir, your maximum number of voices is akin to the number of choristers. 16 max voices will mean 16 people in your ensemble. You cannot exceed this number.
If choir member Roy has to sing a DO then once voice gets used until he’s done. Make Roy sing a DO for a long time and that voice gets used all the while. If you make Roy sing DO for a short time then his voice soon becomes available again.
Now make Angela sing MI. That’s two people singing two notes. This is basic polyphony. Just like Roy, as long as Angela is singing we can’t expect her to sing again until she’s done.
Alas, we have more people in our choir. Tom isn’t do anything so let’s make him sing. In fact, let’s make him sing the same note as Roy: DO.
The Things You DO
Does this mean we have unison? Yes, in our hypothetical choir there is now unison on the note DO. However, in synth land, setting up unison like this isn’t possible. If we want a true synth metaphor then we need to make Kim do some work.
Once Kim doubles Angela singing MI while Roy and Tom sing DO then we have what synths do. This is a perfect example of two voice unison. Two note polyphony plus two voice unison equals four total voices that get used.
I hope this makes sense. It took me awhile to wrap my brain around this concept. The confusing part comes in once you start adding in more oscillators.
Now synths, being machines, can do this with no sweat. The problem with synths, especially digital ones, is they can do things too precisely. In our world of flesh, bone, and hangovers, mistakes are so common that we expect them.
We don’t just expect them but we want them. Why else would we use distortion on vocals? It only sounds good to us because recordings sound fake without it.
We can add harmonic distortion to synths. Indeed, we will do just that in a future lesson. For now we want to add pitch distortion.
Remember our good friend detune? Well, he’s here in Massive as well. Massive calls it something different – pitch cutoff, I believe.
A Huge Joke
Again, Massive is no joke. Whereas in Primer, your detune knob only goes so far, Massive allows you to set nearly any maximum value. Not only that, Massive has two completely different pitch unison modes!
Honestly, I would love to cover each and every option Massive’s unison gives you. There just isn’t enough time for me to accomplish that here. Become a Patron Hexspawn to learn all about Massive’s unison options.
For now, you can see that Massive has three basic unison options. You get pitch cutoff, aka detune, with it’s ‘chord’ and ‘centered’ modes. Be sure to look those up in the manual or check my Patreon video on unison.
The other two unison modes in Massive are wavetable position and stereo wideness. Curiously, the wavetable position only seems to go in one direction. The stereo spread option can invert the position of your unison voices.
There is just one main thing you need to keep in mind when designing patches in Massive that use unison. Remember the choir metaphor? If you have your choristers singing long notes, i.e. long release settings for your ADSR, you’ll chew through available voices.
Be sure to set the appropriate max voice setting if using these long release settings with unison. Maybe you want a high number of max voices. Maybe you want old notes to be cutoff.
We Will Rock You
If you’ve made it this far then congratulations. You clearly care more about your synth journey than most people. There are a number of tutorials out there but you chose this one and I’m thankful.
Tuition for synthesis has improved greatly in recent years. Whereas before you needed to read a book, buy a video, or find a mentor, now you have the internet. Not only that but you also have software solutions available to you.
Specifically, I’m referring to Syntorial. It’s a free-to-try program that runs on Mac, Windows, as well as iPad. This is the program I’m using to teach these lessons.
Video Game Homework
If you like video games and music then you’ll love this app. Pretty much it makes you figure out synth patches by ear. It starts off easy but then gets pretty hard.
If you think you have a good ear for music then this is an ultimate test. You’ll never listen to synths, EDM, or any music the same way ever again. Even before I finished the program I could easily pick out certain sounds playing at cafes.
Many people like to talk up ear training. They’re referring to relative pitch. Naturally, if you’re doing music, relative pitch is a critical skill. What about audio engineers, though? How can they train their ears?
In the past, all you could do was mix! You could mix or do critical listening including mid-side, adjusting tempo, and left-right muting. Lastly, you had noise drills where EQ boosts or cuts certain frequencies.
While that’s great, what if you could listen to a complex sound then recreate it just by listening? All those old methods were pretty passive. As far as I know, there is no method more active than recreating sounds.
Unfortunately, creating sounds off records is extremely hard. You don’t know what synth they’re using, what brand of FX, and dozens of other variables. What if those options were removed so you could just match the essence?
Make the Right Choice
Syntorial is the perfect option for that. You’ll learn about making sounds punchy, making them come forward, and even reverb and phaser. Every mix engineer should give this program a try.
The same goes for audiophiles, guitarists, and of course synthesists. Music is a hearing art and anything you can do to improve your listening is amazing. Did I mention it’s free to download?
Syntorial comes with 22 included lessons. The free version even has some videos on NI’s Massive, Xfer’s Serum, the Moog Voyager, and more. You can’t go wrong so give it a shot.
Come See About Me
That’s it for this article. I hope you enjoyed it. As always, I release original music and music-making tutorials on Mondays, 4PM PST.
Thanks for reading. Be sure to leave a comment if you have anything to say. I’ll see you next week.