From deep house to D&B, pads are used extensively in electronic music to add depth and atmosphere. Chris Lyth presents a guide to creating your own...
Pads are an integral part of many styles of music. They are most often sustained chords that hold down a melodic bed, allowing other instruments to counterpoint the harmonies they create. As a musical device they have many uses: to “pad out” empty space in a track that would otherwise feel barren, to provide atmosphere, depth and texture, and to elevate or decrease drama as the track requires.
In electronic music, pads are extremely common and it’s not unusual for a track to be entirely driven by its huge pad. Deep house without pads would just be called house, while and in melodic D&B from the likes of Goldie, LTJ Bukem and Fabio, pads are used to create a huge amount of atmosphere.
Certain machines have become legendary for their ability to create great pads. Roland’s Juno series has been the backbone of innumerable electronic tracks. With its lush, warm sonic beds, the Juno’s affordability made it the egalitarian pad machine and its sound is woven into the fabric of electronic music culture. In later years, machines such as Korg’s Trinity, Waldorf’s Blofeld and Roland’s brilliant JV series have all been cherished for their ability to create great pads.
There are of course many other machines that can do great pads, but great results can be had from the most basic of polysynths. In fact, just about any synth plugin bundled with a DAW is perfect for the job!
Here are a few ideas to get you started…
Basic beginner’s recipe
1. In subtractive synthesis, we first start by selecting a wave form that is harmonically rich, such as a square or saw wave. Most synths have more than one oscillator which means that you can select a different wave and then mix them together. Perfectly good sounds can be had from single-oscillator synths, but it depends very much on the sound you're looking to achieve. If you choose to use two, try detuning one of the oscillators slightly and you’ll hear the sound become thicker and more complex. You can also choose to layer the oscillators at different octaves for added depth.
2. Now adjust the ADSR envelope to tailor the shape of your overall sound. It’s important to get the correct envelope shape, as much of the atmosphere comes from the ADSR setting. You may want it to be a very soft sound that comes in slowly and lingers for a while. To do this, make the attack slow and the release long. This will make the sound fade in gradually and decay slowly when you release the keys. Conversely, for a tight, fast, attacking sound, we would logically do the reverse.
3. Now we take a look at the the low-pass filter to shape how bright or dark we want our sound. If we want a warmer, darker sound, we would bring down the cut-off filter to cut off the high frequencies. Next, you may want to add some resonance, which helps to add emphasis at the point where you have used the cut-off.
4. Now bring some drama and movement into your patch by using LFOs to create modulation. A simple explanation of what LFOs do is that it’s like having a robot turn the knobs back and forth at a rate that we have instructed. We also tell it which knobs to turn, as LFOs can be assigned to various parameters. Assigning them to the filter section is a great place to start adding the drama. Spend some time experimenting with all the different LFO assignments to get a feel of what can be achieved
5. Add some effects. Reverb, delay and chorus will add further warmth, depth and atmosphere. The reverb and delay will create swells and smudges as your overlapping chords decay into each other, creating shadows and different harmonic timbres.
6. Clean up your sound by using EQ to trim away as much of the low frequencies as is appropriate to your music. 150Hz is a good place to start.
Now you have the basic recipe, here are a few other ideas to incorporate…
Breaking up chords
A great way of adding further interest is to break up the notes in a chord. For example, if you have a chord with four notes, play two notes on one synth and the other two notes on an entirely different synth. It’s a great technique for creating unique timbres.
Using different types of synthesis can also create interesting results. For instance, try using two notes from a subtractive analogue like a Juno, and two from an FM synth like a DX7, or similar plugins. So that the two sounds gel together, it may help to have them all running to the same audio bus within your DAW, where they can be processed with EQ and compression as well as reverb, delay, chorus etc.
Reverb used in the right way can help you create a pad sound from pretty much anything. Plugins such as Eventide’s Blackhole give enormous, dense reverbs that can make the shortest sound evolve over a huge expanse of time. Blackhole is a big favourite of soundtrack composers for exactly this reason, as it allows you to create unique pads and atmospheres.
Experiment by playing different sounds through a large reverb to create something that you won’t find in the pads preset bank of any synth. You can then start playing with the reverb’s parameters and automate it over time. Many reverbs have a freeze function which is seventh heaven for creating unusual pads. Once you have got your pad as you like it, you may wish to print the audio and drop it into a sampler for further tweaking.
Part of the reason that old analogue synths are so sought-after and held in such dewy-eyed affection, is that their tuning and amplitude fluctuate ever so slightly, adding a subtle warmth and harmonic feel that is pleasing to the ear. We can recreate this digitally by assigning our good friend the LFO to modulate the pitch. Go for a slow rate and low depth for a subtle drifting effect. This is great for recreating a convincing analogue tone using plugins.
To take this one step further, why not run your audio to a cassette and bounce it back in for a little grit and hiss?
Remember: a pad need not always be lush and warm! In techno and electro, for example, a warm pad may sound incongruous and also swamp the lower midrange with mush that makes the low-end lack definition and focus.
While analogue subtractive synths can be used for this and have been on many occasions, wavetable and FM synths can generate colder, more clinical tones that are sharper and more midrange-focused. Experiment with layering different waves together, detuning them slightly and running them through processors such as ring modulators and resonators before using a delay, to give further depth and movement. Finally, cut away as much of the low and midrange frequencies as is appropriate to your track.
Off you go!
There’s a lot more that could be written on this subject. We haven’t got the space to talk about such techniques as time-stretching, pitching natural sounds or granular synthesis, all of which are all intriguing avenues to explore. So explore away! As always, your greatest asset is your imagination, not your equipment.
Words: Chris Lyth