Pads come in all shapes and sizes. Here we explore the chillier end of the sonic spectrum – perfect for those long cold winter nights.

When we think of synth pads we often think of warm, analogue-style sounds, but there’s an alternative approach which is just as interesting. Colder, darker pads are most typically associated with techno, but they have their place in any genre, from drum and bass and dubstep through to house. A number of different synthesis methods can work well for this kind of sound. FM synths and additive synths are sometimes used, but we’ll stick with subtractive synthesis techniques for their ease of use. In this case we’re going to create a complex, heavily modulated pad sound using Analog, one of the stock synths in Ableton Live 9 Suite (and available as an upgrade for Live Intro and Standard):


Sine of the Times

Subtractive synthesis by definition usually begins with a harmonically rich waveform, such as a square or sawtooth wave, that is in turn shaped by a filter in order to subtract certain frequencies and harmonics. Here, however, were going to start with a sine wave, which lacks any additional harmonics. We begin by selecting the sine from the Shape menu for Osc1:

Pic 1a

Analog allows you to route each oscillator to one of the two filters. In this case Osc 1 is routed to Filter 1 and Osc 2 (which we’ll come to later) is routed to Filter 2:

Pic 2a

As there are no harmonics to filter in a pure sine wave, Filter 1 is disabled (trying to filter a sine wave only changes its volume). The amp envelope is set for a slow attack and moderate release. These can be adjusted as necessary later to suit the tempo of the track and the arrangement.

Pic 3a

Adding subtle vibrato can help to make the sound less sterile and more interesting. Here, the Delay and Attack parameters are set to build the pitch modulation slowly, making the vibrato less predictable and modulating the sound over the course of long, sustained notes.

Pic 4a

We begin to introduce more harmonics using Unison mode, which doubles the oscillator with another detuned version. We’ve also added some automated panning, controlled by one of the LFOs, although this can be left out at this stage and reserved for later if you want to take more control over the stereo spread of the sound at the mixing stage.

Pic 5a

With Unison engaged we can immediately hear a difference in tone:

Adding Live’s Chorus effect after the synth adds another level of subtle detuning and movement:

Pic 5b

A delay with feedback is a better alternative to reverb when adding ambience, as it allows us to create a cleaner sound and gives us the option of setting up tempo-synced delay times with ease. Here Live’s Filter Delay device creates three different delays – each with subtly different filter settings – panned to the left, centre and right respectively. Removing low-end frequencies in the filter sections helps to keep the sound uncluttered when playing chords across the full frequency range.

Pic 6a

Author Bruce Aisher
4th December, 2013

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