Software synthesizers can open up huge musical possibilities when you’re producing music. Here’s how to get started.
When I first started producing music years ago, I remember being blown away by the sheer quantity of digital sounds, textures, and instruments included in my production software. Drums, keyboards, horns, strings, guitars, ambient textures — it was all there, and I loved having so many different musical tools to play with.
I still feel that sense of wonder and freedom when I open my DAW and work on a production. I’ve also learned some strategies over the years that have helped me refine my workflow, using soft synths effectively as I build my tracks. I hope these ideas are helpful in your own work.
Explore and find inspiration
Whether you’re just starting a new production or searching for your project’s final sound, take time to enjoy exploring the different possibilities that software synthesizers offer. Does your DAW include dozens of different TR-808 drum kits? Choose a few, see how they sound (both on their own and in the context of your production), and go with whichever one inspires you to keep creating.
Speaking of inspiration — when you’re exploring vast libraries of virtual instruments, you may find creative fuel where you least expect it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into a production situation with a crystal clear idea of the sound I was looking for and then accidentally stumbled on something I never would have expected. If something inspires you, even if it’s different from your original vision, seriously consider going with it anyway.
Start with presets and tweak as necessary
When you’re just getting your feet wet with software synthesizers, take advantage of the presets that come included with most instruments. These configurations are usually programmed by experienced producers and composers and can give you a wide variety of high-quality textures and vibes to choose from.
If you feel that a preset is close to a sound you’re looking for but not quite there, you can go deep into any instrument’s parameters and adjust as needed. Do you love a particular Fender Rhodes soft synth but find its tone just a bit too washy? See if you can go under the virtual hood and tweak the reverb or resonance to make things more present and immediate. Does your virtual guitar sound soar like you want it to, but fall a little flat on grit? Go into the settings and see if you can dial in an extra bit of distortion or overdrive to get it where you need it to be.
Mix as you go
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the momentum of producing with soft synths and add, and add, and add. I’ve found that there’s a lot of value in taking time after recording a new virtual instrument to focus on how what I’ve just recorded should sit in the mix instead of what I’ll play next
Mixing as you go could mean something very simple, like adjusting a guitar’s level and panning so it doesn’t get in the way of your lead vocal track. Or it could mean mildly adjusting the EQ for a synth texture so it feels beefier and less shrill in your song’s quiet interlude. You can also use automation to make soft synths swell and dissipate as needed, employ amp simulators to add a little bit of hair and intensity, or turn to countless other tools to better weave your individual parts into a cohesive whole.
Note that you do not need to be a professional mixing engineer to do this, and your mix-as-you-go efforts do not need to be big or comprehensive. Any tweaks you make along the way — no matter how mild — will help your production sound more polished and complete at every stage and will help you make better choices for what virtual instruments to add next.
Make sure your production breathes
It’s easy to feel like a kid in a candy store when you open up a vast library of soft synths — but don’t try to use everything all at once.
If you have twenty different virtual string options but find something that resonates on your third try, go with it and call it done. If there are fifty different electric bass options in front of you and you don’t know where to start, there’s nothing wrong with picking at random and testing things out until you find what you need. Keep your eye on the prize of building a track that you love; just because you have huge sonic resources at your disposal doesn’t mean you need to thoroughly examine each and every one of them.
Similarly, just because you can layer on countless instruments, sounds, and textures, it doesn’t mean you should. Doing this is a recipe for a production that sounds more like a brick than a living, breathing song. I always try to complete my productions with as few sounds as possible. In other words, if any particular soft synth doesn’t actively make my track sound better and more complete, I get rid of it.
In your own productions, don’t shy away from adding as many new virtual instrument sounds as you need to bring your song into being — just don’t get carried away and leave your production heavy, cluttered, and dense.
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When it comes to using soft synths in your productions, the possibilities are nearly endless — and new virtual instruments come out all the time. Play around, experiment, find inspiration in the least expected of places, and hang on to what inspires you to keep producing.
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.
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