Presets and soundbanks are often the first point of contact when trying a new software synth, and a quick flick through the supplied patches gives a strong example of what your newly-obtained tool is capable of doing. Each synth will have their own sonic ground and featured strengths, most of which are often well demonstrated by a tour beyond the initialised patch. Sometimes, just flicking through presets and auditioning them is enough to get rolling with a new track. Other times you find the perfect sound that glues the track together.
Aside from the brilliant Vital, and a Juno-106 emulation, my synth collection has remained mostly the same over the years. I have my ‘bread and butter’ synth in Sylenth1, a brilliant JP-8000 emulation called JP6K, FL Studio tools like Harmor and Sytrus, and a few freebies collected over time. I use their presets often, mostly as a starting point for a particular sound, and it’s interesting hearing them in other producer’s tracks too.
Presets were also my ticket to sound design through reverse engineering. Taking a preset and slowly resetting all its controls is a great way of learning what each different one does. This is how I’ve always recommended people start out in sound design, as its a very ‘hands on’ and practical approach. This is especially effective as software synths become more complex and feature-laden.
A few thoughts when it comes to presets:
They Are Often Designed to Stand Out, Not Fit In
Presets are the showcase for the synth and often push its capabilities to the limit. With that said, consideration should be taken when using presets in tracks as many are designed to be as loud and proud as possible, rather than something you can throw straight into a track. Some examples of this:
- Presets can push 0.0dB (and sometimes beyond), and be made as loud as possible. Check with your own meters, however, as some synths meters don’t quite show if you’re under or over.
- Though mostly for creative purposes, some are heavily compressed or EQ’d. This can be an issue when reducing their volume to fit into a track.
- They are heavy on effects, particularly reverb and delay, which may not match the reverb/delay tone already in use. Phase can also be an issue with reverb, though I’ve not experienced it for a long time.
- Some presets dominate the frequency spectrum, leaving little room for other sounds, and needing more work to make them fit. Unnecessary amounts of bass or high end is common.
These issues are easy to remedy, and most presets can be made to fit a track with a few tweaks. It’s more or less about being aware of what potential adjustments are needed before diving deep into your track and then having to circle back to fix issues.
Presets Kickstart Ideas
A great creative technique is to ‘audition’ presets by setting up a melody or chord progression and flicking through them as the notes play. Depending on how they are made, some can offer up very creative sounds or scapes not anticipated. Melodies can become wild sequences or beautiful ambience. Chords turn into drones or awesome arps. I remember years back talking to the great producer Airbase, who used this technique a lot. He noted how you come up with sounds you’d never normally think of, and how he found it more creative than sound design, which can be laborious and interrupt the creative process.
Do Use Them
When I started out making music, I made heavy use of presets, and still do. When time is limited presets are a fast shortcut to the sound you’re after. There is however an issue of elitism when it comes to using presets, though it appears less prominent today. I remember Anjunaforum users years ago calling out producers for using presets, and there was real purism from some in regards to making all your own sounds from scratch (cue the goat farming meme about drum samples).
The fact is: most producers you know and love use them. A lot.
Here’s a good example of this: in the synth Sylenth1, there is a preset in the first Factory Bank, #392, called ‘Firefly’. If you don’t own Sylenth1 I’ve included a snippet of the preset below.
This preset features in at least four professional tracks I know of:
- 43 by Ilan Bluestone (Anjunabeats): the first bit of the arp can be heard at the beginning of the breakdown.
- Wild Frontier (NSFW WARNING) by The Prodigy (Take Me To The Hospital) : the arp plays from the beginning of the track.
- Prizma by Matvey Emerson (System Recordings): ‘Firefly’ is heavily featured and plays throughout the track.
- Bunsen Burner: a track from the movie Ex Machina
One sound, four very different tracks.
Presets are a wonderful kickstarter for ideas, and a powerful creative tool. Don’t get hung up on whether you should make your own sounds or not. I doubt any of the four above were worried about using that Sylenth1 sequence, nor cared if anyone took issue with them using it. At the end of the day, if the shoe fits, and it’s quite a handy shoe, do wear it.