Blog: Why Presets Are Evil

The joys of the init patch      23/07/13
Blog: Why Presets Are Evil


Ok, let's get a few things straight from the start here:

  1. Actually I don't really think presets are evil, many people who use synths have no time or inclination to find out how to program them and benefit hugely from the work done by the many preset programmers out there and just get on with making music. I totally get that. This article is aimed more at the many synth-users who use presets because they are overwhelmed by the idea of programming or just find it's too much effort because they don't know what they're doing.

  2. Presets can be a way of learning how synths work. They can be a way to see how someone may have used part of a synth in a way you may not have thought of and tweaking presets is at least a start towards programming your own stuff and being original.

  3. I use presets. There, I said it. "Hypocrite" I hear you cry. Yeah yeah ok, let me clarify. If I choose to just flick through a few presets it's because I either don't have time to start from scratch right now or more likely I know I have a preset which fits exactly what I want for a track. Often the patch is something I've created at another time during a dedicated sound design session, sometimes it is a preset that came with the synth. Some of the people working on presets for some of the bigger synths are far better and more inventive programmers than me and there are times when their sounds are exactly what I'm looking for.

So, I'm not making any sense, are presets evil or not?

Let's start by saying this: Samplers were designed to sample, not just playback from huge libraries and Synthesizers were designed to synthesize! To create new sounds not heard before, to start from basic elements and craft a noise so devilishly intricate that listeners would wonder if someone had dropped something hallucinogenic in their morning tea. My feeling is that if you have a synth and you are not exploring it, bending it to your will, finding out everything it can do (and then pushing it to do more) then you are missing out.

If you buy a synth, scroll through the presets, get bored and then go buy another one then you are missing out. You're also wasting money. Yeah ok life is short, people are busy, Facebook status updates have to be read, Coronation Street is on shortly and for goodness sake who has the time to read manuals and learn how these complicated things work!? Well fair enough, life is busy but honestly I believe that as a musician you stand to gain massively more from owning 2 synths that you know inside out than 10 that you've barely scratched the surface of.

When you create a sound for a track, especially given the complexity of synths these days, it's possible, likely even that you just made something 100% original. It's possible that the sound you just used on that track has never been heard before.

If you'd used a preset then anyone who buys that synth has access to that sound and could also use it on their track. That's not always a problem of course and with modern DAWs it's possible to layer track upon track ad infinitum so maybe nobody will notice you used a preset but there is something special in knowing you just made a track using 100% or even 50% sounds you created.

There is a lot of music around these days, so much so that getting heard above the white noise of free downloads created in bedrooms world-wide can be nigh-on impossible. But I guarantee that you are more likely to get heard if your starting point is originality and I believe this starts from crafting new and original sounds. You may think the listening public don't identify presets, sure they probably don't know the exact patch or synth it came from but you can be sure that hearing the same sounds over and over will have people flicking to another track before you can say Attention Deficit Disorder.




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20 Comments...  Post a comment    original story
Connor    Said...

Greg, another great article! When I got my AX-80 I ran through the presets just to see what someone else had made before doing my own funky thang. I like my CS-15 though for the reason that it has no presets or no such memory bank so that I have to create everything from scratch almost and I love that.

23-Jul-13 08:52 AM


Lagrange Audio    Said...

One of the fundamental things that has changed over the years is why and how presets are used. In the 'old' days of hardware the idea of even saving presets was considered revolutionary. I could be wrong here but wasn't it Dave Smith and the Prophet 5 that started all of that with a collection of just 44 presets on that machine? For every machine that has come since memory was limited but for hardware designers it wasn't just about providing the ability for users not to lose their edits, it was also about demonstrating what the machine is and what it can do. For those old enough we have all done this, walked into our local music store to check out that latest bit of kit and fired up Patch #1. That patch in an instant should speak volumes about the instrument and the ethos and design principles around its architecture. It should possess enough 'wow' factor to actually get you to select Patch #2. That patch should say 'hey, Patch #1 was pretty cool, well guess what, I can do this too!!' and so on. Further each successive preset should paradoxically encourage you to actually modify it. If the patches can do that it's the sound designer who has sold it on behalf of the manufacturer. The majority of software instruments today have substituted this design approach for quantity and contentiously I would suggest that just because you can have 5000 presets doesn't mean that you should. The reality is that while there are many wonderful software instruments available to us, very few actually tell their own story through their shipped presets. Thanks Greg for the great article and this: "He's also a firm believer in the effectiveness of a small studio setup, limitations and knowing your gear well and programming in preference to use of presets. His favourite colour is orange." I have to disagree on the last part though, my favourite colour is green :)

23-Jul-13 09:05 AM


Ted    Said...

Presets are are weird. People get defensive about them - accusing someone of "using a preset" is a low blow in some circles.

Presets are really only an issue on virtual analog synths - hardware and software. It's because they use the principles of analog subtractive synthesis but are generally much deeper and powerful. The engine is the whole point, but to some it might as well be a ROMpler.

With VA you have this extremely flexible engine that can run a mind-boggling modulation matrix. There's a virtually infinite number of parameter choices.

Yet some people buy these things, flick through the presets, and get bored quick. Worse still, some people judge synths based on the presets. Most digital subtractive synths that meet a minimum power criteria can be programmed to sound 99% IDENTICAL. Sawtooth waves don't come in many flavors. Lowpass filters usually shave off the top frequencies. LFOs come in a few shapes.

I generally like to delete all presets after having spent a little time with new gear. There's something exciting about starting at zero. It's like a road trip with no GPS.

23-Jul-13 11:44 AM


Drkimono    Said...

Don't let a synth in the studio till I've reprogrammed it. Take the best of what's there and either mess up the remainder till something happens or start from scratch.

23-Jul-13 12:49 PM


Mattsynth    Said...

I use presets as a starting point. If I need a string like sound I will start with a string preset and tweak it to my liking. This saves precious studio time and give me more time to play and write music. Some of my synths are so complex that you need presets as a starting point or you will wind up spending hours & hours programming. Programming can be fun sometimes but I would rather be writing music.

23-Jul-13 01:39 PM


Sound Resign    Said...

I agree with this guy, but his "I know everything" attitude is annoying, specially after listening to his music. It's nice, but nothing special in the sound design department. Ironically everything sounds like a collection of presets. Words without backup.

23-Jul-13 03:22 PM


Atomic Shadow    Said...

I believe that if someone is going to take a poke at a chap he should be required to put up or shut up. Thus Sound Resign must post a link to a SoundCloud account or website where can all be dazzled by his/her unique sonic creations.

23-Jul-13 03:37 PM


Sound Resign    Said...

I don't remember that Sound Resign ever said that he is making music, or that he needs to show to other people how to make sounds. This is not about Sound Resign mate, chill.

23-Jul-13 03:44 PM


Benedict Johnson    Said...

This is a really interesting subject for me, as somebody who has only very recently started programming his own synth patches after 25 years of playing piano and violin (instruments on which I must confess, I have only ever used presets).

I don't know if this is a contrary opinion or just another opinion, but I think attitudes towards presets have a lot to with whether you are in the mind of a "performer" or "producer". I would venture that keyboard players who mainly play in bands and don't have home-studios are more compromising about their sounds than enlightened mouse-producers who know their options.

I'm not talking about crusty, vintage synth owners here (like Nick) but Gaia/Ultranova/Korg MicroStation performers (of whom you can bet there are more of than Prophet 8 pot edition and MiniBrute performers).

Incidentally, after having sold my Korg Radias several years ago, I have become obsessed with the limited range of the synth-section on the Nord Stage 2. I have never saved a patch on it and prefer to build something new from scratch every time.

Thanks Greg, your music sounds brilliantly produced with lots of great sound-design choices. I've really enjoyed this article and I shall look forward to reading more.

(I'd be interested to hear how anyone else regards my bold claims about the divide-not-including-arbitrary-overlap between performers and producers.)

23-Jul-13 05:17 PM


Paul Williams    Said...

Nice article Greg.

For those of you that don't know me let me state now that 'I am a preset user'. Though I also do a lot of programming of my own sounds.

I like the comment above about performers and producers, although there is clearly room for crossover there. In my opinion dance music producers are probably the worst culprits when it comes to using presets but do the people crammed into s sweaty nightclub really care? Are presets really evil or is it just when they are over used. Ultimately I think presets are OK as long as you use them creatively is OK.

24-Jul-13 01:24 AM


brian from usa    Said...

I don't know why this is such a popular topic. It shows up in forums everywhere and gets everyone all lathered up. Presets wouldn't exist if there wasn't a market for them.

24-Jul-13 06:24 AM


Ted    Said...

Presets: You just don't have true ownership over the end product - it contains someone else's work. If someone compliments it, who are they complimenting? If you buy a cake from the bakery, toss a few berries on top, and then someone tells you how good it is, you don't say "thanks, that's all me!"

What is more impressive about Switched-on Bach? The musicianship (played at half speed and sped up in post) or how each individual orchestral sound was created from scratch on a modular Moog system, creating an otherwordly impression of a real orchestra?

Presets are not really evil or good - but you sure don't get your money's worth when you buy a modern VA and stick to presets and downloaded patches, all trying to sound like everyone else.

24-Jul-13 10:11 AM


Ted    Said...

THEE Paul Williams?

24-Jul-13 10:13 AM


Atomic Shadow    Said...

Sound Resign said.. "...but nothing special in the sound design department. Ironically everything sounds like a collection of presets. Words without backup."

Seems OK to ask to hear examples of your sound design since you have written of Greg's as nothing special. Words without backup indeed.

I say this with all due chillness.

24-Jul-13 02:07 PM


Enteledont    Said...

quote:Ted Said... Presets: You just don't have true ownership over the end product - it contains someone else's work. If someone compliments it, who are they complimenting? /quote So those poor piano, violin or harp players don't have true ownership over their own work?

I think this is getting ridiculous ...

25-Jul-13 01:30 AM


Paul Williams    Said...

This is a Paul Williams, question is, are you the Ted?

25-Jul-13 03:00 AM


Spinkterbrain    Said...

Subjective...It is ! I love my analogues & enjoy making my own patches but i have owned a few v/a's & a couple of wave based synths. I am always of the opinion that if you're going to produce something & stand behind it claiming ownership for it then it should genuinely be your own work. What's your own work then ? You have to edit the preset to fit the mix anyway so it's never going to be JUST a preset, there's still skill required. I just got hold of an old korg micro x & find the preset sounds fantastic. There are times when i have constructed a track of all my own edited & constructed sounds, drums, bass, pads or whatever from scratch or manipulated samples and then just reach for an appropriate preset to edit into the mix. Works for me & it's no different from taking a sample from somewhere & then twisting it to create a new sound. OR, another way to look at that is that a raw saw wave say that a million people have in a given synth is the same sounding wave but is manipulated in different ways by each user. That saw wave is a preset ! Who owns it ? Anyway...That's that.

25-Jul-13 06:21 AM


rezazel    Said...

e.g. The Prodigy used Prophecy presets and did rather well, if I'm not mistaken :) I think the problem nowadays is, that with software synths not only those people who bought the product are able to use the presets, but also all those ****** who pirate the software.... With hardware synths this was much less of a problem... at least I haven't heard of thousands of people walkling out of instrument stores without paying :) BTW, my piano has also only one preset :)

25-Jul-13 08:22 AM


jsepeta    Said...

Sampling is only the first half of what you can do with a sampler. The second half is PLAYBACK which usually goes through a synthesizer-like data path / audio path, which means you have access to ADSR envelopes and filters and LFOs and all that. The reason that Emu samplers were so revered was because of this architecture and their "z plane filters".

26-Jul-13 09:04 AM


Ted    Said...

Paul Hamilton Williams, Jr?

Yes, this is the one (and only) Ted.

31-Jul-13 07:58 PM


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