I watched an interview a few years ago with a great synthesist called Thighpaulsandra, I believe I've also heard the same said by Brian Eno and also Chris Randall of Audio Damage:
“When I buy a new synth, I immediately delete all the presets so I'm forced to learn it.”
This seems extreme I guess but the human mind is a lazy thing and it favors the path of least resistance. While you have 4000 presets, are you really going to sit down, open up an 'init' patch, open the manual and get on with learning this synth? Maybe, and if you are then good on you, but I'd say likely you will give in and before long you'll be drawn inexorably to the preset browser once more. I know I do myself sometimes.
Now wiping your new synth is extreme, some of the presets may be great and maybe you just need them there for speed sometimes so I propose a different way to go about things. Part of the problem as I see it is the price and negligible size of soft-synths.
My first 2 synths were a Yamaha DX21 and a Siel Opera6, I couldn't afford any more than these 2 for years and I didn't really have much room so as a result I had to put many hours into learning them inside out so I could make the sounds in my head a reality. These days it's just way too easy to play with a synth for a while, get bored because you haven't really explored it properly and then just go buy the next shiny one that pops up on Sonicstate, KVR, Synthtopia, Matrixsynth or wherever you go for your daily fix of synth news.
Manufacturers are more than happy to provide you with the next fix to feed your Gear Aqcuisition Syndrome but are you really getting anything with that new synth that you couldn't have achieved with one you already own? Really, how many 2 or 3 oscillator subtractive VA synths do you need? Hell, I'm afflicted myself, I don't buy every new synth that comes out but do I own more soft-synths than I need? Yes I do. Do they all do something different and is each one justified on its own merits? No not really. So I do understand but there are ways to try and break the habit.
When a new synth comes out, look carefully at the specifications before reaching for the credit card. This can be hard to do these days as manufacturers are more likely to have the huge number of presets a synth comes with splashed all over the advert than they are the specs but dig for the nitty gritty of the important stuff. How many oscillators, how many waveshapes do they come with, number and range of types of filters, built in FX, possibly modulation routings and number of slots, what synthesis type, what makes it different?
DOES IT DO SOMETHING THAT NO SYNTH YOU OWN ALREADY DOES?
If the answer is no then do not buy it. If you aren't sure because you really don't know anything about your current synths then do me a favour and go away and read about the stuff you already own. I put as much time as I can manage into reading manuals but I still spot stuff on online reviews or demo vids that I didn't realise a synth I own actually does. I would urge you to try and read the manual for your synth, these are variable in quality but generally pretty good. Also Youtube is absolutely stuffed with tutorial videos on a huge range of synths, hardware, software, DAWs and mixing/mastering technique. This is an amazing free resource and your music and your enjoyment of your instruments stands to gain immensely by taking advantage of it.
So then, 'init'. What's the big deal? Init is not so much about what it is but what potential it offers. Go find the init patch on your favourite synth (f you don't know how then check the manual, google, email the manufacturer or ask in the comments and I'll try and find out or make one for you).
Got it? Good. Crap isn't it?
So about now you're thinking I'm obviously smoking too much or just quietly deluded. Well just wait and let's see if I can change your mind. What you need to realize is that this is where all patches start out, every preset you hear when you browse through them (don't do that now! Stay with me! Step away from the preset browser!) started out like this.
Hard to believe, I know, but it's true. This crappy buzzy noise has the potential to be bent into a pretty much infinite range of amazing sounds. Depending on the synth you're using the range may be slightly more limited but even an apparently limited synth like a Roland Juno 60 has a lot more potential than you would think. At this point go tweak some knobs, slide some sliders, press some buttons and select some stuff from menus. Fun isn't it? If you find something you like then save it, it can be handy to have dedicated sound design sessions like this when you aren't feeling musically creative then when you get to the point of banging out a tune you have some great home-made sounds ready to use.
Experimentation like this should be fun, if not then maybe you just need to get over that learning hump to get to the point of having fun, alternatively maybe synth programming isn't for you but thank you for at least trying. If it is fun then carry on and you will start to get a real feel for how the various controls work but until you start to learn the basics of synthesis you are only going to get so far. It can be frustrating sometimes to not quite be able to work out what controls are doing but don't let that start to push you back towards your preset browser. Pretend that's not there for a while, trust me it'll be worth it in the end.
Now I really don't have the space to go into how all this stuff works within this article but I will look at doing a series of Getting Started type blogs covering a few of the more common synthesis types. For the moment I'll point you at Google, and also in particular these superb resources:
Once you start to get the hang of what's going on with all these controls your confidence will build and I guarantee you'll be amazed at what you can get out of your synths. I'm hoping that also you will get more enjoyment out of the time you spend with them too. So assuming you're still with me and you can see that the Init patch is quite sexy after all where do we go from here?
My recommendations at this stage are:
Concentrate on one synth, maybe two but ideally keep it simple and stick to one; read Ian Afflec's great new blog series on “Limitators” (http://www.sonicstate.com/news/2013/06/24/limitators-creative-limitations-challenge-1/) to get an idea of how limitations can inspire creativity. Check out some of my synth demos made with only a single synth (https://www.youtube.com/user/synthdemo), it's not as limiting as you may think. Maybe challenge yourself to make a track using just one of your favourite synths, if you do then please stick a link on the comments, I'd love to hear it.
If you really don't have a clue where to start then start simple, grab something like the free TAL Bassline, Uno or Noisemaker, U-He's Nexus freebie is also great. If you are more into hardware then pretty much any vintage analog or something like an Arturia Minibrute (no presets!) is a great starting point.
Subtractive is the simplest type of synthesis to get your head around to start off with so start there. Subtractive works by having a couple (or more) oscillators making a fairly basic sound and then having filters which remove (subtract) some of that sound. Sounds boringly simple but when you start changing the waveshapes of the oscillators or modulating (moving) the filter with LFOs, envelopes or step sequences things start to get interesting.
Other common commercial subtractive VA synths would be Massive, Sylenth, Synth Squad, Diva or Oxium and there are many great older VA hardware keyboards that can be picked up for bargain prices these days. These are considerably more complex than the basic freebies so you are going to need to steel yourself and dip into those manuals or tutorial vids to really get the best out of them.
Finally give yourself a break, it's supposed to be fun and if you get sick of not quite being able to understand what's going on then walk away from it for a while and come back to it later on.
Right well that's it for now, hopefully this article has inspired you to have a go at programming and if it has, please share your creations in the comments. If you have any questions please feel free to ask and I'll do my best to help. In the mean time happy programming, remember Init is your friend.
One hell of a hardware sequencer...
We take a look at this very eloquent sequencer