Blog: Why Presets Are Evil

The joys of the init patch      23/07/13


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?


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 ( to get an idea of how limitations can inspire creativity. Check out some of my synth demos made with only a single synth (, 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.

Greg Cole is an electronic musician, budding writer, photographer, occasional reluctant IT geek and all round hippy. A life-long synth enthusiast he firmly believes that a good synth is a good synth whether analog or digital, software or hardware. He records music as Octopus Empire, claiming it is “genre-spanning”, which is an excuse for not being able to settle on one particular style. 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.



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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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