In this month's post I'm going to take a break from the Ableton Live focus and talk about my other love: synthesis. Specifically, how to make leads sounds that cut, especially in the context of live performance.
Having played synth in several live acts and helped many up-and-comers with synthesis I've not only learned first-hand but also seen others struggle with the common pitfalls in trying to create strong lead sounds.
Here I will share a my personal approach to creating leads, but I'll preface this all by saying there are really no hard and fast rules when it comes to synthesis. The ideas presented here are merely offered as guidelines. Don't be afraid to experiment, as this is key to creating unique sounds.
I'll also mention that you can download an Ableton Live 9 project showing the settings for all of the audio examples in this post: http://snugsound.com/sonic-state/anatomy-of-a-lead.zip
You generally want to start with "sharp" waveforms and synthesis types when creating a lead: sawtooth, square, pulse width modulation, hard sync. As a general rule of thumb if the waveform looks like it could cut then it probably will. Reserve sine and triangle waves for softer leads, like "whistling" and Theremin-esque sounds. (the obvious exception being FM and additive synthesis, but I'm focusing strictly on subtractive synthesis today.)
If you're programming leads on a polyphonic synth then you're generally going to want to put it into monophonic mode. There's no rule saying you can't make polyphonic leads but personally I'm a sucker for glide/portamento and legato filter envelopes.
Cut the low
Sub-oscillators can add interesting harmonics but they'll also produce frequencies that will fight with the kick drum and bass. Before adding a sub-oscillator first find the lowest fundamental frequency in the line you're playing and EQ out everything below. In fact, even if you're not adding a sub-oscillator you should still consider rolling off everything below 150 hz, or even a bit higher if you can do so without affecting the overall tone of your patch.
This is one area where I see new synthesists struggle the most: boomy leads that completely muddy up the low-end. It's understandable that one might equate low-end to "fullness", and this is true of something in isolation, but it's important to keep "context" in mind when programming a sound in isolation. Don't be afraid to tweak your sound in the jam room when it's not sitting right--it's really the best time to make these types of sonic adjustments.
Example 1-a: sawtooth
Example 1-b: sawtooth with sub-oscillator
Example 1-c: sawtooth with sub-oscillator, hi-passed at 155 hz
Lost in space
Go easy on the spatial effects (reverb, delay). While you may perceive these resulting in "bigger" sounds they're actually pushing the sound into the "distance" from the point of view of the listener. Try cutting the spatial effects to see just how much the lead stands out when it's dry, then dial back in a reasonable amount.
If you do feel compelled to use copious amounts of delay and reverb, roll off the lows on the wet signal to reduce the "mud" factor. Also watch your delay feedback and reverb times--you generally want verbs and delays that add some "shine and sparkle", not sound like a concert hall (keep in mind that the space you're playing in is likely going to add some degree of natural verb to the whole mix anyway)
Additionally, you could look at using a ducking delay or reverb. That is, a compressor on the wet signal whose side-chain key is the dry signal.
Example 2-a: lead with a unreasonable reverb and delay
Example 2-b: lead with reasonable reverb and delay; low-cut on reverb