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Tips For Buying Used Synthesizers

Tips For Buying Used Synthesizers

Here are a few tips and guidelines in case you ever find yourself buying used synthesizers (or general music gear):

1. Beware of the tell tale dodgy synth seller signs. If he/she says “I’m selling this for a friend so I don’t know much about it” – stay away. If the ‘buy it now’ price is suspiciously low – stay away. Likewise, remember all the standard seller checks – such as feedback and payment options (in the case of eBay), and check the seller out by searching for his username on the net, and asking around for his reputation.

2. Get to know the seller before hand. Ask him questions such as how long he’s had it, what does he think of it, where did it come from. Ask him to post photo’s if he hasn’t already (actual photos that is – standard promo pictures are not useful), ask him to post sound samples, even ask him to post a video of it in action – this is a practice more and more synth sellers are doing due to the advent of technology such as YouTube.

3. Watch out for all the usual technical problems with old analogue synths. Time is not kind to synthesizers, and many synths have been gigged around and passed between hands many times. Dodgy soldering and clumsy work on the circuit boards are common problems, as well as the knobs and buttons on keyboards becoming rusty or filled with dust and dirt causing them to be sticky or unresponsive. Likewise, the keybed can be damaged – which is often an expensive repair job. If you’re buying new gear, make sure it has the manufacturer’s warranty still covering it for a while.

4. Know the reputation of the specific gear you’re buying. Juno 106’s are well known to actually be Juno 105’s when you get them, as one of the voice chips in them has a good chance of failing. Likewise, the Korg Polysix tends to have ‘leaky battery syndrome’ which can destroy the PCB and render the synth useless. Always check these common problems related to your synth before buying – ask the seller direct questions.

5. If the synth is local, always go and try it out. Sellers are happy to have a potential buyer come over and try it out – and if they’re not then don’t buy from them. Trying out the synth means you’ll know it works just fine (or not), it allows you to pick it up and take it home easily if you do decide to buy it, and you’ll make a new friend and probably get a free cup of coffee too.

6. Some synths just aren’t practical to mail around. The size of certain keyboards such as the Prophet T8 and Yamaha CS-80 or DX-1 are simply too big to safely mail halfway around the world. Don’t take risks with your money just because you want the synth now – wait however long it takes and find one local – rent a large van or truck if you want to be extra safe it reaches you safely.

7. Gear should be packaged properly. Too many times sellers fail to insulate the synth in the box with some sort of padding. This can be anything – old magazines and paper, foam, bubble wrap, just make sure it fits nicely so it won’t move about in the box. Don’t forget that your poor little synthesizer will be thrown in and out trucks and depots with extreme force by the delivery guys, and the last thing you want is it being broken while in transit.

8. When you receive the package, it’s a good idea to take the synthesizer out of the box before the delivery person leaves, so if it’s damaged you can write it on the delivery form or even refuse delivery. If this isn’t possible, check the ‘unchecked’ box on the form – if there isn’t one there to tick, just write it on the sheet.

Bearing all this in mind, it can seem scary to plunge into the world of second-hand synths. Do not fear though, as most of the sellers you will encounter are generally honest, genuine, pleasant folk who do care about making the transaction as smooth as possible. With time and experience you will soon be able to sniff out scams and bad sellers before its too late, providing you with many years of happy synth buying!

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Nine Tips for Live Synthesizer Performances

Nine Tips for Live Synthesizer Performances

Here are nine tips and tricks to make sure your gig goes as smoothly as possible when on-stage with your gear!

1.  Make sure to use proper furniture equipment. This includes heavy duty keyboard stands (try to use a double braced X-style stand for 2 or more tiers of keyboards), and suitable flight cases and rack-mount cases. Expensive as it may be, it will make equipment easier to access, and will prevent it from being damaged by accidents.

2.  Use quality power equipment. If you’re going to a venue you’re not familiar with, do you really want to blindly trust their plug sockets and power sources? If you don’t already have one at home, get yourself a power conditioner to sit in your rack. It can save your equipment if you use one live, and even at home it can prevent damage from power surges. Likewise, if you run on all-batteries, always bring spares.

3.  Only bring synths you really need. Yes, I’m sure it’s fun and cool to have a ton of synths on stage with you, but what if one gets lost or damaged? Make a plan of what synths you need to bring to cover which sounds, and minimize the equipment you take with you. The less you take, the less can be damaged or lost! Also, don’t forget to take unneeded expansion/memory cards out of the synths too.

4.  Don’t bring old analogue gear. An expansion on the previous point – don’t bring old analogue keyboards because they can die at any moment, they go out of tune, and many don’t have patch storage. Unless you absolutely have to bring them with you, you should really look for a more reliable, modern alternative. It also goes without saying that modular synthesizers are not practical live either.

5.  Backup your patches before hand. Should stuff get lost, it’s always useful to have your patches saved somewhere other than the actual synthesizer. In fact, do this even if your not playing live in case your synthesizer dies or becomes damaged at home.

6.  Try recreating patches on other synths in advance, in case one goes down. This is something the best prepared players do, and not only can it save your ass in a sticky situation onstage, but its great programming practice!

7.  Bring spare cables. This applies to practically all musicians who play electronic instruments, but especially to keyboard/synthesizer players as we rely on cables to carry our sound into the ears of the audience. If you’re on a tight budget you don’t have to bring duplicates of all cables, but at least bring a few spare 6.35mm audio cables for the outputs of synthesizers.

8.  Consider your in-ear monitoring. There’s nothing worse than not being able to hear yourself (or the rest of your band) when playing live, so go prepared. Will the onstage monitors really be good enough for you? If not, consider using headphones to hear yourself clearly, or even convert your whole band to using something such as the affordable Shure EC range of in-ear monitoring buds.

9.  Bring your own sub-mixer for your keyboards. If you’re using more than one or two synthesizers, it is an excellent idea to have your own mixer for them. Not only is it an easy way of mixing all your keyboard outputs together, but it prevents cables going all over the place, and allows you to control the levels of your synthesizers.

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10 Tips For Creative Patch Programming – Part 2

10 Tips For Creative Patch Programming – Part 2

6. Lateral thinking

Lateral thinking makes big, complex sounds. Layering sounds works well for creating long, slow sounds, and can add extra punch to shorter sounds. In particular, for creating modulating, sweeping pad sounds try layering multiple patches with each one growing (attack) and disappearing (sustain) after each other.

7. Use multiple filters

Many modern synthesizers feature two independent filters (maybe even multimode), which can be used in a parallel or sequence arrangement. Experiment with both, especially by using unusual filter modes such as band pass and notch filters, and also with sending different oscillators to different filters. Don’t forget that external filter units can be an interesting effect on the end of a signal chain, particularly if they are of an analogue nature – making them useful to warm up digital sounds.

8. SFX Patches

Consider your options for SFX patches. The use of non-tonal oscillator waveforms are a key feature of ‘effects patches’, such as FM waveforms or noise sources. Self oscillation by filter resonance is also useful for creating sound effects, as is the proper use of envelopes and effects.

9. Try emulating the techniques of other synthesizers

Although this is a broad statement, think of the basic concepts of ideas such as wavetables – and then create that idea by setting an LFO to modulate the waveform of an oscillator. Another example would be to set all your oscillators to sine waves, and set them all octaves apart from each – a basic form of additive synthesis which is essential for organ sound emulation.

10. Do unique things with LFOs

LFOs aren’t supposed to be audible right? Wrong. Want to create an FM-style sound but don’t have the correct oscillator waveforms, then try setting an LFO to modulate the stereo-panning using a square wave, and set the rate as fast as you can – instant clangy overdrive! Don’t forget to make use of the ‘sample and hold’ function too, as it is overlooked far too often.

11. Check Your Presets

Ok, there’s just one extra tip…If you’re still out of ideas why not step through your onboard presets for inspiration. Remember that these patches were made by people who spent a considerable amount of time learning the architecture of the synth and want to demonstrate its special features. When you find a patch that you really like, dissect it and look at how the sound is made, then use that same technique on your own patches.

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10 Tips For Creative Patch Programming – Part 1

10 Tips For Creative Patch Programming – Part 1

1. Vary your oscillator waveforms!

Instead of using 2 saw waves or 2 square waves detuned against each other, why not mix a saw wave and a square wave together, or even get creative using noise colours and the oft-ignored sine and triangle waves – mixing waveforms is the starting point to creative synthesizer patches.

2. Understand the ‘Decay’ and ‘Sustain’ elements of envelopes

Remember that the decay is how long the sound lasts at full volume, and the sustain is the volume at which the sound plays after the decay stage - but before the release. These two stages are essential to accurate acoustic sound emulation, and add life and dynamics to any patch.

3. Use envelopes for modulations besides the usual amplification and filter sections

If you’ve got a spare envelope (or on some synths, at least part of one) why not use it to good effect by modulating the oscillator pitch (sounds very D-50 like), PWM functions (good for percussive effects!), oscillator sync effects or ring modulation, or even the level of SFX used. The complexity of modulations performed by a dedicated envelope is far more than that of a bog-standard LFO, and can really add something extra to the start of a sound.

4. Use LFOs

Create performance effects using LFOs. Use the modulation wheel and keyboard velocity/after touch features to alter the sound while playing it. You can create a vibrato effect by setting an LFO to gently alter the oscillator pitch, a wah-wah effect by doing the same thing to the filter frequency, and a tremolo effect by altering the volume (or pan) setting.

5. Use different oscillator pitch tunings

Ever heard what it sounds like when you set one oscillator 5 semitones above the other? Instant funky harmonics! Try doing it with 7ths and 9ths and even 11ths – it creates a jazzy chord feeling. For even more complex oscillator tunings, try using the chord memory function if your synthesizer has one.

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