Older Synths Can Obtain An Enviable Sound

By: Nux Aug 2011

Older synths, especially those manufactured in the 1980's and those that are more "budget friendly", all to often lack the desirable features that higher end and more modern synths include, such as:

  • Keyboard after-touch / velocity (touch sensitivity)
  • Built in effects (echo, chorus, etc...)
  • Different waveforms vs. only 1 waveform(sine wave)
  • Multi-timbral (layered voices)

Well, with the tips in this article you'll learn ways to get a fat sound out of an older or budget synth in no time. These techniques simply work!

After Touch/
Key Velocity :
After Touch/ Key velocity, can be very expressive and useful. When you really want it you'll wish you had it. This effect is highly desirable and happy to say it isn't impossible to achieve ergo with a pseudo 'Velocity' type of effect. We'll go through this below.

Let's begin by addressing velocity for 'volume' techniques. Most players desiring "organic synth" sounds seldom find 'volume' type velocity necessary but, if you truly need to control the output level of the synth then an external volume pedal can be used, this method is how organ players have always handled this issue. Many synths have a volume pedal controller input option but 3rd party inline volume pedals are relatively inexpensive and easy to find.

Gettting a velocity 'attack' (filter) technique can be done with an out board "synth" FX unit or pedal. Pedals such as stompbox "Bass Synth" pedals are sensitive to level input and when used with a volume pedal in front of the FX chain they can work great for velocity attack (filter) techniques and opens a whole new sound dimension too. I've had great success with the 'Ibanez SB7 Synthesizer Bass' pedal. Makes even the thinnest PCM & 2OP synths sound analogue!

Effects: A lack of built in FX, which are usually limited in user flexibility can be made up for with some external devices such as pedals and multi FX units. Modern FX are sure to be far more flexible than 'built in' FX and the bonus is that as a musician you probably already have some FX in your arsenal and you can use them with other instruments other than your synth. Run an FX chain as follows and you'll always get fat resultss: Distortion-Chorus-Echo.

Multi-wave: When FX are applied to a 'sound' the sound's wave form is altered. That differing wave form is the new sound that is then heard. Any effect applied to a sound will change the wave shape in some way weather it is mild or radical, otherwise the sound would have no noticeable change in character. So, for a lack of 'multi-wave forms' handle that the same as a lack of built in FX, just add external FX and boom new wave forms!

Multi-Voicing :
(layered voices)
Layered voicing can be had in the studio by recording the same played parts on multiple tracks using different patches for each track. Audacity is freeware and though it lacks the many "bells and whistles" you can still make some fine music with it. More serious but budget minded musicians will find REAPER (shareware) a better solution. It offers MIDI support and has many features such as VST/VSTi that packages such as CuBase, ProTools, Sonar, etc offer but at a fraction of the price and the trial version is fully functional.

Hook up a second synth using the MIDI in/out and get true layered voices. Nice thing to this method is you can get layering that is not 2 of the same synth family sounds (ergo FM+FM or Analog+Analog), you can actually mix it up. Many PCM synths from the 90's have midi functionality and are extremely cheap. I recently picked up a CASIO CTK-530 at a second hand store for only $10 USD! Run both synyths through your FX as well!

Software &
Patch Editing :
Edit your patches to compliment your FX and vice versa, this will go a long way in making the right sound. Take time to make your patches work with the FX your using. For instance instead of having a long release time to make a "reverb" sound, shorten the release time and use an outboard echo or reverb FX. You'll quickly notice especially with synths having limited poly that they lose that infamous "dropped note cut off" annoyance.

Also, with great patch editing software like Unisynth by Midimetric for the DX21, DX27, DX100, DX11 & TX81 you can really explore in ways the synth manufacturers could not have realized when they were originally designed.


More About FX

Higher end multi FX units will give you the best sound quality and it will really help you explore the possibilities of your instrument. With your FX dialed in just right even ordinarily plain sounds can be made to sound incredible!

I have had great success using a Yamaha REX50. It has a MIDI function that changes the FX as you change patches. I paid $30(USD) for it second hand and it works exceptionally well. I also use many different FX pedals (i.e. guitar pedals) from many manufacturers such as: analog delay, digital delay, distortion, chorus, tremolo, etc... from many makers such as BOSS, Ibanez, Dano, MXR, etc and all with exceptional results.

In conclusion any FX on your synth is better than none and a Multi FX unit means less clutter for your set up and some are extremely affordable. Stores such as Guitar Center Online have a great selection or visit a retail music shop also check second hand stores & flea markets in your area and of course Ebay.