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By Rick Stanek
Do you find yourself musically uninspired? Has the thrill you experienced when you first fired up your synth turned into the blues? Are your musical creations starting to all sound the same?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you may have a case of the synthesizer blahs. It's easy to be seduced by the great preset sounds that came on your favorite keyboard and never venture into programming your own voices. A recent poll found that 95% of synthesizer owners use only the preset "program" sounds and never modify them or create their own. However, follow this timid path and you'll be missing out on one of the coolest features of your keyboard or module--programmability. This feature is a powerful tool that can make your music stand out from the crowd.
Most synthesizers offer at least some programmable presets in addition to the factory sounds. Consult your manual and scroll over to the "user" presets on your synth. The user presets in your keyboard let you change the sonic building blocks used in constructing a sound, including elements like oscillators, envelopes, attack, decay, sustain, release, and effects. Pick a user-programmable sound and Scroll through the LED screen until you reach the oscillator section. At this point, try substituting a different oscillator wave for the one that forms the basis of the sound (i.e., substitute a square or triangle wave for a sine wave.) This simple act will make a radical or subtle change in your preset sound. Many of today's synth sounds consist of multiple oscillators. Try changing the different oscillators and experiment with the interplay of the different sounds.
Continue scrolling through the patch until you reach the envelope section. Here you'll be able to shape your sound with the elements of attack, decay, sustain, and release. Try changing a drum sound's normally quick attack to slow, and the sound assumes a very different character. Give a slow-attack instrument like a wind or string instrument a quick attack for a staccato percussive sound. Experiment with changing the other envelope parameters and hear how the sound changes.
Many synths have various filters, including high-, low-, and band-pass filters, which mask various frequencies of sound in your patch. Try applying various filters to see how the voice is affected.
Move over to the effects section and try applying reverbs, delays, chorus, flanging, and modulation to your sound. Remove the effects from effects-laden patches and discover how the patch sounds completely "dry." Once you've moved through all the programmable parameters and molded the sound to your liking, be sure and save your preset. Most synths will allow you to rename your newly-modified preset as well.
Another way to expand your sonic palette is to search for downloadable sounds on the Internet that the manufacturer or users groups have posted online. Musicians and gear geeks have come up with thousands of great sounds for most popular brands of synthesizers, just waiting to be discovered.
The main thing is to experiment. At the very least you'll learn a lot about the way sounds are constructed in your synth, and it's more than likely you'll create some great voices that will let you express yourself with the precision and individuality you seek.