Whether you are using a synth plugin that directly emulates the architecture and sound of a classic analogue synth, or a soft synth with a more cutting-edge approach or different type of synthesis altogether from the subtractive synth icons, there are several key things you can do to make your synth sounds and patches feel more “analogue”.
What do we mean here by analogue? Most would equate the term with sounds that are more alive-sounding, more organic and less sharp or sterile than typical modern sounds, with more warmth, subtle movement and an attractive, unpredictable variation to the sound.
With all the options and relative flexibility presented by modern soft synths compared to actual analogue hardware synths, including software emulations of old hardware favourites, it can still be tricky achieving the very particular balance of simplicity and complexity that goes into creating a satisfying recreation or modern update of “that analogue sound”.
Taking cues from the quirks and peculiarities of vintage analogue synths and applying them to soft synths like NI Massive, Xfer Serum and Sylenth1, producer Jonny Strinati breaks down a few essential tips and techniques for squeezing analogue character from any synth in your collection…
1. Oscillator Retrigger
With most classic analogue synthesisers the oscillator waveforms would be free-running, meaning the wave is continuously running regardless of whether you are playing a note or not. The result of this is a slight variation in each note, as each note will start at a slightly different point in the oscillator’s phase. This kind of slight imperfection is what contributes to the warm and organic sound of classic analogue hardware. With pretty much all soft synths you have the option of whether to have the oscillator phases set to Retrigger or not. With some synths like Sylenth1, where you set it per oscillator, this is on by default, whereas with others such as Massive it’s not. When trying to create analogue sounding synths in your DAW, be sure to find the “Osc Phase Retrig” or equivalent control on your soft synth, and turn this off for a truer analogue sound.
2. White Noise
Many classic analogue synths, such as the ARP 2600, Roland System 100 and Prophet 5, included a noise generator. The noise generator was a great way to add some grit or high end presence to a synth sound. The next time you are working with a synth sound that lacks some brightness try adding a layer of noise before reaching for an EQ or exciter. Xfer Records’ Serum even features a selection of analogue modelled noise sources for you to choose from.
3. Watch The Waveform
Many modern soft synths will offer an array of different waveforms to work with. If you’re working with a wavetable synth like Massive or Serum, the number of different waveforms you could generate is almost endless! And synths such as Spire offer wave options that include things like ‘FM’ ‘Piano’ ‘Robo’ and “Alarm’. When creating analogue synth sounds in your DAW be mindful that the waveforms available on classic analog hardware synths were usually limited to sawtooth, triangle, sine, square (often with some pulse width options). For example, the Roland TB-303 featured a waveform selector where you could choose either a square or sawtooth wave, so when creating classic 303 acid sounds it’s a good idea to stick to these waveforms.
4. Process With Analogue-Emulating Effects Plugins
There’s no shortage of vintage emulation plug-ins these days, and sometimes this is just the ticket for adding some analogue warmth to an otherwise sterile sounding digital synth. One of my favourite developers of analogue emulating plug-ins is Slate Digital. Such recreations of classic hardware processing units have been painstakingly developed to reproduce all the subtle imperfections of the originals, to the point that you can simply run an audio signal through something from Slate’s VBC (Virtual Bus Compressor) range and they will ‘colour’ the sound slightly. Furthermore, some units such as the VTM (Virtual Tape Machine) add machine noise to the signal. Whereas with real tape machines you were stuck with a fixed amount of noise, here you have options to reduce, adjust or remove noise altogether in the settings section, but incorporating a tasteful amount will generally add to the analogue flavour.
5. Use A Hardware Processing Service
Audiohunt is a website that puts you in touch with people willing to ‘hire out’ their hardware, in the sense that you send them files you want processed through their equipment. The list of hardware featured is impressive and ever growing (the site is still relatively new), and you could have your audio processed through anything from a Pultec to an 1176 to a Studer reel to reel tape machine. There is also a ‘Synths’ section, featuring classics such as the Jupiter 8, Polysix and SH-101. So you could, for example, send over a MIDI file to have it played back by a Minimoog Voyager, processed and returned to you, all for an affordable price.
6. Detune for “Analogue Drift”
Something that contributed hugely to the unique character of classic analogue synths was the slight inconsistencies in the playback pitch of oscillators, naturally detuning ever so slightly, producing warm and thick tones. Some soft synths, such as Spire, feature a way to mimic this behaviour with the inclusion of a ‘Drift’ button. However, it’s easy to recreate this effect in any soft synth by simply stacking up 2 oscillators and detuning each one ever so slightly (by a couple of cents in opposite directions usually works well). You could even modulate the pitch of your oscillators with an LFO, keeping the depth very small, modulating in opposite directions if applying to more than one oscillator and making sure the LFO isn’t tempo sync’d or re-triggering. This will provide tiny variations in the pitch of the oscillators, mimicking the playback behaviour of some of the classics.
7. Using Samples or a Rompler
Although not strictly synthesis, there are many sample packs available these days that have sampled classic hardware synths and recreated them in sampler format for you to play back in your DAW at will. All the major sampler formats are typically supported: Native Instrument’s Kontakt, Logic Pro’s EXS24, Ableton, Maschine, Cubase’s HALion, Reason’s NN-XT and the pre-sliced Rex format. There are also numerous Kontakt instruments available. Take Bloq by Sample Magic for example, where classics such as the Jupiter 6, SH-101, Arp Odyssey, Sequential Circuits Pro-One, and many more, have been sampled for playback in a virtual instrument. You also have ROMplers such as Nexus, Trilian and Omnisphere, which are essentially sample libraries wrapped in synth interfaces that play back samples, in most cases multi-sampled hardware classics, providing you with true analogue tones straight out of your DAW.
8. Clever Layering
One technique to add some analogue vibe is to use some layering to beef up and strengthen synths. This could include anything from adding a layer of noise (as mentioned earlier in this post), or using a sine wave sampled from an analogue synth as your sub and layer it underneath your software synth, making sure you sweep any low frequencies away from the soft synth. You could even sample the sound of vinyl and add it to your synth for a ‘vinyl’ effect: simply record the first few seconds of ‘vinyl noise’ when the needle is playing back a record before the song starts. Izotope have actually made life even easier with Vinyl, a free plug-in that when applied to an audio source can make it sound as if it’s being played back on vinyl, adding analogue flavour in an instant!
9. Stay in Mono
Whilst most soft synths support 16 voice polyphony, many original hardware classics were monophonic, meaning only one note could be played back at a time. In fact, in the modern market the majority of affordable analogue synths are monophonic (with only a few like Korg’s Minilogue bucking the trend). It’s easy to activate mono in your synthesiser, and once done be sure to experiment with the portamento and legato settings – the Roland SH-101 is famous for it’s portamento and essential for those elastic rubbery bass hooks.
10. Filter Selection and Feedback
It’s also worth considering what filter types to use when programming your synth sounds. Synths such as Serum and Logic Pro’s Alchemy feature a dizzying array of different filter types to choose from. However, when trying to emulate classic analogue sounds be mindful that most classic hardware synths simply featured either a 12db or 24db low pass filter. So when trying to make a vintage Moog style bass using Massive, opting for the Comb filter isn’t going to produce the truest results.
A feature of the classic Minimoog was the ‘External Input Volume’ control, which allowed users to run a signal from the synth back into itself for an overdriven effect. This trick went on to inspire many synths to include a Feedback control – this feeds the output of the filter directly back into the input of the mixer, as a way to add a warm drive (and some serious attitude if cranked). Many soft synths incorporate some form of filter drive, whether it’s in the form of a feedback control, drive control or even different filter types as with Ableton’s Analog, where the Sym & Asym settings in the filter section offer different levels of drive at the filter stage.
The Best Synth Plugins For Emulating Analogue Sounds
Of course, you can give yourself a head-start when recreating authentic analogue style sounds by starting off with a soft synth that is either closely modelled on a particular hardware classic or draws more general inspiration in it’s architecture and features from a range of synths from the golden age of analogue sound. Here our some of our favourites – not an exhaustive list by any means, but a selection of the cream of the crop:
NI Monark – Faithful Minimoog emulation with some extended features, including a great ‘under the hood’ section for editing playback behaviour
Arturia V Collection 5 – Outstanding recreations of classics such as the CS-80, Arp 2600, Jupiter 8, Prophet and many more.
Audiorealism ABL3 – TB-303 emulating and acid generating, a joy to programme and excellent sound quality.
Roland SH-2 Plug Out Synthesizer – Precise recreation of Roland’s analog synth of the same name, this can be used with or without the System 1 hardware.
D16 LuSH-101 – SH-101 emulation and then some. This thing sounds great and is capable of classic SH-101 style sounds but also so much more. The Arpeggio/Gater section is particularly useful for melodic inspiration.
u-he Diva – Not emulating one synth in particular, but borrowing bits from some of the most well known analogue synths. Diva can be very CPU hungry, but the pay off is the next-level analogue sound it can produce.
Togu Audio Line TAL-U-NO-LX – Arguably the best Juno emulating soft synth on the market, this recreates the sound and look of the Juno 60 excellently. The Chorus sounds superb, and is actually available as a separate (and free) download. The Arpeggiator section also has some really nice features.
Jonny Strinati works as a sound designer for Sample Magic, Attack Magazine and ADSR Sounds and produces under the name Strinner, releasing music on Tulipa Recordings, Selected Records & Natura Viva. soundcloud.com/
Do you have any tricks to share on achieving analogue levels of character or expression with your favourite soft synths? Let us know in the comments below!
For more tips and techniques for getting the most out of all of your plugins and studio gear in your tracks, don’t forget to check out the Ultimate Guides series:
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