I want to talk about a few commonly held, but very destructive and LIMITING beliefs about writing music. I want to tackle them head on and debunk these myths. They are:
- If you use presets or samples in your music, you’re “cheating”.
- “Professional” producers never use presets or samples.
- You need to make all your own sounds, from scratch, to be “legit”.
When I was coming up, I used to hear these things ALL the time (usually from other new producers with no more experience than myself). Unfortunately, at that point, I didn’t know any better, so I listened to these people.
I tried making all my own sounds. I wasted countless hours in the studio because I didn’t yet have the ear or the skills to be on the same level as my favorite producers. All that time spent, and I still didn’t have music I was happy with or felt I could be proud of. It was frustrating AS FUCK.
To make matters worse, every time I did find presets I liked, I’d hear that voice in my head saying, “You’re cheating and you’ll be found out!” I carried around a whole bunch of anxiety about using presets. The unfortunate end result was that my music and creativity got stuck and mired up in self-judgement. It held me back.
Now that I’ve been in this industry for 17 years, thankfully I have a better perspective. In addition to being a producer and performer, I’ve been: a ghost writer; a sound designer; a music production teacher for Ableton, colleges, and music festivals; and a remixer. I’ve also interviewed artists like Opiuo, iLL.Gates, Vibesquad, The Funk Hunters, Phutureprimitive, David Starfire, and many more, to get their perspectives too.
Below are some pressing questions I want to answer for you, and dispell some myths in the process. Note that many of the examples use Xfer Serum as the context, because it’s the most widely used and relevant synth in the industry.
Is Using Presets Cheating?
I hear this one all the time. Young producers come to me, stressing because they think they need to design EVERY sound in EVERY song from the ground up to be “legit”. They’ve heard from people that using samples and presets is “cheating”. Let’s put this in perspective for a second by taking a look at a few examples.
Do you think artists beat themselves up about going to the store to buy paint because they didn’t MAKE the paint themselves? Hell no! They grab the paint and go on their merry way without a second thought. They understand that their skill is displayed in HOW they use the paint and combine colors on the canvas, not who made the paint. Paint, in and of it self, is not art. It’s source material that gets transformed into art through the vision, style and talent of the artist.
I play the sax and I’ve been in various bands since I was a kid. I’ve never met another musician who’s felt insecure because they didn’t invent, design and build their own instrument. And if I did, they’d be due for a visit to the shrink! People also don’t shame musicians for buying their instruments.
We have a chance to shift the way we look at our situation and get a fresh perspective too. If we can stop beating ourselves up about this, we can get back to making music yeah?
Do Professional Producers and Sound Designers Buy Presets?
YES. In fact, in many cases, we buy and use MORE presets than beginners. Myself and the other sound designers I know ALL buy presets.
Shocked? Asking yourself, “Why? If they have the skills to make all these sounds why would they buy presets?” Here are just some of the reasons why:
- To study and deconstruct. The pros got to their level by studying hard. One of the best ways to learn or improve their sound design skills is by learning from how others make their sounds.
- Inspiration. We all get into ruts and formulaic ways of doing things. Looking at how someone else built a preset can spark new ideas. Creativity doesn’t flourish in a vacuum. We need external stimulus.
- To fill in the gaps. Personally, I can’t stand making pads, so I don’t! I use presets for the things I don’t enjoy building and focus my energy on the sounds I actually like making.
- To speed up the process. As a pro, releasing music on the regular is essential. With touring taking up a lot of time, efficiency in the studio is critical. Pros use presets as starting points, standing on the shoulders of other sound designers, then customizing them for their own purposes.
- To invest in their craft. At a critical point in thier careers, pros made a decision to get SERIOUS. When you’re in the mindset of a professional, you understand that spending some money to acquire the tools you need is a worthwhile investment.
What Do You Look For When Choosing Presets?
Not all presets are made equal. So what do you look for in a sound bank? The pros look for a few things:
It’s important that presets are versatile. If the synth has Macros, like Serum and Massive, make sure they’re being used. Macros are powerful sound design tools that allow you to explore the full potential of a preset. If Macros are mapped to meaningful parameters, it makes the sound totally CUSTOMIZABLE.
When I’m designing presets for Serum, I force myself to use all 4 Macros, plus the MOD wheel in EVERY SOUND. And I don’t mean making ANY mappings just to use them up. That’s sloppy. I mean mappings that actually do something significant and interesting with the sound. This takes a lot of extra care and attention, but makes the sounds far more VALUABLE.
With expertly mapped Macros, each preset becomes more like 4 presets in 1, and it’s useful in a far wider range of situations.
I look for presets that have innate expression. Not every producer wants to mouse in the sounds by clicking. How does it respond when being played live with a MIDI controller? Is pitch bend set? Maybe the MOD wheel introduces vibrato? Perhaps velocity or aftertouch does something interesting? Is key scaling being used?
As a saxophonist, I love EXPRESSION. I always think about what my presets will sound like when jammed out live and I look for sounds where the designer has thought this through.
Having presets is great, but what else comes with them? Getting extra tools really helps. Things like:
- Wavetables to build your own presets from scratch.
- Videos showing how the presets were built or giving ideas on how to use them.
- Access to the sound designers to ask questions (ie: chat room, forum, Facebook group etc.).
What Do You Avoid When Buying Presets?
The biggest thing that makes me walk away from presets is what I call the “one trick pony” factor. Flat sounds that just do one thing. No tweakability.
Unfortunately, this is pretty common in the industry (with some notable exceptions of course). Overworked, or lazy sound designers getting paid “by the patch” rush to find a sweet spot that sounds decent, and then move on. Mapping Macros, other modulators, pitch bends, and using the synths deeper functions all take more time.
In fact, we had sound designers approach us at Warp Academy with Serum presets to sell in our store and we turned them down flat for exactly this reason. No tweakability.
How Do the Pros Use Presets?
There are specific ways the pros choose and use presets that you’d be wise to take note of.
Treat Them As Starting Points
Pros look at presets as source material; they look at them as starting points, not the final destination. Get presets that have built in playability and tweakability. Approach them with the mindset that you’re going to put extra energy into them and make them your own.
Don’t use them “out of the box”. Change them in some way. You have a ton of options inside Serum, for example, to customize the sound and tailor it to your unique style. There are SO many ways to do this that no one can really have the same sound as you, because it’s near impossible to recreate all the options and settings.
Some ideas to customize presets
- Explore the Macros to see how they can evolve the sound.
- Change the filter type or parameters (in Serum I really like the morphing filters for this).
- Introduce key scaling, velocity or aftertouch to parameters like envelope times or LFO rates.
- Randomize or change LFO shapes for the main modulation source(s) – this is a trick from Datsik who used to randomize the Stepper in Massive when looking for inspiration.
- Swap in new wavetables but leave everything else the same. You’ll get the same movement as the preset, but with a whole new vibe.
- Render the preset to audio, then chop it up, rearrange and reverse some of the clips to get something totally fresh (Opiuo does this).
Add Post Processing
If that wasn’t enough, consider post processing. With audio effects applied after Serum, your options now TRULY become limitless.
Stack & Layer Them
Double up the synth and have the same MIDI pattern play both instances with different presets. Swap presets until you get something that sounds better than either one on it’s own. Because of the way sounds intermodulate, you get crazy new combinations and no one will be able to pick out the source sounds. The Chainsmokers and future bass producers do this all the time with their main chords.
Infuse Personality with MIDI
It’s not just the preset, it’s HOW the preset is being played. Remember the paint example above? The pros imprint their personal style and their own unique flavor by:
- The melodies or harmonies they play.
- The articulation.
- The modulation and automation of parameters like pitch bench, macros or vibrato.
A producer’s “sound” is easily 50% a result of the MIDI notes and automation or modulation (pitch bends etc.). Ever wonder why so many producers can get away with using saw wave basses but still have a unique style?
Listen to almost any Opiuo or Vibesquad track. Their basses are both, primarily (not all), saw wave dominant. Yet each producer has an incredibly unique vibe to their tunes. The finesse is just as much in the WAY they play their synths as much as the sound of the preset.
How Can You Learn From Presets?
We’ve said that the pros use good presets as creative fuel, as inspiration. But how do you study a preset and use it as a stepping stone to amp up your sound design skills? Here are some ideas:
- Get something to take notes. I prefer the free Evernote app for this.
- Take detailed notes along the way to catalog ideas and best practices.
- Open a preset you want to study.
- Disable all the effects.
- Disable any filters (both per voice and master filters).
- Mute (don’t delete) modulation sources.
- Deactivate all but one main oscillator.
- Listen to the sound of the first oscillator, noticing its timbre and any unison that’s been added.
- Note the effect of any Warp modes affecting wavetable readout (for Serum and Massive).
- Note if anything is being done with the phase of the oscillator.
- Unmute any modulation sources affecting that oscillator, noting their effects.
- With modulation, pay special attention to any Aux sources or modulator on modulator mappings (flip to the mod matrix if there is one).
- Enable the filter(s) and listen to their effects.
- Go back to step 4 and repeat for any other oscillators (oscillator B, sub osc, noise osc etc.).
- Pay attention to how oscillators and filters are routed. In Serum, oscillators can be routed through or around the voice filter. This really changes the sound. In Massive, it’s filters can be series or parallel.
- Start stacking on the effects, one by one. As you do this, mute and unmute any modulation sources that may be mapped to them.
After you’ve fully explored the preset, initialize the synth and use your notes to make something inspired by the ideas you wrote down. Do a couple of these every day. I guarantee if you follow this process, you’ll become a better sound designer faster than you EVER imagined possible.
Is Buying Presets Right For YOU?
At the end of the day, only you can decide what the best path is for yourself. I’ve presented a small novel worth of info here that should give you lots to chew on. I’ll leave you with a couple thoughts to ponder. I would consider buying presets if:
- You want to master all the power features of your synth by deconstructing professionally built presets.
- You’re still learning sound design and you’re not 100% happy with the sounds you’re getting on your own.
- You’re going to use the presets as a starting point and then tweak and personalize them.
- You don’t like building certain sounds but you need them in your music.
- You’re looking for inspiration and new ideas for how to build presets.
I hope you liked this post and that it cleared some things up for you about the industry. Hopefully you’re able to get past some of these beliefs that can hold us back in our music. I’d love to hear back from you, message us on our contact form.
Catch ya next time!
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