(compMus2) FM Synth Tips 2

Composing, Creativity, and Instrument Programming

One of the things that gets overlooked in talking about synthesis programming is the relationship between programming/creating synth patches and composition. When we write music for acoustic instruments we don’t have to worry about designing the instrument that will play our music. It’s properties are well-known, and we choose to either take advantage of them or not, or in some cases to entirely subvert them. But we usually don’t spend a lot time thinking about “composing a clarinet sound,” or a piano sound, etc.

When we program patches on a synthesizer (hardware or software) we’re actually composing music at the same time. We can create sounds that have gestural/musical content built in to a single note. Roads talks about this early on in the Computer Music Tutorial. He talks about how standard music notation fails as a system for representing computer music, and that even our language of “notes” is inadequate. He uses the term sound object, which is intended to encompass the musical aspect of single sounds in a computer music piece.

So you’re thinking, “that’s nice, but what do I do with Tassman?” First, think about programming sounds in two ways: making presets with interesting timbres (“I like that sound”), and making presets that does something, or things, of interest over the course of a single “note.” You also need to progress from the general to the specific, and as you find interesting sounds you should explore making more subtle (small) variations to the preset to find a variety of related sounds that you can combine into a coherent piece.

Start by finding some M:C ratios that produce interesting timbres (sounds you like). You may find a single ratio that you like, or probably a handful of ratios. Be sure to listen to your sounds in different registers. There can be very noticeable differences.  It can be very compositionally effective to explore transitions between a limited number of inharmonic ratios/timbres, or between inharmonic and harmonic ratios. My recommendation is to limit yourself – maybe no more than five ratios, max. Less can easily work as well.

Once you find some basic ratios/timbres that you like, start exploring envelopes and overall gain settings. What kind of music do you want to make? Do you want a lot of rhythmic material? Then you need some presets that have fairly quick attacks, and you don’t need to focus a lot on the sustains of your rhythmic presets. Sustaining sounds need attention to the held part. Can you change the speed of amount of an lfo, a filter, the gain level of the modulator? These are all parameters that can provide some interesting compositional uses for your presets.

If you like a certain timbre for attacks, see what happens when you change its envelope settings to create a sustain sound. You’ll most likely have to adjust some oscillator levels, and maybe make some small tweaks to the M:C ratio. But you end up with a sustain sound that is related to your attack sound is some way.

Thinking compositionally, if you want at least a couple of “layers of activity,” you probably want to differentiate the types of timbres, envelopes, and/or speed of events between layers. The easiest way to think about this is to create sounds that can be used in a faster moving layer (more rhythmic potential), and sounds that can be used in a sustaining layer. Within each layer you can have more than one timbre and/or preset. Think about whether you prefer continuity or contrast. Continuity favors a connection between events, but the connection doesn’t have to happen in every parameter. It’s possible to use the same envelopes but slightly different M:C ratios and still have continuous material. If you prefer contrast, then you need to consciously think about how to maximize that aspect while still having enough of a connection to make musical sense. Sometimes the repetition of contrast is enough to be successful.

Finally, and this may seem counterintuitive, but the more interesting a single sound object (from a preset), the less you will be able to use it without it becoming a cliché. If you think of interesting as relating to its gestural and musical content, then this makes more sense. If a single sound creates an interesting musical gesture, then it will need to be developed (changed over time), rather than simply reused.


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