Preset Prejudices

OK, let’s get all contentious.  Let’s talk about using synth or guitar sound presets, when making music.  For a bit of spice, let’s also talk about samples and loops, while we’re at it.

For those that don’t make music, presets are usually sold with a synthesiser (software or hardware) to pre-configure the controls, so that you get delicious sounds, right out of the box.  The better it sounds in the shop, when you walk up to it and press a few keys, the more likely they are to make a sale.  The problem is that, traditionally, these presets turned up on all of the hit records of era during which the synthesiser was released, so became something of a cliché, which forensic music appreciators can use to date a track to its moment of creation.  Samples and loops are just recordings, so they can also freeze a moment of historical audio time and be used to death.  Often, they were.  When it comes to beats, some loops are such a cliché that entire musical genres have been named after them.

So, there is a temptation to use presets in a lazy way.  That can’t be denied.  Simply choose the most delicious sound in the box and use it ad nauseum, all over your record.  Rick Wakeman (rightly) complains that he is turned off when he is presented with some new music, where he can immediately tell which preset, from which synthesiser, was used on the track.  He finds it distracting and disappointing.  It’s a bit like Tesla not being indignant that people stole his ideas, but more disappointed that they had none of their own, I suppose.  I venture to suggest, however, that those without an encyclopaedic knowledge of factory presets that came with popular synthesisers probably aren’t going to be able to identify the synths and presets like Rick can, so won’t be quite as annoyed as him.  He is officially grumpy, after all.  With VSTi instruments, there are now so many available, that tracing any given present sound to its source has become nigh on impossible, except for the very most overused and overexposed sounds (wub…wub…wub dubstep, anybody?)

Our Rick claims that the first thing he does, when he gets a new synth, is to clear out the preset banks entirely.  He then begins constructing his own sounds.  That’s ok, but it’s a bit hair-shirted, if you ask me.  Firstly, you have to know the synth architecture intimately to get the best out of it.  Secondly, a lot of the new instruments need “food”, meaning source waveforms or audio nuggets (grains) as a starting point.  Where do you get those, if you start from scratch?  Sure, you might have some lying around and more power to you, but for most people, this is a little like trying to obtain a new car by purchasing a self assembly kit for one.  You can do it, but it might not be the sanest choice and there will be compromises that are entirely down to your lack of experience and skill level.  In synth presets, your inability to imagine what some other sound designer already imagined and created might hamper you, as well.  (On the other hand, your imagined sounds might be much better than the guy that made the presets).

I’d rather start from a preset and modify it into something of my own.  Usually, you can get an idea in your head of which way you want to change a preset sound.  Even if you don’t, a few judicious experiments with the available controls will often take you into sonic territory that matches your aesthetic senses.  I think presets are an excellent jumping off point.  Would I ever use a preset that I made no modifications to?  Hell yes!  Sometimes, the skill is in the curation, categorisation and collection of the sounds and presets that suit your music best, not in creating them from source or scratch.  Knowing how to find the exactly right sound for the music you are making is, in my view, as valid a skill as being able to conjure it out of a preset-cleared synthesiser.

I’m also a painter and I like to use pre-mixed colours.  Sometimes I mix from rudimentary, pure pigments.  Sometimes I limit myself to primary colours.  But I have to say that I find pre-mixes to be exceptionally useful, because they offer a short cut to where you want to go, with your colour palette and a consistency that you cannot achieve easily by mixing your own.  If pre-mixed colours are analogous to synth presets, then I have to say both are a good and useful thing.  More than that, starting with presets or premixed colours is not harmful, especially if you blend and take the colours or sounds in your own direction.  Don’t forget that there are still the brushstrokes or musical performances that will further modify a pre-mixed paint colour, on the one hand and a preset synth sound, on the other.  I’m all over the analogies today, aren’t I?

For those painters that say I am not a purist, for my use of pre-mixed colours, or for using paints that combine a number of pure pigments in a single tube, instead of using single, pure, unadulterated pigments from separate tubes and performing my own voodoo magic to get the colours I want, by mixing the right proportions of the constituent pigments, on my own palette and canvas, I ask those critics if they grind their own pigments.  Usually not.  You can grind your own pigments and make your own paint, but most painters don’t and there’s a good reason for that.  There is little to be gained, through the process and much that will result in a poorer result than a triple-milled, factory-produced paint.  For one thing, you’ll waste an awful lot of time that might have been better spent painting.

I think exactly the same thing applies to synth presets.  OK, I might not start with pure sine waves and work from there.  So what?  I didn’t manufacture my own transistors and electronic components, either.  I have built synthesiser modules of my own, from parts, but there was little gained and often something lost, in doing so.  The people that make synths every day, for a living, get better at it than I can when fabricating the odd circuit, occasionally.  I am also in the odd position of having made synths every day, for a while, in a professional synth company, in my twenties.  Even I can’t make a run of occasional synth modules that are as good as a production run of several hundred and I used to do it!  And anyway, I never have made my own resistors or capacitors.  I don’t know many engineers that have (though I did once meet the creator of the Gilbert Multiplier, which is a fundamental piece of all analogue synthesisers).

What about soft synths?  Those presets are just parameters and algorithms.  Again, I don’t think even the likes of Rick Wakeman write their own algorithms, or programme their own machine code.  I know that Rick has commissioned people to do that for him, but then, how is that different from using a preset?  If the filter signal processing code comes from the DSP programmer, then isn’t he in danger of finding the same filter sound on other people’s records?  Shouldn’t he have to do a clean room version of his own filter code, to sound unique?  Of course not!  That would be absurd.  That’s why the line between using a preset and making your own synth sound is actually not as crisp as some would have you believe.  It all depends on what you do and don’t count as pre-existing sound making stuff.

I have friends that make jewellery.  One of my friends selects beads from different and diverse sources and puts them together, with some original design sense and some bespoke precious metal work, to create custom jewellery for discerning clients.  I have another friend that sits in front of a propane flame with coloured glass rods, creating the beads.  Is one kind of jewellery better than the other?  I don’t think so.  Is the designer that finds and combines other people’s beads making a less original piece of jewellery than the designer that shapes molten glass into pieces of genius that never existed before?  I also don’t think so.  Both have ample opportunity to inject their creative uniqueness.  That’s why I think starting to make your own music with synth presets, or samples, or even loops, is not necessarily a bad thing.  It all depends on where you inject your own unique creativity.

In film making, some director’s go to pains to shoot every shot, from scratch.  Others cut in stock footage, when that is the right thing to do.  Stock footage is just the cinematic equivalent of a synth preset.  It’s a piece of pre-prepared artistic stuff that you are applying for your own purpose.  In fact, there are some films, particularly historical narratives that are made more powerful through the inclusion of period stock footage.  Think about Oliver Stone’s movie JFK.  What would that film have been without the inclusion of the footage of the time?  Of course, Stone went to great lengths to recreate the look and feel of that old footage, when shooting his own, contemporary, original scenes, but the combination of the two is what made the movie work, at one level.

Could you make an entire film from stock footage?  The seminal series The World at War almost did.  Whereas the narrative voiceover was new, much of the series consisted entirely of World War II newsreel footage.  It was all the more powerful because of it.  This is why I think that, in the right hands, an entire record can be made from synth presets, samples and loops.  I think it’s better to intercut that with real, contemporary performances by actual musicians, but my assertion is not like the hard and fast rule that some audio engineers and musicians insist upon as the only valid form of musical expression: recording everything anew and taking nothing from presets, samples or loops.

To me, that insistence on everything being real and nothing being bought in is just a form of closed-minded, inflexible thinking, bordering on snobbish bigotry.  You don’t need a computer to make music and you can do it with just some old guitars and yard sale drums, but if you have a computer, who says you ought not to combine it with your voices, pounding and strumming?  The same people that eschew presets, samples and loops think it ok to use session musicians and guest spots from people not in their band.  What’s the difference?  You’re just time-shifting the session player.  Would the music become more real if the preset programmer or musician you sampled turned up in the studio and did exactly the same thing they did to create the preset, sample or loop, but witnessed by you?

Here’s another way to look at presets, especially if they are instantly recognisable from another era of music.  What better way to add retro references and flavour to your music than to parachute an ancient, distinctive preset into your contemporary song?  It’s no different to adding a phase shifter on the guitar, a tea towel on the drums or a little slap back echo on the lead vocal.  Using an old E-Mu, Fairlight or M1 preset can readily evoke the values and associations, often very powerful in the minds of the listeners, from an earlier time.  Dusty old presets can be used as time machines.

Don’t get me wrong.  You can start with a blank synth and programme your own sounds, if you want (who’s to stop you?), but it’s a hit and miss business, you might never get the sound you want, it’s time consuming and bound to be constrained by your own experience base.  That said, it’s a nice thing to do, if you have the time and a comprehensive understanding of your synth’s architecture.  On the other hand, it could also waste a lot of time, of which most project musicians are typically very short, since they have to make music in stolen moments, around the rest of their working lives.

Making your own sounds from scratch is also a procrastination trap.  You can spend all your time doing that, to avoid the nasty business of actually finishing your song.  You can wind up making presets, instead of finished tracks.  That’s not the goal.  (Although the same trap applies to collecting and curating sounds, too, actually).

Over the years, I have gotten to know lots of synth preset sound designers.  I know people that programmed for the Moog Polymoog, when it was brand new, through to the early Roland synths, the Fairlight, the E-Mu and various contemporary programmers of more modern soft synths like Massive and Absynth.  Many of these sound designers are actually composers or songwriters.  They all do more than just make presets.  However, when they are making sounds for others to use, they put a lot of heart, soul, taste and care into the process.  The average set of presets is the result of countless hours of effort, coming up with fresh sounds, with a composer’s perspective.  They apply their own finely tuned ears and their musical imaginations to coming up with delectable, immediately attractive sounds.  The best designers know how to make these sounds work in the context of a mix, not just as solo sounds on their own.

So, if you consider stocking up your sonic arsenal with some presets and sound banks made by these people, you are greatly extending the range and palette of tonal colours available to you, when you begin to make your own music with them.  Your collection of presets is bound to be unique, because there is so much choice available, but you can choose to buy from people that provide interesting colours, tones, sounds and approaches.  That act of “selection by purchase” already does something special to your own musical art.  Think of it as buying another tube of paint of a colour you didn’t have before.

And what value!  Some of the sound design you can buy for the price of a decent lunch is extremely intricate and detailed.  So much so, that you would struggle to replicate the sounds as cheaply, in your own time or in studio time.  Presets represent incredible value for money.

Here are my top ten tips for incorporating presets, samples and loops into your own music, without losing your unique sound (and maybe even enhancing it):

1)      Start with a preset and begin by modifying it.  You can always start again, if it goes badly.  Often, it goes well.  Presets are great places to start.  Take a control and change it.  See what you get.

2)      You learn something every time you copy from a master.  When you start from a preset or sample that a professional sound designer made, note what you learn.  However, you are under an obligation to take what you learn and move it on further.  That’s how learning works.

3)      Use presets to inspire your musical compositions.  As part of the song writing or composition process, start with a preset and see where the mood of it takes you, as you begin to noodle about with it.  It’s amazing what possibilities can be opened up by the emotions suggested by somebody else’s sound design.  A good piece of sound design can suggest an entire musical work to you, if you care to let it.  It’s a fragment of sound that kick starts your musical imagination.

4)      Loops are great to establish a beat, especially when you are lacking one of your own, but you can also slice them and rearrange them, with most modern DAWs.  Learn to use that feature to replace the sounds in your loop, or to modify the beat into something different.

5)      Samples are like clay.  You can tweak found-sounds or sample library sounds, shaping them to your own purpose.   You can process them to the extreme, stretch them, invert them, crossfade them, layer them, mangle them, chop them up, truncate them, change the loop points in the sample and produce something of your own, that never existed before.

6)      Guitar effects and modelling amplifiers now come with presets.  Never be too scared to accidentally destroy a present that you love, by tweaking an existing one and failing.  Learn to restore the factory defaults.  You’re safe.  Tweak to your heart’s content.

7)      Use a librarian programme to manage your presets, samples and loops.  You need to be able to replace the presets in the machine or programme you are using, choosing from a large range of things you bought or made.  Being constrained to the number of presets available in the machine is a tragedy.  I am certain that there are more than one hundred decent guitar sounds possible, using my Fender Mustang III v2 amplifier, for example.

8)      A librarian will help you to organise your particular favourite sounds, putting them into banks that correspond to songs, for example.  This is invaluable when you need to make changes to the track at some future time, or when trying to figure out how to play your recorded music live.

9)      Don’t let presets constrain you.  Use them to expand your tonal vocabulary.  Let them move you outside of your own sonic comfort zones, let them inspire you and let them excite you.  That’s what they were designed to do.

10)   Start here, but always take presets, samples and loops in your own direction, however you achieve that.  Don’t be a preset and sample juke box, simply replaying the work of others as your own.  Shape it and mould it.  This is the stuff of aural and musical manipulation, so take advantage of its plastic properties and create.

My view is that you should use presets, samples, loops and other sound materials supplied by other musicians (legally licensed, of course) without guilt.  There is no shame or loss of face in using a synth preset, or a guitar sound created by somebody else.  Often, it’s the best choice.  Combining these with your own signature sounds just provides more interest for your listeners.  It’s a sin to bore an audience, so anything you can use to keep your music from becoming predictable and mundane has to be embraced.

However, allow yourself to use these things as starting points, which give you a head start when it comes to creating sounds and music that nobody has ever heard before.  The range on offer has never been so broad, meaning that the chances of using (or overusing) a particular sounds are pretty low, even if you gravitate toward super saw presets.  Let these elements open up your musical and tonal gamut, as if painting with entirely new colours that never existed before.  Presets can be very liberating and can unlock all kinds of unsuspected musical motifs.  Above all, just play.

And if you’re one of those purists that thinks every sound created has to come from the hands or voice of the musician making the music, on the very first take, I’m sorry for you.  You’re missing out on something good.

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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