Crafting your synth sounds is hard enough as it stands. But adding in the process of recording those sounds and then fitting them into a mix can really be a hassle. At least I sure find this to be the case in my situation. So, if you too have struggled to get your synth tracks where you want, I have rounded up some basic tips that have helped me and many others greatly.
Take Advantage of Your Initial Patch Design
One of the best parts about recording synths is that you can be in the mixing mindset as you are building out a song. Start by creating a patch or drum/beat that inspires you, then design sounds to fit in with that. This is a great way to make the later mixing a much easier process. If you are able to design your patches to fit with what you already have, things like adding EQ will just be slight adjustments. This is understandably not the creative process that will work best for everybody, but it does work for plenty of people out there. If you have yet to try this method, I highly recommend that you give it a go.
Tryout Different Preamps
(Obviously, this one only applies to hardware synths) Synths and keys are very responsive to different front-end gear. Specifically, different preamps can alter how happy you are with what is going into your DAW. Nowadays, built-in preamps, like that of the Scarlett line of interfaces, are very good at what they do. However, many home recordists find that getting into external/dedicated preamps is very helpful in making synths come alive. There is a lot to be said for putting a nice analog synth sound through a solid tube preamp. Often this process can lead to a warmer, more desirable tone that is easier to mix with.
You do have to be careful with making assumptions about preamps. While many people are looking for that warm analog sound, it might not be what you want. If you are trying to get more modern electronic tones, there are plenty of great solid-state pres that would likely serve your purpose better. Always be sure to do your research and listen to a lot of demos before buying any outboard gear, this stuff is expensive!
Don’t Use Headphones (as your main monitors)
Okay, guess this is more of a mixing tip for no matter what instruments you are working with. But using headphones as your primary monitors, even if you know them well, is not ideal when trying to mix synths. A big problem you will run into is your stereo field will be much more polarizing than when played on speakers. If you’re not careful, this can lead to a disorienting mix when played back on a stereo or in a car. Especially if you do much with panning or ping pong delay type stuff, headphones are not the way to go.
Some may be wondering, “but what if I have some really high-end and great sounding headphones”. Unfortunately, they are still probably not ideal. You still run the risk of getting a rough representation of the mix. This is getting into the other main issue with mixing on headphones, frequency response. Most headphones have things like increased bass and some high-end roll-off to compensate for being right next to your ear. Clearly, we don’t want this sort of coloration when mixing a track. This can negatively affect the way you work with any synth, but bass/mono tones are at the most risk because of the boosted frequencies.
With all that said, a lot of people will be listening to your tracks on headphones. There is nothing wrong with checking your mix, just to ensure everything is translating the way you want it to. But let a solid pair of studio monitors be the ultimate judges in your mixing process.
Avoid Excessive Sound Variety
There is no doubt that layering synths are one of the most fun parts of producing music. Adding in filter sweeps, pads at the bridge, or doubling (tripling, etc.) lead lines is just the start to the list of common techniques. These are all addictive and almost second nature to many of us. However, there are plenty of issues that come with this type of routine. Besides all the potential creative problems, oftentimes you can easily run into too many sound types when adding in layers.
The issue with having an excessive number of different sounds/instruments in a recording is the overall “message” can be diluted. The human ear can only process a certain amount of short-term information, so make a point to consider this when layering. If you want your tracks to all feel and sound cohesive, consider using less of them. It also helps to remember that everything you add to a song should have a purpose. This means avoiding textures and sounds if they really don’t better what you’re doing as a whole.
Let EQ Glue Your Synths Together
Once you have all of your sounds and parts laid out into tracks use some EQ to mold them into an organized fit. This tip is one to be used on practically every individual track in your song. Even if you are loving everything when soloed, you will still want to EQ. In fact, the solo button is pretty much always lying to you. If you really care about having your synth sounds gel with one another, you are going to have to make some adjustments. Just picture the frequency spectrum from 20Hz-20kHz, for a full and lush mix, use up this space. You don’t have to try to use every frequency here, that would not be pleasant. Just try to give every synth in your mix its own little home that the others don’t cross into. This is a great way to picture how a huge mix can fall into place.
Recording and mixing synths is something that does take some time to learn, but ultimately anyone can get good at it. Also, it’s really not all that unique, most of the things discussed above can apply to any music you’re recording. When crafting original synth sounds, people tend to think that they need to be mixed differently, and they are right to a certain extent. Yet, you can also just look at it as being an additional stage of control in the process of getting your sounds to sit well with one another. It really is all subjective, so just take your time and learn how to get things sounding the way you want.