My Synths/DAW sound like crap. I need new ones that are better.

Ok. Go for it. But I can promise you that within a year you will be on the move again. If theory offends you then skip to the 90’s novelty hit.

Don’t just take my word for it as the old Buddha dude effectively said the same thing. I don’t think he said DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), more a bed of nails kinda thing what with that being the fashion of his time, but he made it clear that misery is a thing we carry in ourselves and will express again and again no matter how comfy the bed.

Oddly that is exactly the same thing that the fairy tale “The Princess & the Pea” talks about. No matter how luxurious the bed, the princess still feels the pea. She acts like it is a sign of her discerning character, greater than the common person, that she can be so pedantic. Nu uh. Do you want to marry either the prince or princess in this story? Not I because they are looking in the wrong direction – not at the Middle Way.

So now you feel I have insulted you, you can either leave or see what I offer you in return. Your call princess.


I use Propellerheads Reason and for a decade or so people have blatted about “Reason sound” (thin, flat, un-modern – whatever that last one means) despite all research making it evident that it doesn’t exist. There is nothing inferior about the Reason engine. That tells us that people make up the feeling that Reason sounds inferior.

Yet people still raise this, just as they do the same about every other host or synth…

Strong Enough

I have always been of the mindset that I would rather have one synth that can cover a lot of ground than 76 that each can do one thing (or perhaps more likely that I only work out how to do one thing with). That means that I like Thor, Omnisphere, Falcon, Zebra, etc. I like that they have the power to let me change direction or add a bit of something different without having to leave the synth. That makes me stronger as I get to know what my tool can do for me (and I with it).

Now I have noticed that Thor playing the default sound or just a plain Oscillator sound is not exactly inspiring. Used to be the way with all synths I had – and I used to get upset, thinking I needed a better toy. Not now. Sure I still check out new toys or sounds but only in so much as to see what else I could do. Inspiration not frustration.

Les Yeux Sans Visage

Music is all about movement. I won’t go into that other to say that is why guitars sound great, the player moves his fingees all over the place so the sound is constantly varied. Synths don’t always do it this way – out of the box at least. Thor playing a plain Sawtooth OSC is very static. Very precise. As in no movement at all.

Now we all kinda realize that Moogs and Oberheims wandered but tend not to factor that into our patch (sound) creation. I have been mighty guilty of that too. Having pored over quite a few top synths, both physical and virtual I have come to realize that the difference between them and Thor or Subtractor is that they have some hidden layers. Just as Mini Moogs did.

It was annoying when your Mini wandered out of tune or the LFO changed speed in the middle of the song. So over time instruments were made that were perfectly behaved. No wander of pitch, tone, timing… anything. Flat as biscuits. Pea-finding perfectionists preferred this; oh the perplexity of a Pulse that was not perfectly pure.

Those synths you think are better or richer have quite simply added a layer or four of movement that you don’t see or even necessarily control from the front panel.

Betty Boo, Doing The Do

Here’s where you want to start reading again if you have decided to skip the theory stuff.

Now if I take a Thor and add some sub-conscious movement the sound will instantly change from flat, or thin, too rich, fat, meaty and excitingly engaging.

Try this (if you don’t have Thor, don’t fuss just do something similar in any synth you think is dull):

Thor Wander 1

Deliberately the sound isn’t doing anything particularly interesting but down there in the bottom-right of the Mod Matrix there are a couple of entries:

  • LFO 1 > OSC 1 Pitch < Rotary 1 < Button 1
  • LFO 2 > Filter 1 Freq < Rotary 1 < Button 1

Let’s break them down: Note that both LFOs are set to Soft-Random shape. This means that they wander around, kinda like a fly looking for food. Not a bad start as we wanted movement that is not deliberate. LFO 1 is fed to Pitch so it becomes unstable. The same with LFO 2 making the Filter Cutoff drift-y.

The second part of the Mod entries are to help make this more useful and adjustable. You can assign how much of the LFO drift is sent to the destinations by raising the Rotary 1, allowing you to dial the amount needed for that sound. Bass sounds can drift more than higher string sounds before they start to sound wonky or drunk.

The third part of the entries is merely a training tool and not strictly necessary once you have grasped the lesson. The Button is set to become an A/B switch so you can compare your before/after, flat/lovely thing.

Some People Get By With a Whole Lot More

Yup, I herded youse alroody. I have used both of your LFOs before doing anything remotely interesting. Ah well this is where a modular synth (or one with a good Mod Matrix like Thor) is worth it’s weight in gold.

You can fly in the LFOs from somewhere else like another Thor, Pulsar, or anything else that that generates CVs. But what about in a ‘fixed’ architecture synth like Subtractor? Way ahead of you podner.

Sub Wander 1.JPG

This looks more complex but really isn’t. Sub doesn’t have a Mod Matrix so I have generated the LFOs using Thors (two as LFO 1 is not active with no notes played) and wired them to CV Ins on Sub, with a bonus knob bank to do the drift Amount duties.

Note here what the CV destinations are. Filter 1 Freq makes sense, but Pitch Wheel! Did I goof when there is an OSC Pitch CV In? No, as I may want to use that for something else later. The Pitch Bend Wheel is all about bending pitch so I can use that instead. Sure if I change the wheel range later I may need to adjust amount elsewhere (like on that knob by the CV In) but I have maximized my options whilst giving new life to the sound of Subtractor.

Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher)

So far I have only shown using Random LFO shapes for creating movement. I did that because it is obvious and what you expect. I do use this method but in reality I commonly prefer when the LFO shapes aren’t necessarily smooth or random.

Thor Wander 2-1.JPG
as of publishing that RE isn’t released so I’ll be good and not show you

The horror! That wave doesn’t look like something you would want anywhere near a sound you want to appear remotely smooth or pleasant. Sure if you assign too much movement it will sound like a Skinny Puppy record, but let me tell you that you would be wrong if you assign only a smidge. That basic Thor OSC+Filter Patch sounds as rich & meaty as one of the hardware analogs costing $4-5,000.

Why? Well, is is because the brain likes interesting. Perfect isn’t that interesting but sudden and surprising changes are like candy to our brains. So long as that sudden and surprising change isn’t too sudden and surprising – like AC/DC guesting at a Vangelis show (although I would have loved to see Keith Emerson play Thunderstruck). Those waves have elements of regularity and surprise.

Great thing is that this isn’t just a one-time sort of a workaround as you can use different LFO wave shapes, combinations, and levels and have your one synth seem to change sound quite dramatically (yet indefinably).

Then, of course, you can start off into big CV modulation that can turn something like a stock DX-7 Electric Piano into a mysterious space piano whilst still having a mellow feel.

Wiggle It – UPDATE

Coming back after writing my Reason vs VST DAW article I realize that this is still the best answer to the Reason Sound complaint and so it was worth a wee update using my new knowledge and screen recorder to help you see this in action.

What you will see is a very simple pair of instruments playing a short piece. The first time it is a simple couple of sample-Osc based sounds. Sounds nice but maybe a bit flat. The second time the mix sounds deeper, warmer and more engaging overall. Sure the difference is subtle but it is there nonetheless and the track is much better for the effort.

You will see on the right of the Rack a few odd devices. Top and bottom I have used a couple of CV Mutant instances to create my “interesting” wander LFOs. These are routed through an instance of Compare to help you see them in action and attenuate the signal. The CVs are wired to the Pitch Input of the instruments as per the article above.

In the second round this is what changes:

  • The LFOs are sent to the pitch of each instrument to move them around a bit to keep the ear more engaged.
  • Each instrument is panned a bit off center; Chime to the right and Pad to the left. I’m not looking to hard pan but merely to create more space overall.
  • I apply the Low Pass Filter on the SSL Mixer to roll off some of the highs (6 & 8kHz respectively). This helps make the overall mix warmer, less “shrill” or “papery”.

Thank You & Goodnight – CDs are available in the Foyer on your way out

Go forth and save yourself a load of coin (and learning curve) by applying what you have learned here.

Seeing I have saved you hundreds of dollars (and hours of stress), perhaps I could ask you to pop a few my way by purchasing one of my albums. If you don’t like my tunes yourself, maybe your Mum or Dentist would.

0 thoughts on “My Synths/DAW sound like crap. I need new ones that are better.

  1. Good article. I think for me more important than a new device is milking the current ones for what they have. Even Dr Rex is used substantially now in all remixes I do.

  2. Take it from someone who went nuts in the RE store. You would be better off mastering THOR and Malstrom and combinating. It’s nice to have new synths n stuff but sonically you can achieve just about anything with Reason’s core package and a few purchases from Nucleus Soundlabs.

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