Pad sounds are not as easily defined as a bassline, a lead synth or a kick drum. Sometimes a pad sound is the leading element in a track, sometimes a pad is being used to glue various elements of your mix together. Almost always, Pads are sustained notes or chord progressions and carry tonal information. A pad can be a synthesized string section, a choir or whatever you want it to sound like. In this tutorial, sound designer Richard Veenstra explains how you can make your pad stand out.
First things first: what is a pad exactly?
Let’s listen to a couple of examples to get a feel for what a pad sound is. ‘80s synth pop is a good place to start – “True Faith” by New Order wouldn’t be the same without its signature pad chords. The synth strings can be heard throughout the whole song.
An example of a track where everything revolves around pad synths is “Reach For The Dead” by Boards of Canada. The pads in this example take up much of the frequency spectrum and create a wide stereo image.
Pads don’t need to be just about slow evolving chords, in Flume’s “Never Be Like You” the pads have a rhythmical function to add drive to the verses of the song.
Choose your waves
Because of the many roles a pad can have, almost any sound source can be used for creating a pad sound. Live’s own Wavetable is a good instrument to create inspiring pads. The selection of waveforms will define how your pad sounds in the end, so choose wisely. If you’re after a string-type sound, go for a sawtooth and blend it with another sawtooth or square. If you want a smoother type of sound, try using triangle-like shapes. Tip: in Wavetable you’re not limited to the basic waveforms, there are plenty of complex waveforms to play with.
Detune your oscillators
A very simple trick to make a dull sound come to life is to detune your oscillators. Don’t overdo it – a percentage between 1% and 10% is usually enough. If you detune the oscillators too much, it will dilute the clarity of the pitch and your sound starts to wobble. It’s a good idea to leave the pitch of your first oscillator unchanged or close to zero to be in tune with other elements of your track.
Add some vibrato
Acoustic string instruments never stay on the exact same pitch. By touching or pressing down a string, slight changes in pitch will be introduced, known as vibrato. Adding vibrato to a synth patch is a very good way to introduce movement. Choose the pitch of an oscillator as the target of your modulation and pick a sine or triangle as the modulation source. Keep the pitch amount low and make sure the LFO amount is dialed down to around 10%. If you are looking for a Boards of Canada type of vibe, do go overboard with vibrato. A nice addition is to modulate both oscillator pitches with a different LFO amount or speed.
Employ LFOs and envelopes
Use a second LFO with a different rate for another modulation target to add even more movement. Wavetable gives you the option to modulate the wave shape of the oscillators. For example, control the rate of LFO two with LFO one and let LFO two modulate the wavetable position of oscillator one to create a complex modulation curve. Finally, use envelopes to shape your pad sound. A pad sound normally fades in and out, so choose medium to long attack times for the attack and release of the amplitude envelope.
A pad can open up a mix by widening the stereo image. Many digital synths have the option to spread voices using unison. In older synths, unison was used to stack different versions of the same voice on top of each other, each voice detuned slightly. Unison in modern synths often means that every voice is additionally panned to alternating stereo channels. A word of caution: widening your stereo image can yield phase issues. Correlation meters, such as the one found in the free iZotope Ozone Imager 2 will tell you that’s the case when the needle drops below zero.
Play with the frequency spectrum
A nice tip is to play with EQ in your arrangement. In a verse, cut off the high end of your pad and add those frequencies back when you get to the chorus. For an electronic music track, use the drop to let your pad shine in all its glory, but filter the pad once the lead sound and beats come in again. Another tip is to add some white or pink noise in the chorus of a song. This makes the pad stand out even more, a technique used in many pop productions.
Use automation and noise gates
To get your inner Flume going, add volume automation to pads to make them part of the rhythm section. There are several ways to accomplish this. First, you could draw or record volume automation by hand. Second, there’s the possibility of using a LFO to create a tremolo effect. Another great way to add rhythm is to use a noise gate, think of it as an inversed compressor. Choose a drum groove as the source of the sidechain input of your noise gate and mute the output of the drum track. Things get even better when you apply randomness to the sidechained drum groove.
Re-pitch your sound
A way to add character is to re-pitch your sound. If you are happy with your pad, record a chord progression in a MIDI clip. Then, transpose the MIDI notes in the clip seven semitones. Bounce the clip to audio and import it on an audio track. Now, use the transpose button in the audio clip to transpose the clip down seven semitones again. Experiment with different warp modes and transposition values to get your desired result.
Transform real instruments
Try using samples of real instruments to incorporate in your pad. A nice trick is to start with a piano sample and remove the attack. Play a fast arpeggio but apply a long reverb or amplitude envelope release so you can’t clearly distinguish the different notes. Filter out the high frequencies and mix this with a synthesized pad sound. Try using other acoustic instruments like guitars, string instruments or vocals.
Pads don’t need to sound heavenly or ethereal. To get a gritty vibe, apply a tiny bit of saturation or add a bit crusher to open up your sound. In Wavetable there’s a great unison mode called Noise. If you put the amount at around 40% and use a lot of voices, you get a beautiful wobbly sound. Add some saturation, tape hiss or other degrading effects for instant character.