Presets & Precepts

I picked up a secondhand copy of Native Instruments FM8 recently & figured I’d have a look online for presets as my free time can become a little scarce & learning to create sounds from scratch with a new synth might be an evolving process rather than an imemdiate one & I wanted some instant gratification now! Or at least soon…. So I hunted around & came across…

Don’t worry, the ‘blog’ had been suspended/deleted long ago. But you have to wonder? What actual use are 14,000 presets? Is the point of a musical instrument to make music or to browse presets?

via GearAddicts

I have an instrument with just one, maybe two presets, four oscillators & I couldn’t be happier with it because when I play it, its all about music – its a double bass. On a slightly more complicated level (still monophonic, less oscillators, more variables, no presets) my Roland SH101 is still intuitive & immediate. On the scale of instruments, lastly my modular synth (multivoice, complex, no presets) still feels intuitive.

But these softsynths? More complex, far less immediate & a zillion presets. So why all the presets? Is it to compensate for the complexity? Or the lack of ready access to controls? Or it is a symptom of the inherent bottleneck involved in building up an intuitive relationship with it?

Theres an article in Electronic Musician from a while back which is worth a read in that it discusses some approaches for getting past using presets, and one of the first methods is telling: Persing recommends Roland’s classic Juno 60 synthesizer as a good launch pad for learning to program sounds. “If you look at the spec for the Juno 60, it doesn’t have anything,” Persing says. “It has one oscillator, a sub oscillator, one Moog-like filter, a preset chorus with two switches and one envelope generator. That’s it. There’s a finite amount of things you can do with a Juno 60, but it’s much more than what most people realize. So you turn off all of the effects and see how far you can go with one oscillator. Then you start to build onto that.”

In my case I learned to use synths as hardware – first a Korg MS20, then a Pro One and then a Juno 106, and when it comes to using softsynths I tend to hunt for a preset that is in the territory of what I’m imagining and then I relate back to the Juno and think about what controls on it I would alter to get the sound I want. So for example if the tone is right but its the envelope bugging me I then have to hunt around in the particular softsynth to find where it has its envelopes buried.

Now on the Juno I could just grab those envelope controls immediately, but the softsynths require me to remember how this particular synth has them organised… So is the layout the problem? Would they be easier to use if ALL the controls were onscreen ALL of the time? Because with my Juno all the controls are accessible all the time.

What would you pick as the best designed softsynth interface in terms of use? Would it be easier to use if instead of cramming it into the multiple layers of its little graphical box onscreen, it could actually be resized & reorganised like a real hardware synth? All parameters onscreen all the time & more ‘realistic’ sizes?

Heres a link to that EM article again – its worth a read!

9 thoughts on “Presets & Precepts

  1. Sébastien Orban

    Easier and cleaner interface would be nice for a change – Native plugin can be particularly dauting to use (FM8, Massive, Absynth), even if they are powerfull. Do we really need near modular plugin for everything ?
    What’s strange for me is that the Ableton Live synth (analog, operator) are hiding and revealing thing although their plugin are very simple to understand (the EQ3 for example, or the compressor for example). Circle from Future Audio is an attempt of this, but they too suffer from feature overload (but since it’s very graphical it helps).

    Don’t get me wrong, I love Absynth and FM8. But most of the time I’m stuck with the preset because I don’t understand what, where, how, and each synth as his peculiarities or idiosyncrasies that made me hard for me to grasp the basics underneath…

  2. Gareth Jordan

    I’m a bungling explorer of sounds rather than a traditional musician, with no formal training even though I’m in a band – yet I got rhythm, delight and wonder aplenty. Rather like Sébastien, the more ‘traditional’ software synths have always eluded me no matter how simplified. I always feel ‘left out’ somehow regardless of the sound I end up with. Freud would have a field day I know.

    So I was knocked out when I discovered Synplant. It does have a fair few presets to allow an easy starting point but it also allows for a simplified approach to altering any preset to your tastes or moods, as exemplified by the gui which is totally non threatening and ‘artist’ oriented. It also seems to thrive on the sort of approach to sound that my technically limited, dive in attitude engenders.

    I have some understanding of the “basics underneath” but I am more than happy to swap the requirement to deal with those, even at the basic level of knob labels LFO 1, LFO 2 or suchlike, with the ability to quickly find a sound that I like.

    I enjoy the times when a ‘basic’ clicks at long last, but I need the ability to find the sound I am looking for fairly easily but not necessarily quickly.

    Love the description of your double bass.
    Wicked post as always.

    Find Synplant here:

    1. Nick R

      I wholeheartedly second gareth’s comments about Synplant. Relevant to Tim’s post, I think it’s unique in that it’s method of working is to my mind totally preset based – you start with presets, you save presets when you find it going in a promising direction -you continue down the many paths that takes you. There really is no way to start from a basic oscillator or wave and work ‘up’ to a complex sound (well, you can actually, but it’s all text-entry based and obscure). Some hate that, I love it. You are in fact working by recognising the potential direction a patch will ‘evolve’ and after a while you get a feel for steering it where you want to go.

      It’s different from most any other work paradigm and it’s so damn fun. The only problem is naming and remembering all the presets you come up with – I’ve had to start a descriptive / keyword database of my presets now! It’s also a ridiculous bargain to buy.

  3. Dan

    Some interesting comments by Eno about this subject in this film at about 2’40”.

    I think the problem is having the time to get to know all the aspects of a given piece of technology. You can get much more out of an instrument you know intimately. I have a friend who hangs onto an old TX81Z for the reason that he knows everything about it, and can quickly do whatever he wants from the front panel (kind of astonishing, I know).

    And myself, it tends to be the interface I’ve known longest that I can get around most efficiently… a Mini moog, NI’s Kontakt, Metasynth. They’re not necessarily all brilliant or clear interfaces, I’ve just learned them over time. I’m painfully slow with an Arp 2600.

  4. Michael Maroussas

    Massive tends to be my weapon of choice at the moment – I’m deliberately limiting myself to it to make sure that I really push myself with it (as one would a musical instrument) rather than just touch the surface. I think this has a great interface in terms if instant userbility (?is that the word I’m thinking of?!) but inevitably has a steeper (though not that steep) learning curve if you wish to get more out of it.

    One defence of presets that I’ll offer up is that they can be useful for showing someone new to it basically what the synth can do. As you mention tim, if you use a preset as a starting point for a sound you’re after, you have to go ‘hunting’, tracking back the process that the preset is creating which is inevitably more complex than you would initially manage. I feel i’ve learnt more about massive by doing this sometimes rather than if i’d started from scratch every time straight away.

    Also, sometimes i don’t have a specific sound I’m after – sometimes i just like to freewheel and that can be interesting occasionally starting from a developed point rather than from square one every time. In downtime I’ve saved many a preset that i came across accidentally from playing with presets – from computer beeps to biplane engines – that i’ve gone on to use in films at a later date.

    Interesting post tim

  5. John Pallister

    You could argue that there are two problems with most softsynth interfaces.

    First, they remind me of the graphical user interfaces my fellow software developers and I used to build for early Windows applications. These were built to represent & control the programmer’s model of the (internal workings of the) application (i.e. we built them for ourselves); unfortunately for the user, this usually bore no relation to any model of the task he or she actually wanted to accomplish… So in a soft synth there would be a UI element for every parameter of the synth engine, and (being software) there’s no limit to the number of parameters.

    Synths like Synplant are great precisely because you don’t have to start by building a mental block diagram of the synth architecture. You can focus on the task in hand, i.e. “finding cool sounds”.

    Second, soft synth interfaces too-slavishly imitate hardware synths (both their interfaces and architectures), supposedly to flatten the learning curve. But the “one knob for everything” interface doesn’t scale very well. It’s fine for a Juno 6 or a MS20, and perhaps even a Matrix-12 or an Andromeda (although I haven’t played either) but when you get into pure software territory it all tends to go pear-shaped as the controls get smaller and smaller to fit them all in.

    The other great thing about hardware synths is that your body learns where the controls are, and you can reach for and use knobs & switches without looking at them. This is (one reason) why it’s much easier to consider them as “authentic instruments” (a much better reason than their “real analogue warmth” or whatever).

    Anyway, I could be talking out my arse, as I avoid softsynths; I sit in front of a computer and write code all day, so when I make music it has to be tactile, embodied etc. (OK, I’m a mainly a guitar player, I’ll admit it. Love my Juno 6, though.)

    I should also mention that musicians (like most people) seem to be pretty conservative about their interfaces to their technology.

    Another nice post Tim, keep it up, enjoy those longer days, spring’s on its way! Shame about the surf club fire, though.

  6. tim Post author

    only 3 weeks until daylight saving too! Wahoooooooooo!!

    I sometimes do wonder about the GUIs being an extention of the designers ego more than necessarily being ergonomic & encouraging intuitive use… The desire to create something new & different looking – that new reverb Aether is a good example…. its eye candy, with imho the nutritional value of candy floss…. If I am primarily playing a softsynth I dont know why there isnt a ‘full screen’ mode? Then there would be room for an alternate layout to logically display the entire signal flow etc…

  7. John Pallister

    What if there was not only a full-screen mode, but a full-screen, animated, 3D rendered model of the synth/patch architecture? With multiple levels of detail as you zoom in and out, animated tutorial walk-throughs, real-time visual display of sound & “energy”/”CV” signal flow and other whizzy “information visualisation” stuff?

    This is a serious question, as I’m interested in determining whether there might be a market for a “SoundDiver in cyberspace” product. (Whether it could actually be built is of course another question…)


    John :^P

  8. Joe

    I always appreciate it when an incredibly complex synth whittles down the controls to a level that is intuitive and comprehensible to those of us without advanced computer science degrees. A particular example that comes to mind is Gaugear, a built in synth ensemble for NI Reaktor 5. There are a few intuitive (and innovative) controls which produce absolutely stunning results. The simplicity allows you to get a grasp quickly so you can begin to tweak things to your liking without necessarily having an in-depth understanding of the thing’s innermost secrets/workings. In this way it is analoguous to your double bass or Juno 60, despite being infinitely more complex at its core.

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