How To Create Evolving Pads Sounds On Guitar Or Synth
Adding texture to the ambience
There comes a time in many musician’s writing (or recording) careers when they look to find ways to fill out an arrangement. It could be that the instruments are fine in their component parts, but lack that bit of glue to stick them together.
Step forward ‘pad’ sounds. These are usually employed low in a mix, and provide extra texture and padding – hence the name – to make a track more coherent.
It turns out, as any synth player will know, that they’re super easy to put together too. But one criticism that can be laid at their door is that they can be rather dull. Ambient fans might recoil at that, but I think we’d all agree they can be improved with a bit of colour. Pads, I mean, not ambient fans.
We’ve put together a guide on how to create evolving pad sounds on guitar or synth. Either instrument is capable of producing these wonderful tones, with the right techniques. Let’s take a look at how you can do that.
Pads using synths
For synth players, these pad sounds are easy to find. If yours comes with presets, we’d bet our bottom dollar there are plenty to choose from. Where would be the fun in using someone else’s though?
If you’re able to, start one from scratch. We tried it using the awesome Korg ARP Odyssey synth. Try layering up different oscillators and giving each different properties. Let’s work on an example. We’d start by laying down a simple chordal pattern in a DAW, and set it to loop. Go long here, perhaps two or three chords playing between 80bpm – 90bpm. This way you can concentrate on the tweaking without having to perform the pattern. A loop pedal is another option here, or an arpeggiator set to a low rate of repeats.
With your chord playing, begin by opening up your first oscillator. We’d opt for a sine wave to start. A low-frequency oscillator (LFO) is likely available in some format on your synth. This works alongside to tone-making oscillator to provide movement. If you can, map the LFO to control something like the filter cutoff. Make sure the LFO is running at a slow rate or you’ll get a wobbly sound which isn’t what we’re going for here.
Stack ’em up
With your first oscillator playing away, stack another one on top of it. Ableton Live’s Operator plugin is great here as it allows you to decide whether your oscillators play in series or parallel to each other. In this instance though, we’d suggest stacking them.
Perhaps choose a saw or triangle for the second one. Again, use your LFO to instruct some movement, and map it to something but with a faster rate. You can get clever here, if your system allows you to be accurate enough, and have them overlap in a sort of polyrhythmic way. You can also thicken out your sound by detuning one of the oscillators a few cents, which slightly jars it and gives it character.
From here, you have a few options. Your basic stacked synth pad may need some extra detail. For this, you can look at effects. Chief among any pad builder’s arsenal is reverb, which gives air, depth, and warmth to your sound.
However, for these purposes, we’re going to opt for something more drastic; modulation. There are a few effects which fall into this bracket. Tremolo gives that gated, choppy sound which suits pads so well. Phasers and flangers deliver a bit of whoosh to the proceedings, and chorus effects thicken out a sound by cloning it and slightly detuning the clone. Any of these, used singularly or in combination, will take your basic pad sound and transform it into a living, breathing sound of its own.
It wouldn’t be fair for the synth players to have all the fun, right? Guitarists have, with some creative use of effects, just as much potential as synth players to create those dreamy soundscapes using their regular six-stringer.
From personal experience, one brand of pedal is way out in front when it comes to creating pad sounds on a guitar. Electro Harmonix (EHX) has a number of pedals which will give you all kinds of creative license in this field. It was with EHX that I first encountered the ‘freeze’ function, through its amazing Electro Harmonix Cathedral reverb pedal. When engaged, the pedal takes a snapshot – literally milliseconds – of signal and loops it to give the effect of a continuous sound. Instant pad, my friends.
They took this concept further with the introduction of the Electro Harmonix Superego, which took that same freeze philosophy and added all manner of sonic adventure to it. Not only that; the included send/return function made it possible to take the signal produced from the pedal and feed it out into further effects so you could really start exploring the outer limits of tone sculpture. Taking the signal from the Superego and sending it out to, for example, Moog MiniFooger Tremolo produced one of those sounds where you have to just stop and take it all in. Truly breathtaking.
So there we have it. Pads, drones, whatever you want to call them. They have uses far beyond esoteric 80s synth music, and are a vital tool in the arsenal of many a player. Use them to add layers, to add interest, or simply because they sound cool. With the right tools and a bit of experimentation, you’ll be coming up with your own unique sounds in no time.