Conjuring synth and pad sounds on guitar need not be a struggle, Matt McCracken gives you the lowdown on the gear needed to get the job done in style...

Adding Texture To The Ambience

Creating synth/pad sounds is one of the easier tasks facing the home producer. With a wealth of presets available on most softsynths, a little parameter tweaking, and you’ll soon find yourself with an acceptable synth setup to sculpt your sonic soundscapes with. Thanks to the versatility of DAWs these days you can then add effects, duplicate, chop and change as you please, with incredible power at your fingertips to fuel your creativity.

With guitar, it’s not quite so simple. Although still one of the most versatile instruments available to the modern musician, the guitar is prone to fluctuation due to its dynamic nature as well as being subject to its operators unique touch, however with a few pedals and some adjustment to your technique the synthetic sound of a softsynth can be quite easily translated via the medium of guitar and lucky for you we’ve got the low down on just how to go about that, read on to find out…

1. Synth Sounds

Synth Sounds

Synth sounds come in many shapes and sounds due to their inherent versatility and flexibility. A synth is essentially an oscillator and a filter which in traditional guitar terms means your guitar is the oscillator and your amp is the filter. However, the complexity of a synth lies in that there are often multiple oscillators and filters plus modulation tools that create a more composite sound. As we’re not playing multiple guitars and amps this is where the pedals come in! There are some typical pedals involved in the setup of this kind of sound and I’ve listed some particular models here, but you can use any kind of pedal that does the same effect for this exercise.

2. Pitch Shifting

Synth Sounds

First up in the chain you’ll need a pitch shifter. The pitch shifter is key as it is literally synthesising your guitar sound from the off, by duplicating your original signal at a lower or higher pitch. A pitch shifter will add a little hint of synthetic tone to your signal which makes it a great starting point for generating synth-like tones. Some pitch shifters allow you to have both Octaves up and down at the same time which is great for generating more symphonic sounds. When I’m creating my own synth sounds I like to have both Octaves set to the same level and retain some dry guitar signal, however, if you’re looking for something more synthetic it might be worth completely rolling off the dry signal so you’re only getting the heavily processed sound through.

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Octave Pedal

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Octave Pedal

3. Phase

Phasers provide that ‘swoosh’ sound you’ve heard on records like Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love by Van Halen (EVH was a famous phase user) and more recently, Dakota by the Stereophonics. Phase is an effect that can be used subtly to enhance a clean tone, or it can be utilised to completely re-shape the sound of your six-string. The Phaser was famously used to add a synthetic tone to human speech by taking the C-3PO actor Anthony Daniels’ voice and treating it with Phase so that it sounded less human! A Phaser will create a sound similar to a Filter Sweep on a synthesiser which makes it great for adding movement to your synth sound, as they are filters themselves that create a series of peaks and troughs in the frequency spectrum. They are modulated so that they vary over time and generally include a Low-Frequency Oscillator (LFO) in their construction, much like most modern synths. This is an effect I would only use on certain sounds and is more an enhancement than a requirement to create synthetic guitar lines. Experimentation is key here to come up with a sound you like but it can really add some dynamic to your synth guitar!

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Phase Pedal

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Phase Pedal

4. Chorus

Next in the chain is some Modulation effects to help solidify the synthesis of our pitch-shifted guitar. Chorus is a widely used effect throughout all of the guitar world and it’s great for adding texture. A Chorus pedal essentially recreates your guitar signal and moves it slightly out of tune to create the effect of two guitars playing instead of one. How much it’s out of tune is determined by your pedal settings, more subtle and you can hardly hear the difference, whereas a stronger effect leads to that typical Chorus-warble as heard on tracks like Black Hole Sun by Soundgarden and Come As You Are by Nirvana. As stated, before the trick with synthesisers is that they have many layers, so by combining a guitar pitch-shifted to two octaves with another doubling effect you’re going to get a heavily processed sounding guitar tone. Whether you want to be subtle or strident with the usage is entirely up to you. It’s good to tweak settings until you settle on something that sounds synthetic.

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Chorus Pedal

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Chorus Pedal

5. Reverb

Reverb is a mainstay across the whole world of music, and you’ll find no difference when trying to recreate a synth on guitar. A touch of reverb can do the world of good for your sound and many synthesisers come with this effect built in. Some reverb pedals let you add modulation, which can further enhance the synth-sound and at the higher end of the spectrum you get the sought after ‘Shimmer’ effect which adds an Octave effect to your reverb tails, lending and orchestral feel to your sound. Whilst not integral to creating a synthetic guitar sound, reverb is generally about making your instrument sound more natural, when utilised correctly it can definitely give you some vibes. Adding a reverb pedal to the end of your chain (or in your FX Loop) will not only help you create realistic synth tones but will add character to any guitar sound.

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Reverb Pedal

6. Delay

Delay is another focal effect used in all genres and in this context again we’re more likely to be using it sparingly to add texture, although feel free to crank the Repeat/Regen knob if you want! A nice way to utilise delay when creating a synth sound is to set a really fast repeat time with short feedback so you’re only hearing a single repeat after your initial note. Sometimes called the ‘slapback’ effect this will add another layer of sound to your synth tone without overpowering it, resulting in a thicker tone which when combined with the other effects listed here can really help you with generating some fat, synth-like guitar tones.

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Delay Pedal

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Delay Pedal

7. Compression, Distortion, Volume

Compression and Distortion will work wonders if you find that your tone is too dynamic or not powerful enough. Compression flattens the dynamics of your playing, making it perfect for recreating a synthetic guitar tone as it takes any subtle differences in your picking out and gives you a linear sound to your playing. Adding distortion and fuzz is great for when you want a more bass-heavy synth sound so putting these effects at the front of your signal chain is a good way to enhance your signal before it’s processed by the other pedals. A volume pedal will also work really well in this context, letting you create a sound that rises or falls, kind of like what you would hear before the drop in EDM.

8. Playing Technique

How you play is important in creating these kinds of sounds. You want to be precise, especially as when using a pitch shifter effect, any accidental open notes can completely ruin the musicality of your sound (or sometimes make it more interesting) with a note that’s completely out of key. Palm-muting can help here if you’re struggling to hit the notes cleanly, as well as adding a percussive element to the sound that will fit a lot of synth-bass like styles. As you’re going to be layering so many different effects and using them heavily, playing cleanly is important to the overall clarity of the tone, giving the effect pedals too much to deal with can sometimes result in effects contrary to what you’re trying to achieve. Another tip is to roll off the tone controls on your guitar, as this gives less attack to your playing resulting in a more synthetic sound overall.

In Conclusion

It doesn’t take much to start getting some serious synth sounds from your axe. Most of these effects are likely already on your pedalboard or in your Multi-FX unit so with a bit of tweaking you can get some really nice, really artificial sounds from your what is typically a very natural sounding instrument. Still, there’s a lot of tweaking and experimentation required to do this and if you can’t be bothered or haven’t got the time, there’s always the BOSS SY-1 Synthesiser pedal which takes the hard work out of it!

BOSS SY-1 Synth Pedal

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