If you were to ask 100 producers whether they use presets or create their own original sounds, you would probably find the results to be pretty evenly split. While some producers use presets as they are, or tweak them a little, others refuse to use any sound they didn’t create themselves. This is a fiercely debated topic. In this article, we’ll examine the merits of both sides, and then go over one way you can use presets to your advantage when it comes to learning and doing sound design.
Why use presets for sound design?
Presets help you learn your synth
You get a new synth plugin.
Where do you start?
How can you even begin to understand what’s possible? And how it works?
Sure, you could watch some videos on YouTube, read reviews, or even read the manual (gasp)—but those would only scratch the surface.
The best way to get a feel for what your synth can do is to load up some presets and play with them. By scrolling through presets, you’ll discover many different types of sounds that would be hard to come across through pure experimentation—starting from scratch.
You might even discover a feature that you had no idea existed!
Note: the presets that come packaged with a plugin are typically designed by someone on the development team for the plugin (alternatively: a professional sound designer). This alone should be enough to make you want to look at them. Who knows that synth better than the person who created it?
Presets aid workflow
Presets allow you to quickly get ideas down without having to stop and design something new from scratch, which can really kill your flow when you’re focused on writing melodies and basslines.
It’s much easier to throw a preset on a track and continue composing. After all, you can always come back at the end and refine those sounds or redesign them from scratch.
Many producers apply this method, largely because it helps separate the creative aspect of producing from the more technical side.
Furthermore, tweaking an existing preset to fit your project is much quicker and easier than designing a sound from scratch. If you’re just starting out with sound design, I recommend trying this; load up a preset that you like, and make a few changes. Before you know it, you’ll have your own unique sound!
Reverse engineering presets
The best way to learn synthesis and sound design is to reverse engineer presets.
Doing this will allow you to see how each knob, each module, each individual setting affects the overall sound. As you reverse engineer presets, you’ll build up a base of intuitive knowledge that can be used when creating your own sounds.
But what’s the difference between simply looking at a preset, and reverse engineering it?
Well, reverse engineering is more involved. Here’s a step-by-step process I recommend you follow, especially if you’re serious about learning sound design:
- Disable the effects (if your plugin has an effects module)
- Disable the filter
- Disable any modulation sources
- Study the oscillators: take note of what waveforms are being used, the number of voices, etc. Do this for all oscillators (if your synth has sub or noise oscillators, make sure you do it for them too).
- Re-enable the modulation sources and pay close attention to what happens to the sound
- Re-enable the filter, note the type of filter, cutoff position, and any other parameters. Again, pay attention to how the sound changes.
- Re-enable effects one-by-one. Look at their individual settings, and listen closely to how they affect the sound (play around with the order in which you enable them also).
You’ll notice that some parameters drastically alter the sound of the preset, while others are less noticeable.
Note: for a detailed look at reverse engineering presets, check out this article I wrote.
The pitfalls of using presets
Despite the many benefits, there are some potential pitfalls to using presets.
If you don’t tweak the presets at all—in other words, you just use them straight out of the box—then you run the risk of having the same sounds as other producers who slapped on the same preset.
From a skill development standpoint, it’s also easy to become dependent on presets and not stretch yourself in learning actual synthesis.
You also tend to stick with the same kinds of sounds, rather than branching out and experimenting with anything that pops into your head.
However, if you cultivate a non-lazy approach to all of this, and not just default to doing the same things (using the same presets) over and over again because they’re easy, then you’ll benefit from using presets while mitigating or even eliminating any downsides.
Creating Your Own Sounds
When synthesising a sound from scratch, you have total control over the process. You understand how you reached the final sound, and what contributes to it.
You also leverage your imagination when designing from scratch, which is more difficult when using presets. If you can imagine it, you can normally create it provided you have the skills. Sometimes, you’ll imagine a sound, but struggle to recreate it because you’re not sure how. But eventually you’ll get to a point where almost any idea you have can be crafted in your synth.
Another benefit to designing your own sounds is that it can help you overcome creative block. If you’re struggling to write a decent melody or chord progression, take a break and work on sound design. You’ll take your mind away from songwriting, and in the process most likely create a sound that inspires a melodic or harmonic idea.
Putting it into practice
So, what now?
Whether you’re new to sound design, or somewhat experienced, I strongly recommend you start by reverse engineering some of the default presets in your favourite synth plugin.
Try to reverse engineer sounds that you wouldn’t normally use. You’ll pick up on some new techniques, and might even find inspiration for a new song.
Here are some quick action steps to help you put it this information into practice:
- Beginner: Start by loading up some presets that you like and messing with a few controls. When you get something new that you like, save it in a new folder to keep everything organised. Next, repeat the process but spend more time reverse engineering them.
- Advanced: Try using some presets on your tracks while you’re working on composition/songwriting. Later on, come back and design all of your sounds from scratch. See if this workflow benefits you. Try this for at least 2-3 songs before switching back to your original workflow if you don’t like it. Second, try to recreate sounds you hear on the radio or wherever you listen to music. A/B the sound from the original song and your version to get yours as close as possible.
If you want to see an example of reverse engineering a preset, go check out my video!
Question: What do you think about using presets? Now that you know some useful ways to add them to your production, how do you plan on using presets next?