The Songwriting Synth

Whether you’re techno-leaning or mainly acoustic, a synth continues to be a handy tool for song development, allowing you to lay down looped rhythms while sketching out chord progressions, as well as experiment with ideas for backing coloration and more

Posted in The Weekly on July 8, 2024 by

For those who are accustomed to working with stringed instruments, the idea of picking up a synthesizer to begin a new song can feel completely alien—who wants to dabble with all those weird electronics when you could just produce something organically? A valid point, perhaps—but as we’ve frequently mentioned, picking up a different instrument from time to time can help you to step out of your songwriting comfort zone and explore unfamiliar musical territory.

A synth can be the perfect tool for just such an occasion, one that allows you to lay down a looped rhythm while sketching out chord progressions, as well as experiment with ideas for backing coloration and more. Here we briefly cover some basic hardware and software synth solutions (and which format may be preferable for your purposes), as well as some common uses in the production process.

Synth types. Compared to the vast and often pricey machines of yesteryear, today’s synthesizers not only are more affordable but also take up very little studio space (such as the budget-friendly “mini” models). Like most things in the modern recording world, one can choose between traditional hardware synths, or a software synth installation for use with DAW programs like Avid Pro Tools, Ableton and others. Those who prefer a tactile approach to recording might favor the physical layout of a basic hardware synth, including the ability to manually blend tones and tempos on the spot; synth software, on the other hand, requires mousing to get around but can also draw from a hefty bank of new and classic synth samples.

Laying down a groove. For starters, a synth can be a handy way of setting up a steady rhythm (or click track) when developing any kind of new song idea. Nowadays even the most basic synth comes with a programmable arpeggiator, a device that replicates the sound of a chord arpeggio (that is, each note in the chord played individually), with a tempo control to adjust both the rhythm and the rate of each sequence. Models such as the popular Korg microKORG (which has been on the market for decades) offer adjustable presets emulating patches used in house, hip-hop, trance, electronica and other genres, giving you a multitude of timbres to choose from.

The hybrid approach. Even if you’re not writing an explicitly techno-oriented tune, a synth can still be used to add sonic and rhythmic texture to just about any type of track. Though there are countless examples over the years, one that always comes to mind is Seal’s mega-hit “Crazy,” ostensibly a dance track that combines an acoustic-guitar progression with a pulsating electronic keyboard as a melodic backbeat. This “hybrid” approach—using equal parts organic and electronic instrumentation—is perhaps the most effective way to work synth into a production. You can also try playing parts of the chord progression on a synth for background coloration, the same way you might use an organ or other sustaining keyboard to thicken the sound.

Synth for songwriting. As noted earlier, moving to a different type of instrument can be a good way to expand the sonic possibilities of a song-in-progress. Whereas a guitar can only cover so much tonal territory, playing the same progression on a synth can reveal melodic ideas that you might have otherwise missed. That’s because the synth offers so many different ways to manipulate the sounds, whether it’s through the resonance, cutoff and EQ attack/release controls, manually “bending” tones with the pitch and modulation wheels, as well as using the arpeggiator to create a colorful, repeating rhythm. Furthermore, some the miniest of models can even be powered by batteries, allowing you to break out the keys and work on a song just about anywhere.

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