Reverse Engineering Presets: An Interactive Guide
One of the best ways to learn sound design and to learn a new synth is by reverse engineering presets. It lets you see different ways to use the synth, it lets you see the building blocks to how each sound is created, and it give you a starting point for almost any sound you want!
When you’re starting out learning sound design, reverse engineering presets can be invaluable, but it’s something that is very useful at any stage in your music career. As a beginner, a lot of sounds seem very complex, and you don’t know where to begin. Maybe you can’t even think of good sounds you want to use. Presets will show you many, many different sounds that your synth can come up with, and if you pay attention, you can learn how to make any of them. As a producer with several years of experience, or even decades, presets can broaden your toolbox of sounds. Maybe you’ve gotten really good at a number of sounds, so those are the ones you go to every time. Presets can remind you of all of the other sounds you’ve been ignoring, and inspire you to make a whole new set of sounds!
For now, don’t worry if you don’t like using presets in your music. We’re not going to be working on songs for the moment. I don’t care if you’ve never used one before, or if you hate the idea. You’re here because you want to get better at sound design. So for now we’re going to work on sound design, and only sound design for a little while. We’re going to start by analyzing one or two presets to see how they are created. Then we’ll work on recreating them from scratch. This will give you the knowledge to take each piece of the puzzle and apply it to your own sounds however you want. Before we go any further, open up your favorite synth, or one that you want to learn better and listen to some of the presets available. Pick one that you like and you want to learn how to replicate.
By now you should have your preset loaded and ready to dismantle. To reverse engineer any preset you want to work backwards from the complete sound to the basic waveform. This is sort of like peeling away layers so you can see what lies beneath. Each of the steps to build a sound will potentially alter the sound significantly, so we want to add/subtract as little as possible with each step to see how that one little piece affects the overall sound. With that said, let’s start dismantling our preset piece by piece!
***Note – If you make changes to your preset and can’t figure out how to get it back, just reload the preset from the menu. This will bring it back to its original state, losing any changes you made. Then go ahead and redo any steps you need to get back to where you were in this process***
1. Disable the effects. (If your plugin can do this)
Effects can change the sound in such a wide variety of ways, it can be extremely difficult to tell what’s going on in the sound until you turn them off. Turn off each effect one by one, and listen to how the sound changes. Make sure all effects are turned off before going to the next step.
2. Disable the filter.
The filter obviously changes the sound quite a lot, depending on the settings, so we want that off for now as well. If there is more than one filter, make sure all of them are turned off.
3. Disable any modulation sources. (LFOs, envelopes, etc)
This step may be a little tricky depending on which synth you’re using, but try your best to find and disable any envelopes or LFOs that are active. You’ll know you’ve got them all when you hear a steady tone with no wobble, or fade in or out.
4. Study the oscillators, taking note of what type of waveforms are being used, the number of voices, etc. Do this for the regular oscillators, as well as sub, and noise.
If your synth has some extra oscillators, a sub oscillator or a noise oscillator, go ahead and disable all but one. Notice what kind of waveform it has and how it sounds on its own. Do this for each oscillator that your preset uses, and then start adding them back in one at a time, again, noting how it sounds with each step. This is a crucial part of learning sound design as you’ll find out later. If you don’t know what the base waveforms sound like, you’ll never be able to recreate a sound by ear, so spend time on this step! Make sure you’re comfortable with how each oscillator sounds by itself and with the others.
In this step, also take note of how many voices each oscillator has, or how many voices are set in the master control for the synth. Each one is different, so look around. You should also see the spread/detune and pan settings. Those will slightly detune each of the voices and pan them just a little to make the patch sound bigger and wider. Play with these options to see how it affects the sound. Go ahead and try switching one of the waveforms in an oscillator too and see how the sound changes. Once you’ve gone through all of these settings and feel comfortable that you know what they all do, go ahead and move on to the next step. Don’t worry, you can always go back and do any of these steps again at any point.
5. Re-enable the modulation sources and pay close attention to what is happening. Note how the sound changes already.
Now go ahead and enable the envelopes that were active before. If you’ve not used envelopes much before, start with just one and play with the main controls (attack, decay, sustain, and release. Sometimes envelopes are called ADSRs because of this.) Your synth may have other controls that can do much more, but make sure you focus on the ADSR part first. That is a universal set of controls that you can use on almost any synth. Once you understand how the ADSR settings affect the sound, go ahead and play with the other settings, or enable any other envelopes that were active originally.
LFOs can add extreme changes to your sound, so go slowly through this next part. Enable one LFO and hear how it affects the sound. Make sure you look to see what exactly it is affecting! This is crucial! Most synths allow the LFOs to modulate a huge number of controls, so knowing what it’s controlling is probably the most important part of learning how to use them. Next look at the other settings. Typical controls will be the rate of the LFO (whether it is in Hertz, or synced to your DAW’s internal clock,) the amount it is affecting the source, and the phase. Play with each setting, but make sure to make small changes at first because it has potential to massively change your sound! LFOs can add a ton of movement to your sound, and if you have a few of them going at once, you’ll be amazed that this sound is the same base as the one just one step ago!
6. Re-enable the filter and note the type, cutoff position, and any other parameters. Again, notice how the sound changes.
Filters can also affect your sound in a big way. Once you enable one filter, pay attention to what kind of filter it is (low pass, high pass, bandpass, etc) and try changing the type to see how your sounds changes. Go ahead and try changing some of the controls now, especially the cutoff and resonance. Those two are the basics of most filters. Filters can help really tame your sound, and are a popular source to modulate from an envelope or LFO.
7. Re-enable any effects one by one. Look at their individual settings and see how they affect the sound, including the order in which you enable them.
This is where the fun really begins! Effects can take your sound anywhere you can imagine. Most professional sounds really take shape with effects. Enable one effect and see what it does to the sound. Mess with the settings for that effect some, see what you like or dislike about it, then disable it again. Go through each effect this way, so it’s the only one active at a time. Once you go through them all, start adding each one back in. Some effects may not do much to the overall sound, while others may completely alter it. Once you stack all of them together though, it can form an amazing final output.
At each step in this process, make sure you are messing with the parameters to see how the sound changes. Once you feel comfortable that you understand what’s happening, the next step is to try to rebuild the preset from scratch. Reset your current preset to its original state, and then open another copy of the plugin. Start to replicate the settings as closely as you can, starting with the oscillator and rebuilding it just like we did before. After you do this a few times, or for a few different presets, try to close the preset window and rebuild it just by listening to the final sound. See how close you can get! The final test for you is to pick a song you like and try to rebuild a sound from it from scratch. This may seem impossible, but the more you reverse engineer presets, the more you’ll start to see similarities. You’ll hear something in your favorite song, and suddenly say “I know how to make that sound!” Or maybe it’ll just be an effect, or part of the sound. Either way, you’re on your way to being a master sound designer!
The key to becoming a great sound designer is to keep doing it, so don’t do this once and think you’re done. You need to keep doing this over and over. Even if you have 20 years of experience, if you stop practicing and learning, you’ll stagnate. At first, I recommend you try to spend an hour a day doing only sound design. If you can do that for a month, you’ll see massive gains! I understand that’s a lot of time to commit though, so at a minimum, try to do 30 min, 3 days a week for a month. After that, evaluate your time commitments and your music goals and plan accordingly.
With the steps above, you should be able to get started right away, but if you’re looking for some specific guidance, here’s your homework!
Beginner – Load up your favorite synth and start reverse engineering some cool presets. Start with working through one or two each day and do that every day this week if you can. After you feel comfortable seeing how the sound comes together, load up another instance of your plugin and start to recreate the preset. Remember to strip it down to the bare essentials first and add back the pieces slowly.
Advanced – If you can already reverse engineer most presets and rebuild them without difficulty, try building the presets by ear only. Don’t look at the final version, only listen to it. Once you can do that, pick out a sound from some of your favorite songs and replicate that. Realize there may be a lot of effects or automation going on, so don’t get discouraged if it turns out to be harder than you first thought! Choose two or three sounds from popular songs and recreate them as close as you can each day for the next week. After that, try creating your very own preset and make sure you save it! In your second week of sound designing, try to create two to three presets each day.
Question: If you have tried to reverse engineer presets before, what did you find was the hardest part? Was anything easier than you expected? Let me know how you’re doing with this in the comments, or send me an email!