The Role of Experimenting

(This article is a follow up from last time, Reverse Engineering Presets: An Interactive Guide)

Common Misconceptions

You’ve heard it before. Probably a lot, actually. “The best way to learn sound design is just to experiment. Mess around with stuff.” Or maybe “There’s too many variables to be able to predict what sound will come out by turning every single knob, just keep playing around until you get a good sound.”

I disagree 100% with those statements. You should use experimentation along with studying to learn sound design. Your main focus should be on intentional learning, and only a small portion of that time should be spent experimenting. It shouldn’t be the only way you learn sound design, and it certainly isn’t the best way to learn.

You absolutely can learn sound design to the point where you can accurately know what sound will come out of your speakers, and I think purposeful studying is the best way to learn sound design. There IS a huge benefit to experimenting and letting go of all the rules though.

You can discover crazy sounds, or just plain good sounds that you didn’t think you could create.

You can let go, and just twist knobs to your heart’s content. You can combine elements that you normally wouldn’t. A bass patch that’s super wide and has 19 voices? Why not! An arp that has 3 delays and a reverb, plus automated panning? You bet!

Go crazy with this stuff. Who cares if you’ll never use any of it in a real song, right now it’s about being creative and just letting the sound develop how it will. There’s a really good chance something you do will all of a sudden give you something you really like. Then you can take that one aspect or element and apply it to your next song!

Let Creativity Reign

I think there’s plenty of good reasons to sit down and study presets, and work on creating your own sounds, but sometimes it’s also good to just play. After all, you make music because you like being creative, right? If we take that aspect away, writing music, designing sounds and all of music production just becomes a chore.

If you turn sound design into a chore, you risk having all of your songs sounding the same. If you don’t enjoy creating new sounds on your own because it’s turning into work, you’ll likely just use presets or just keep using the same sounds you already have.

There’s nothing wrong with using presets or even using the same sounds over again, but when you do that for every song and never break out of that mold, your music can very quickly become stale and boring.

How to Effectively Experiment

To free yourself from the trap of stagnation, try spending some time in between songs just messing around in your favorite synth. Do all the things you’ve never dared to in an actual song. See how ridiculous of a sound you can come up with.

This is the time to really push the limits of your synth. Obviously if your sound turns into noise, dial it back a bit, but other than that, there’s no pushing things too far!

The most important thing to keep in mind while experimenting is that you have to be mindful of what you’re doing and try to learn from it. When you do something that really clicks and sounds cool, take note of what you did. Then try to create a new patch based on that one technique, and save it as a new preset.

As you keep experimenting and finding new interactions and unique ways to make sounds, you’ll build your own personal library of presets, and you can use them in your own productions later. The more you stray from the generic types of sounds, the more unique your overall sound will become.

Experimenting will seriously help you stand out as a producer, and let you start creating your own unique sound.

Experimenting will seriously help you stand out as a producer, and let you start creating your… Click To Tweet

What Next?

After you finish your experimenting session, it’s time to really get to work. You need to take those elements you discovered or your new presets and put them to use! You could create an entire song based off of just one of your new sounds, or try to combine a few of them.

Now is also the time to really put in the work designing sounds and studying them. Maybe get a couple of producer friends together and share your presets/sounds you each came up with while experimenting. Then you can reverse engineer the sounds your friends came up with and try to figure out how they came up with their own awesome sounds!

Word of Caution

One word of caution: even though experimenting is a lot of fun, you need to make sure you also spend the time studying and really focusing on your sound design. If you only have fun and mess around, you won’t really learn as much as you could. If you’re serious about music production and sound design, you need to make sure you put in the time to study and really focus on it.

Now, let’s get into what to do next!

Action:

Beginner – Open your favorite synth and start twisting knobs and pressing buttons. Don’t do this randomly of course! Pay attention to how the sound changes, and try to guess how each thing you do will affect the sound. If you’re not sure, just try it! This works best if you kind of know your synth a little already. That way you don’t turn knobs that won’t actually affect your sound due to signal flow. If you don’t know much about your synth, start by reading the manual, and then play around with one or two sections at a time. Then slowly add in new sections as you get familiar with them.

Advanced – Spend some time playing around with your favorite synth. Really try some new things you’ve never done before! Once you get a sound you really like, either save it as a preset, or create a new patch and just add the one or several elements that made that cool sound. Try to create around 10 presets from your session. While you’re doing all of this, pay close attention to why the sound is morphing the way it is. If you don’t understand why the sound is doing something, slow down and turn off one piece at a time until you get a clearer picture. This is crucial! If you don’t learn why the sound is changing the way it is, you won’t improve when you try to create sounds intentionally.

Question: What kind of sounds have you come up with while experimenting before? Has this helped you learn your synth and sound design better? Go try the action steps and let me know how it goes!

  • mczanetti

    I started studying sound design for about a month ago, and it really helped me ‘step up’ my game.
    /
    The VSTs that I am using right now are pretty much the ‘mainstream standarts’ these days: Sylenth1, Massive, Serum and Arturia Minimoog.

    I know that everyone recomend to focus on just one synth at time, and learn it well inside out, but I really like to mess with everything haha

    By now, I use they mainly for:

    Minimoog – Basslines
    Serum – ‘whobble bass’ and related fills
    Sylenth1 – arpegiators and leads
    Massive – pads, leads and crazy messy sounds

    I know that anyone of them can do all of that, but, thats just my taste. I am a techno dj/producer, and for my music, the minimoog bass just sound absolutely amazing, its just a personal thing.

    What I recomend to anyone beggining studying this subject.

    First of all: READ THE FUCKING MANUAL! I can’t stress this enough. You dont need to be a synth wizard imediately, but one thing thats its essential is to know how is the signal flow on your synth. This saves a lot of time later, because when you is experimenting and tweaking knobs, and theres no difference and then you get confused. It will help you when you begin…

    Watching tutorials on youtube: It’s awesome to have acess to so many good resources, and in a click you know how make ‘the skrillex growling bass, ‘ the jauz leads’, and the ‘dubfire minimal effects’, but, instead of just messing around with your synth, ask you frequently ‘WHY THIS MODIFICATE THE SOUND?’, not ‘how modificate the sound?’. This can be done when you…

    Separate ‘intentional learning time’ from ‘relaxing learning time’. It’s good to have some changes in your mindset sometimes. Separate some sessions to try get ‘that sound’ ( Oh, ‘know I want to make the bassline from that song’), and just touch something intentionaly. Do not tweak knobs without knowing what you wanna do. And set aside sometimes just to make ‘random sounds’, experimenting, without that objective approach. Oh, and remember…

    SAVE YOUR PRESETS! When you achieve a sound that you’ve liked, or you thing it’ll work in a potential song, save it. Do not rely only on your memory.

    Good production sessions everyone 🙂

    • Good stuff! I would really recommend trying to just use one or two plugins for a little while and really get to know them. That will help boost your sound design so much more than using a whole bunch of plugins! In the end though, do what you feel is best.

      GREAT advice to read the manual!!! So many people skip or ignore that step, and they immediately handicap themselves. Thanks for reading, and I appreciate your comment!

      • mczanetti

        i’m really liking your site. excited to read more articles soon 🙂

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