20 Sounds that Must Live

By David Battino
March 30, 2009

One of the listener favorites in my Digital Media Insider podcast series is the "Synth Mania" episode. It's based on a humorous article I wrote for Keyboard magazine called "20 Sounds that Must Die." In the podcast, I interviewed Paolo di Nicolantonio, a synthesizer enthusiast who built a website celebrating the 20 sounds I mocked, plus many more.

dmi11-techno-trio.jpg
The di Nicolantonio Techno Trio plays the classic Roland groovebox sounds: 909, 303, and 808.

Recently, a listener named Ted wrote with the opposite question:

"I know that everybody likes to make crazy, freaky sounds on their synths from time to time, but my creative workflow tends to get bogged down when I go from creating music to twiddling knobs, searching for the right sounds. See, I'm not a 'synthesist'; I'm a songwriter. I really want to have a stable of about 10 or 20 usable sounds — tried and true synth patches that can easily fit into the context of any song.

"Enough with the Martian space-chime echoes and dissonant pitch-shifted arp motifs — I just want five good bass sounds, five good keys sounds, five leads, and five pads that would sound good almost anywhere. You know — 808 boom, Hammond B3, Rhodes, Moog, Dr. Dre gangsta whine, etc.

"So my question is: If you could only have 20 synth sounds, what would they be and what are the parameter settings so I can program them into my Crystal synth?"

Programming specific sounds is beyond the scope of this blog; a good place to start is O'Reilly author Jim Aikin's Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming. But Ted's larger point is an important one: Until you're fluent enough with sound design that programming and composing become two sides of the same process, having a go-to set of sounds — your personal band — is very helpful. Babylon 5 composer Christopher Franke once described his setup as a giant General MIDI module, with all the instruments in his studio set to a small collection of favorite sounds and prepatched to the mixer, ready to go.

Of course, each of us would have a unique list of 20 favorites; even the standardized 128-sound menu of General MIDI has many flavors. Probably the most promising attempt I've seen to organize favorite sounds into easy-to-use groups is Native Instruments' Kore system. (See our review.)

Unless you always write in the same style, you'll probably want different sets of 20 as well. I usually start projects by assembling my "orchestra." That helps focus my thinking, but, as demonstrated in another favorite episode of Digital Media Insider, can lead to some hilarious dead ends as well.

So which 20 sounds would you not want to live without?


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