Electronic musicians: How do you decide?


For the last 20 years I have used my daw as a virtual tape machine, miking instruments and playing live. But the last year or two I have been very inspired to create electronic music in the box and have done so, albeit very slowly and inefficiently. I use Pro 11 and no 3rd party plugs or libraries.

It’s so easy to get hung up auditioning sounds, and to lose focus due to the huge number of options available.

I’m wondering what others do to refine their processes.

Do you simply choose a few favorite samples, drum sounds, etc. and stick to those? It’s great fun going through all the options available, but it’s so utterly time-consuming. Then when you choose the right synth, drums, etc… the temptation to layer samples, make tweaks - seems never ending!

Thanks in advance for any words of wisdom.

John in Denver, CO usa

I usually have a sound in mind that will fit. I then look where I might find it or something close. If I find something in retrologue for instance I can then modify it. It’s good to rate the sounds and make a note of them for future use. It can be quick or I can be trying different sounds for days. No perfect formula

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It’s very easy to get bogged down by the endless choices, and something I’ve struggled with ever since I first owned a sampler. The way I avoid getting out in the weeds picking instruments is at the start of the project I usually pick a certain limitation- recently I’ve been doing multitracked songs using only a single hardware synth for all chromatic sounds. This very much trims a lot of the plugin swapping and preset browsing time I am liable to waste otherwise. Other times the limitation might be sticking to a certain brand’s instruments or FX plugins. These experiments are chances for me to learn a handful of tools in-depth as well as attempts at streamlining the production process so I can actually FINISH TRACKS rather than peter out half-way through.

Also, as time goes on I do develop favorite tools, both FX and instruments, and I’m very efficient with the tools I use most often.

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I sometimes suffer with analysis paralysis, trying lots of things before deciding.

I should note that I am mostly making more traditional forms of music, but using virtual instruments for all my instrumental tracks and either playing them from a keyboard or wind controller or doing some combination of playing/programming for loop-based instruments (e.g. certain virtual guitars such as strummed ones, drums, percussion).

With some instruments, such as drums and electric/acoustic bass, I have go to virtual instruments that I use at least 90% of the time (e.g. Superior Drummer 3 for drums and either Trilian or MODO Bass for bass). Even here, though, I may be spending a lot of time picking the right drum kit for the song from the many options, often auditioning multiple kits from the many SDX and EZX add-ons I have for a balance of getting a little more creative (a.k.a. inspiring myself) and finding the best fit for the track. It’s usually less of an issue for electric or acoustic bass, but, if I double that (or at least augment it), with a synth bass, then there is typically a much longer search, trying out different virtual instruments.

When it comes to virtual guitars, I’ll often have a feel for the type of guitar I want (e.g. Strat, Tele, Les Paul, acoustic, strummed versus picked, etc.), and that will narrow down my choices of virtual instruments. But then it comes down to experimentation to try and find what comes closest to what I have in my head and/or to come up with creative ideas for the track. And if it’s an electric lead part, or an electric rhythm part from an instrument that doesn’t include the amp simulation aspects (or at least gives the options to bypass that), then there’s also the experimentation with multiple amp simulators and presets, then sometimes tweaking the presets.

When it comes to synths, it tends to be way more challenging. Sometimes I’ll just pick a synth I haven’t tried recently to try and shake things up a bit (and make it seem like the ridiculous number of choices I have between Arturia, NI, and others really was worth all the money spent over the decades). But, once I pick an instrument, I’ll often use any filtering capabilities they have to try to narrow down possibilities to a shorter list of patches to try. If I don’t find what I’m looking for that way, I may well just try a different instrument. I’ve also sometimes used Arturia’s Analog Lab to cut down on the time for this since it not only allows using any of the V Collection instruments (plus Pigments) for the sounds, thus enabling filtering across multiple instruments, but also can do two-instrument layers. If I ultimately arrive on a single instrument from within that, I may switch to that virtual instrument.

On the synths front, though, unless I’m doing something electronic from the start, I’m usually a ways into a production by the time I am adding synth pads (or even leads). Thus, I’ll have a much better feel for context for the sounds I want. After, perhaps arbitrarily, picking an instrument, then using any filtering to narrow things down, even if the narrowing down means 50 or more choices, I may pick through those choices by names, hoping that the names give some sense of quality (decidedly not always the case), I’ll typically play along with my recording in progress using the presets I decide to try, switching as I eliminate any, but, when I find one that I want to consider further (but not yet choose), I’ll make a note in the Cubase track notepad of that sound, then continue on. This will typically get me multiple possibilities, then I can track something with one of them and go back and forth between presets seeing which fits best. Last night I was doing this with Massive X for a modern country ballad, having whittled things down to 3 presets. I ultimately decided to layer two of those semi-finalists together, with different arpeggiators on the two tracks (both of which had the identical MIDI part) to get a more interesting texture/movement in the pad.

When it’s pure electronic (not something I do often, but sometimes…), especially building something up from looping parts, I may be shifting things around a lot more frequently as I create the parts and figure out how I want to fit each part and sound into the densest potential section of the resulting song, and there is only so much space once things get built up, so the character of the sound becomes important. It may be just a bunch of experimentation, without having anything specific in mind on the front end but just going with some initial sounds that feel inspiring to play, then, as things build up, what is needed sound character-wise gets narrowed down, and the virtual instruments’ browsing/filtering capabilities help find possibilities a bit more quickly. But there’s still a lot of rolling the dice and experimentation.

In either context, though, I find that choices get easier as the arrangement and production mover further along because context is building up, and that can help speed up decisions, because something either works or doesn’t, and it’s easier to be less precious about a given part in and of itself. It’s much tougher earlier in the process, though, when you don’t have that context to inform the choices. But this can also be where my notepad list of choices can be helpful, because, if I’ve chosen three potential drum kits, then more context builds up, I can revisit those choices later, and I may found the one I went with early on isn’t the best choice, or even that none of them is, but now I can look for something else with the context to help me find a better choice.

To be honest… (I’m always suspicious when people start a statement that way myself. so…)

To be honest, it really comes down to the interface, just like with hardware synths. Yes there are more options than I know what to do with, but some of those work really well, and some not so well. How easy is it to imagine a sound, or to have some idea about what one wants to accomplish sonically, and then to realize that sound.

Take Granular Synthesis just as an example. There are so many options, but Padshop stands out. Pigments is great, and Straylight/Pharlight is also good when targeting something more ambient because the presets. HALion is also a good option, especially when mixing styles like with Pigments. Reaktor has it’s place and is fun to play with from a cerebral perspective, but the interface is more useful for experimentation.

Massive is great for 90s style techno bass but is time consuming to get your head around, and the quality of what you can get from HALion along the same lines is just amazing. It comes down to the interface. Massive X is a vast improvement when thinking through sound design, but it has nothing on Pigments, which provides an easier to visualize interface.

So to the Honest part. It’s like looking for an app to do something on your phone, you get a few, usually the free version, and half of them have some messed up payment model, or want you to create an account, and of the rest one or two stick out as genuinely being useful. It’s the same. Maybe it’s a matter of preference, but it comes down to the interface more often than not.

Then it’s about performance and the tone you get.

When it comes to samplers it is really more to do with sampler platforms. There are two primary options. HALion and Kontakt. Almost everything has a Kontakt version, but the Kontakt interface is horrible, so HALion is preferred, but not always an option. The most frustrating thing to happen is when you buy the Kontakt library and they come out with a HALion version, but you would have to buy it all over again. The choice of library is more about how it sounds though.

Then there are the emulations. You used an instrument in hardware, and you know what sort of sound you can get from that hardware, and you want that sound, or that experience. The interface hopefully is going to be close to the original, so it’s more about how well it emulates the sound and what performance you get out of it.

Sometimes it is about what you know. If you know an instrument already, if you spent the time to learn it, then you go back to that instrument over and over. But again, that is sort of about it’s UI. I have a huge library of instruments I never ever use. Sad, but when I know how to get what I want from a small set, I just keep going back to them.

My take get Absolute! it’s a great place to start. If you are composing, then Kontakt is a must! Pigments may also be useful because it’s interface is intuitive. Not as structured as HALion with which you can get close to the same benefit from, but a great interface for experimenting. Nothing beats NDSP for Amp Sims, as far as sound quality goes. I regret all of my other amp sim purchases.

The number one argument against this diatribe is the sonic quality you want to achieve. After you have heard everything a lot you start to recognize the variations to presets that have been used. Think of it like this, every time you hear a Line6 amp sim, you know without any doubt that it is Line6. Your brain pattern matches something about that technology that makes it recognizable. Once you have heard it, you can’t unhear it. Two seconds in, and you know it’s Line6. Synths are the same way, you hear Absynth, and you just know. Sure it has a great interface (for it’s time), but it also has a district je ne sai quoi.

I did not personally have to spend a lot on most of my software that isn’t from Steinberg, so it isn’t fair for me to talk about exploring and finding the interface you synch with. But demo versions are still a thing, right?

If I had it to do over again, I would buy Absolute and learn HALion, take a class in synthesis or watch a full tutorial class on it. I would learn synthesis and experiment with Pigments. I would have to have Kontakt. There isn’t any way around Kontakt unfortunately. But never buy anything for Kontakt you can get in HALion.

As to layering and selecting samples, it’s the same as improvisation in note selection. It’s similar to composing. Look for a sample that is similar, to what you hear in your mind, hear it. Play it in your head first. Then go for the kind of sample that makes sense. Try to know what you are going for. Once you have something close, then jam, let yourself go, you can always refine the tone from the performance later.

I spent some time (several days) going through a good amount of the presets my soft synths came with, and whittled them down to a manageable subset. So, for example, I made one Groove Agent instrument that contains a wide selection of hi hats - we’re talking much less than 100 different hi hat sounds, across a variety of styles, and my default recording template has that Groove Agent instrument loaded so I immediately have a curated list of hi hats available to me. That way I don’t spend hours hunting through thousands of samples - I know I have a “good enough”, relatively small list of curated hi hat sounds that will cover pretty much all needs. Same thing for kick drums, snare drums, lead and pad synth sounds, etc.

As the composition/arrangement process evolves, I’ll end up tweaking some of these sounds, but those are usually minor tweaks. So all this gives me a good balance of having a wide variety of raw sonic material, yet not getting bogged down in preset auditioning instead of writing music!

Excellent insights from you all. I hope more to come.