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Synthesis Techniques For Emulating Vintage Sounds

Sound Design Workshop By Rory Dow

Synthesis Techniques For Emulating Vintage SoundsPhoto: Hannes Bieger

Any synth can be coaxed into producing vintage-sounding patches...

Despite analogue synthesizers being more readily available than ever, there is still an art to getting those instantly nostalgic sounds; the textures and timbres that take you back in time. In this article we'll take a look at a range of tips that can be applied to almost any synthesizer, hardware or software. I won't be encouraging use of effects or recording techniques. Instead, we'll be focusing purely on the sound design. Grab your synth and let's go back... way back.

What Makes A Vintage Sound?

The million-dollar question. What is it about '60s, '70s and even '80s synthesizers that make them instantly recognisable? What makes something sound 'vintage' at all? The obvious answer is age. Many have pointed towards technological changes such as surface-mounted circuit-boards replacing through-hole designs. That this difference alone makes vintage equipment sound better, or even just different, is a dangerous topic. In theory, modern surface-mounted designs can achieve everything that older through-hole designs can. Instead, it's more likely that, as technology has improved over the years, individual components have become more precise and new circuit designs have 'improved' to reduce errors and imperfections.

In addition to this, one cannot easily measure the effect that time has on electronic circuits. We're all aware that older synth designs can have flawed characteristics such as tuning instabilities or noisy outputs. Some of that is down to the older components and designs, but some of that will also be due to components slowly failing over time. A 40-year old synthesizer will not sound the same as it did when it was factory-fresh.

The important thing to note here is the consequence that age, plus older components and circuit designs, have on the emerging sound. In general, it can be described as unstable, organic, imperfect... perhaps even human. In the same way that a guitar string can never be plucked the same way twice, analogue synthesizers seem to benefit from anything that adds movement or subtle change to repeated notes, and that specifically seems to be less inherent in modern circuit designs. It is with this in mind that a good portion of the tips and techniques that follow aim to emulate the sonic impact of these imperfections through...

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Published August 2020