The Joy of Pads: Learn the history of the synth pad and how to build them effectively for your tracks

Evoking anything from mystery and suspense to euphoric joy and elation, the synth pad can be the perfect production device to fill that space in the mix and increase your track’s emotional intensity.

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Joy of pads

For many, the term ‘synth pad’ conjures up thoughts of loud 80s bands with big hair, utilising equally large polysynths from the same era and using them to ramp up the cheese, but the actual concept of the pad was initiated long before then, it’s just that the pad’s increased association with synths placed it on a trajectory that catapulted the term firmly into the production lexicon.

Terms and conditions

Nobody really knows where the term ‘pad’ came from, or even when it first appeared, but it’s possible to chart its use back several hundred years, where composers such as JS Bach would have used string instruments to basically ‘pad-out’ textures, alongside a degree of harmonic movement. Despite these classical beginnings, it could be argued that the overall concept of the pad has largely been unchanged since this time, while the way we produce the sounds has altered substantially.

Looking at the term’s description literally, the purpose of the pad is to pad-out the texture, whether it be in a musical sense, or for the sake of fleshing out a mix, when producing music in a studio or live setting.

One of the earliest uses of electronic pads could be cited back to the contemporary works of experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. His work called Hymnen (1967) made ground-breaking use of the national anthems of the world, which were recorded, processed and mutated in such a way that one anthem would literally morph into another, much like a DJ with decks, although the whole process was completed using magnetic tape. Alongside this groundbreaking technique, Stockhausen used pure electronic tones to play out an often abstract harmonic progression, which sometimes appeared centre stage, but often melted into the background as a supporting texture, giving way for fragments of national anthem to return.

Karulheinz Stockhausen
Karlheinz Stockhausen’s seminal Hymnen mashed-up the world’s national anthems and set the precedent for the first use of electronic pads. Image: Herve GLOAGUEN / Gamma Rapho via Getty Images

This use of electronic sound is a world away from what we now think of, but it did inadvertently sow a seed for future concepts, and it was with the advent of electronic organs and string machines, in the seventies, that the pad really started to gain traction.

Staying in phase

In 1974, Kraftwerk produced an album called Autobahn. Firmly a concept album, the title track lasted over twenty-two minutes, leaving the boys from Düsseldorf ample space to make use of pads. Polysynths, or synths which could play substantial chords, were pretty non-existent at this time, leaving it to two legendary machines, in the shape of the ARP Odyssey and the MiniMoog, to be exploited for pad-like textures. The ARP is duophonic, meaning that its two oscillators could be assigned to different notes of a two-note chord, while the MiniMoog offered a trick with its three oscillators, where a single chord could be constructed, via re-tuning of its oscillators, to create the thick and lush triad movement that we hear throughout the title track. The creation of this sound is not merely emanating from the synth though, with the addition of various effects, notably phaser, delay and reverb.

Kraftwerk’s early lengthy synth-based compositions preceded the polysynth, and so the four utilised clever ways of emulating chords for their pad-type textures. Image: Paul Natkin / WireImage

This thickening technique was also exploited a couple of years later by Jean Michel Jarre, as heard on his album Oxygene, where he used string machines and electronic organs, along with the fabled early incarnation of Electro-Harmonix Small Stone Phaser, to create beautifully thick, modulating and organic textures with a hint of delay, that captured that late 70s sense of futuristic sci-fi.

What’s interesting about these initial placements of pads is their simplistic usage, coupled with the fact that these sounds would invariably take centre stage. Of course, if you wanted to go truly organic, you could always do what 10cc did on their huge hit I’m Not In Love, where the band recorded themselves singing different individual notes on numerous tracks of a multi-track tape, only to fade the notes in and out to create the most extraordinary pad-like texture, which is the sort of thing that could now easily be recreated via the use of sampling. While it might appear to be the preserve of vintage recordings, the classic Mellotron Choir also underwent a huge renaissance, as bands such as Radiohead revisited this sound.

Korg ARP Odyssey
Reissued by Korg in 2015, the classic ARP Odyssey had dual oscillators that could be assigned to different notes of a two-note chord, yielding some basic synth pads

Modern tendencies

Even in the most modern settings, you’ll hear these vintage sounds used by all sorts of artists, from LIndstrøm to Coldplay, but as the pad technology marches on, so we hear the ever-abundant harmonic makeup of the Super or Hyper Saw waves. This concept introduces a further audio thickener to the production mix by adding and detuning additional oscillators in order to create a huge sounding timbre, which is often found in those euphoric dance hits.

With a strange sense of history repeating itself, these sounds often take centre stage, much like the older string machine sounds from the 70s, but being ramped and compressed to the top of the mix pile, supported heavily by those pumping drums and accented basses. It might sometimes be the case that rhythmic elements, or sequential gating, might be added to induce further interest, but despite the modern leanings, the actual basic technique stems right back to its original incarnation.

Classic to modern techniques

So let’s consider a few options and ways that we might create some interesting pad-like tones. If you have a calling to create something vintage, whether it be nostalgia or retro-modern, you don’t have to have something vintage to achieve similar or credible alternative results.

In terms of vintage tech, you can’t do better than start with a string machine or ensemble, with one of the most highly regarded and recognisable being the Solina String Ensemble, which was also known as the ARP String Ensemble. Harking back to the mid-to-late 70s, it was one of many string synths from that era. Many commercial DAW packages ship with Solina samples on board, but if you want to go a little further, there is an abundance of third-party choice. The highly regarded UVI library called String Machines 2 offers exactly what it says on the virtual box, operating from within UVI’s own Workstation plug-in, or as part of their flagship Falcon package. It contains a bewildering sixty-two string machines – who knew that there were actually sixty-two string machines to choose from! Alongside this stunning collection of samples, you also get other FX based features, with an arpeggiator, so it’s possible to start vintage and veer off into another production domain.

UVI String Machines
UVI’s String Machines 2 is a treasure trove of remarkably accurate reproductions of the classics

Another similarly prized contender is the G-Force VSM (Virtual String Machine), which also offers a vast number of the classics, with stacking and modulation options.

While the initial sound can be a very helpful starting point, particularly if you wish to give a nod in a certain vintage direction, it’s only a small part of the armoury when creating virtual string textures. The modulation is pretty vital, and that’s where these bespoke plug-ins can offer a one-stop shop for the classic sound, but even without these packages it’s perfectly possible to create something vintage with the basics in a DAW.

G Force VSM Medium Wood
G-Force Virtual String Machine has numerous stacking options to re-create those classic synth pad sounds

Your starting point could be a synth with just a single oscillator. If you have the option to add a second oscillator, this will thicken and detune at source, and while it might help the cause, it’s not vital. In the below example, we’ll start with a basic Sawtooth wave, using the most basic of synths from Logic (ES-1), while reducing the Low Pass filter a little to avoid too much brightness.

Fake Solina Signal Flow
The perfect way to recreate a string machine, using a basic Saw tone and 2xLFO Phaser. Just add your favoured EQ and a liberal sprinkle of delay or reverb for that classic finish

The next point of plug-in will be some form of phaser, chorus, ensemble or modulation effect. Even the most basic effect plug-in will begin to set you on the road to Solina nirvana, but try using an effect such as a phaser that has two LFOs. These can be set out of phase, or different speeds. It is this dual-aspect signal flow that creates the ever-changing backdrop of modulation, often using stereo. This should offer a pretty basic vintage sound, but if you want to go the full Oxygene, try adding a Phaser with fairly extreme resonant settings. Pan it to one side of the stereo image and add a delay, using a Buss or Aux send, which you can pan to the opposite side of the stereo image. This will sound über classy, while offering that hint of the bygone age.

Jean Michel Jarre
Jean Michel Jarre’s classic Oxygene was a pulsing, shifting synth record of astounding depth, but the techniques he used are straightforward to replicate. Image: Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

Depending on your placement within the mix, you might find that a reduction of bottom end, through the use of a High Pass Filter or EQ, will help keep the lower frequencies out of the way. This will be less important if your pad-ensemble is taking centre stage, but could become an issue around other lower pitched voicings.

Super gating

If we jump forward ten or so years, the synth pads that predominantly made up the 80s, and now adorn the odd hit from the likes of Bruno Mars, were the bright open synth pads from machines like the Roland Juno series. In a similar manner to the string machine predecessor from the 70s, the Juno series machines only had basic single oscillator building blocks, which were thickened at the point of output by onboard chorussing.

The logical progression of this is to thicken the oscillator at source, giving rise to a generation of synths that first appeared in the 90s, which had the facility to detune multiple waves right at the start of the signal. This was the birth of the Supersaw, from the Virtual Analog generation of synths such as the Access Virus and Roland JP-8000.

Although there are many virtual synths which are equipped with the ability to Supersaw at the flick of an onscreen switch, it is equally possible to generate something SuperSaw-like with a little ingenuity.

Let’s take an example of working with the ES-2 in Logic, although any similarly equipped synth will do, but it will help if you have three oscillators available.

ES 2 No Figs
Supersaw it up, with any basic synth that offers the ability, detune and stack up voices in Unison. Just add a sequential gate plug-in for your perfect commercial dance sound

We’ll start by switching all three oscillators to a Saw, taking the third and detuning it to a whole octave lower (Point 1). Make sure that the other two oscillators are detuned against each other by a few cents either way. Like many DAW based synths, the ES-2 is equipped with the ability to stack oscillator tones in Unison, allowing the use of a considerable number of tonal sources, so we’ll take the number of voices to 16, while ensuring that we are in Poly mode (Point 2). Turning our attention to the filter section, we’ll want to open the filters nice and wide, and add some overdrive to taste (Point 3). Finally, use the global detune pot (Point 4) to exaggerate the degree of detuning between oscillators, which will result in a truly super Saw.

There are a couple of other points that will help your cause in the creation of this sort of sound; be sure to eliminate any modulation from the envelope section, to either of the filters. Any exaggeration of opening attack will probably not sound authentic to the classic tone that we’re after here, while you might also want to ensure that the pad is fully sustained, so make sure the sustain fader is set to full on your amplitude envelope.

Another contemporary classic technique, is to create a pad which contains sequential gating. This effectively means the application of rhythmic content to a sustained pad, where the volume level of the pad is turned on and off in order to create an interesting rhythmic pattern. This will sound slightly different from simply playing notes repeatedly in rhythm, especially if you can include other elements which modulate and alter over time, such as panning and filtering, or even control of effects such as reverb and delay.

While Logic users can exploit the Step FX plug-in, which has risen from the ashes of Camel Audio’s CamelSpace plug-in, a good alternative for other users might be Gatekeeper by Polyverse. Apply this plug-in to your pad and you’ll be rhythmically effecting your sustain in no time at all.

Timeless classic

What we’ve always loved about pads is that despite their relatively humble constituent components, they offer plenty to contemporary production. It’s often the case that we find ourselves recording an old analog synth into our favoured DAWs, to then beaver away with a mixture of modulation, reverb and gating FX, on a journey to something which is a million miles away from the original starting point. But fundamentally the pad will always fulfil the same point in criteria, which is to pad out our composition or mix with colour, interest and movement. The pad is quite often the glue that binds our tracks together.

Hardware v software

It’s always easy to get sucked into the chasm of hardware versus software, and I’m here to tell you that it simply doesn’t matter, as long as it fulfils the requirement that your mix desires.

If you’re playing live, hardware might have an attraction, in which case there are some great instruments out there which can help you out. The new STVC from Waldorf is a string machine and vocoder with beautiful illusions of both vintage and contemporary grandeur. It is not an out-and-out synth, but it is a pad-creating-powerhouse. Similarly, the Roland JU-06a is a module which is modelled on the original Juno 60 & 106. It’s pad nirvana in a small module.

If you are drawn more to software, any number of synth-based plug-ins and ROMplers could do the job, with notable products being Massive from Native Instruments or Nexus3 from reFX. Debatably, the most lauded powerhouse is Omnisphere 2.5 from Spectrasonics. It’s packed full of both vintage and contemporary content, making it a great all-rounder, with an onboard synth engine which is both versatile and great-sounding.

Real-life pads

One of the wonderful properties of sounds such as the Mellotron Choir, is that you don’t quite know if what you’re listening to is real or not, so if you find yourself wanting to explore pads from this avenue, try sampling. The Waldorf STVC is equipped with the ability to both sample and vocode the users voice, creating something which is entirely unique. Away from the human voice, companies such as Spitfire Audio have some superb acoustic instrument libraries which will offer the finest of pad-like backdrops.

The British Drama Toolkit (BDT) or LCO Textures both offer beautiful acoustic instrumentation, which sound excellent right out of the box, or provide a perfect springboard for further production and treatment. The ear will pick up on these worms, from the mix, and rhetorically ask you to question what you’re listening to, and that’s where uniqueness dwells.

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