What’s a Synth Pad? The Lunatic’s Guide to Pads

Written by Adam King

September 13, 2022
What’s a Synth Pad? The Lunatic’s Guide to Pads

Written by Adam King

September 13, 2022

Have you ever heard a song that you would describe as “sparse” or “empty”? Sometimes music can thrive off the space it creates. Other times, a song needs something to wrap everything together. That’s where a synth pad comes into play. It works to pad out an arrangement and create ambience for the rest of the music.  

Proper use of a pad can be a producer’s secret weapon. It’s something you can add that makes your friends say, “I don’t know what you changed, but it sounds ten times better.” So let’s make sure you’re utilizing them to the fullest in your own creations.

What is a synth pad? 

A synth pad is a sustained sound, either a single tone or a chord, used to enhance the harmony of a broader track. Pads add a sense of atmosphere. In a broader music history context, the concept of padding out a musical arrangement has been around for quite some time.

Historical Context

Using harmony to strengthen a piece of music can be traced at least as far back to string arrangements in 17th century Baroque compositions. Fast forward to the 1960s, Phil Spector would create a Wall of Sound with dense sonic layering. The sounds were related to other components of the track yet added a unique character to Spector’s recordings.

 

When synthesizers emerged in the 1970’s, the capabilities of synth sounds to enhance production disrupted standard processes. A compact machine could enrich a track’s harmony almost as effectively as an entire ensemble. Today software synthesizers can create pads with no tangible physical footprint beyond the laptop or desktop they operate in.

Obviously synth sounds can also be used for leads, so contrasting synth leads with pads is helpful. Leads are more prominent in the foreground of an arrangement. They contribute a melody and often introduce a new rhythmic component with more staccato phrasing. Pads are for the background. They tend to be used for legato phrases that follow the chord changes or melodies. They don’t typically have a distinct rhythm of their own. When used effectively, the pad fills in the gaps of a production’s frequency spectrum and adds a sense of depth.

Pads Across Genres

How pads are used can vary widely by genre. In rock and pop music, they subtly thicken other instruments. In film scores, they can create a subtle atmosphere for a specific scene or locale. For ambient music, they may be the cornerstone of the song that everything else builds off.

How do you create a synth pad? 

As we frequently stress here at Lunacy, experimentation and blissful accidents are fundamental to creation. At its core, synthesizer sound design starts with three basic elements: the sound source, the amplitude envelope, and the filter.

Sound Source

The raw sound source (aka the waveform) is the building block of the pad. Sound sources vary by different types of synthesizers.

Analog Synthesizers

Analog synths are the quickest way to manifest classic pad sounds from groundbreaking synths like the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 or the Roland Juno. When creating pads, it’s helpful to know how different wave types in analog oscillators relate to the harmonics. We won’t dive deep into that here, but OG synth guru Gordon Reid offers in-depth explanations here and here.

In general, a saw wave will produce a buzzier, more shimmery timbre (since all harmonics are present). A square wave or pulse wave can feel slightly more muted (as only odd harmonics are present). A triangle wave will feel even more muted. You typically want to avoid using a sine wave. By definition, a sine wave is a single frequency, so it lacks the higher frequency harmonics to enrich the rest of the track.

Don’t be afraid to manipulate these analog wave forms, but beware excessive detuning. While detuning can create an analog chorusing effect, it can also detract from the clarity of the pitch the pad is supposed to emphasize.

Frequency Modulation (FM) Synthesizers

FM synths are also capable of creating interesting pads. FM is an often misunderstood form of synthesis typically associated with electric piano synth sounds. However, it can also produce rich pads with an intriguing metallic timbre. Brian Eno demonstrated this with his mastery of the Yamaha DX7, the synthesizer that brought FM to the masses in the 1980s. Once you get the basics of FM down (again, check out what Gordon Reid has to say about that), you can build a compelling FM pad by experimenting with different multiples between the carrier and modulator, and tweaking the FM amount.

Wavetable Synthesizers

Wavetable synths provide another approach for pads. Wavetables came to the forefront with the PPG Wave 2 and introduced a new form of synthesis. By compiling many discrete sampled waveforms into a composite “wavetable” then allowing the user to morph between those waveforms, a range of new timbres were possible. Wavetable synths are typically associated with glassy timbres. However, blending several wavetables and altering the rate at which a patch morphs through them provides an incredibly broad palette.

Sample-based Synthesizers

Sample-based synths offer yet another effective tool for creating pads. Starting with a sample that already resembles a pad yields the most obvious and immediate results. This depends on the sample’s amplitude envelope. More legato samples like strings are obvious starting points, as they harken back to those early Baroque arrangements. But nothing is off the table. You can take a staccato sample like a piano and reverse it. Or tweak its amplitude so the initial transient vanishes and it sounds more legato. Blending multiple samples using these techniques yields compelling results (and this is one of CUBE‘s many sweet spots).

Amplitude Envelope

The amplitude envelope (aka the loudness contour) is as important as the sound source. Each parameter of a typical ADSR (attack, decay, sustain, release) amplitude envelope will tend to be longer for pads. The primary characteristic of a pad is its extended attack time. Be careful when making the attack time extra long though. This can result in silence for the first few seconds of the sound.

In terms of decay, you want to push it either as little or as deep as possible. With no decay, your volume will increase in accordance with the attack and then level out at the sustain level. With a longer decay, the sound will peak with the attack and then slowly decay to the sustain level. Both of these settings are desirable as they create subtle, legato sounds. Beware of short or moderate decay times. They can create a noticeable volume peak and drop in the middle of the sound that could be distracting for a pad. Your sustain level is thus very important. Sustain defines the level of volume the patch settles into after the attack and decay. It essentially determines how prominent your pad will be in the mix.

Release is related to attack. Whereas attack determines how long the sound takes to reach maximum volume, the release defines how long it takes for the sound to go silent. Successful pads typically tend to have longer release times. However, the right release setting depends on how smoothly the player transitions from one key or chord to the next.

Filter

After you’ve configured the sound source and amplitude envelope, use the filter to carve out specific ranges of frequencies in the sound. When using filters, there are four key elements to pay attention to: type, frequency, resonance, and envelope.

Low-pass, high-pass, band-pass, and notch are the most common filter types. Which one you use will depend on which frequency range you want to emphasize (or de-emphasize) in the arrangement. A high pass filter will emphasize high-end sparkle and complement low or mid-range instrumentation. And vice versa for a low pass filter. It’s also important to remember that individual filter circuit designs will have subtle but crucial impacts on the timbre. For example, even though they are both low-pass, Moog’s ladder filter sounds very different that the diode ladder filter used in the Roland TB-303.

Filter frequency (aka filter cutoff) controls where the frequencies are removed or “filtered.” One approach to find the right filter frequency for your pad is to playback the broader arrangement and tweak the filter cutoff frequency to find the “sweet spot” where it’s adding interest but not becoming too prominent.

This is important when choosing filter resonance as well. Filter resonance uses feedback to boost the frequencies near the cutoff. Resonance also tends to emphasize the timbral characteristics of the filter. Extreme resonance values can add harshness to the sound, so low to moderate values are your best bet.

A filter envelope does the same thing to the filter cutoff as an amplitude envelope does to the volume. While it’s not essential, a filter envelope can subtly emphasize the filter’s timbre as the pad evolves. Like with the amplitude envelope, you typically want longer filter envelope settings.

How do you EQ a synth pad?

First and foremost, you need to EQ your synth pad relative to what’s happening in the rest of your track. Unless this is a deep ambient song where your pad is the focus of the music, EQ the pad so there is enough space across the frequency spectrum for the primary elements of the track to shine. A good starting point is to cut frequencies around 3-4kHz, as that is where our hearing is most sensitive, (and where pads are most noticeable in many arrangements).

Use your eyes, your ears, and your creative instincts. Play the pad solo and use a spectrum visualizer to see which frequencies are most prominent. Now do the same with the rest of the arrangement without the pad. See where those peaks and valleys lie across the spectrum. Keeping in mind the full dynamic footprint of the arrangement, add the pad back into the mix and see whether it complements the rest of the track. Your pad could support, blend, or compete with other track elements. Just make sure it’s doing the job you want it to. Experimentation is key.

How can you spice up a pad? 

OK – so you found the right pad sound and it’s sitting in the mix well. But it’s just missing that extra “something.” No worries – there’s plenty you can do to add some extra glimmer.

Modulation

Modulation is a natural starting point to add movement. Start by reviewing your synthesizer’s available modulation sources. Low frequency oscillators (LFO) are effective modulation sources to add subtle movement and gradually change the texture of your pad. Subtlety and nuance are the names of the game, so begin with slow LFO rates. Faster settings could create new rhythms in the pad that clash with the overall rhythm of your song. Many synthesizers have an auxiliary envelope that can be an effective modulation source as well. Looping the auxiliary envelope can make it behave similarly to an LFO.

In terms of modulation destinations, pulse width (for pulse/square waves in analog synths), frequency modulation amount (for FM synths), and wavetable position (for wavetable synths) are also great to add interest to your pad. Synths with multiple oscillators often include oscillator mix as a destination. This can be interesting to use when the pad’s sound sources are different. Modern synths (especially software synths) offer extensive modulation capabilities. So turn the lights down low, start twisting some knobs, and have fun interacting with the results.

Effects

Effects are another surefire way to spice things up. Add delay and/or reverb effects to alter the sense of time, space, and dimension. Mess with modulation effects (phasing, chorus, flanging) to add a sense of lushness or a psychedelic sweep. Just make sure to not go too far over the top, or the effects could obfuscate the notes you’re trying to emphasize.

Saturation and distortion effects add warmth and/or grit, but again, a little goes a long way. It’s easy to turn your pad into something that sounds delightfully fierce alone, but stands out in the mix too much. Dynamics effects (compression, limiting) alter the pad’s presence in your mix and can make it better mesh with the track’s rhythm. Similar to the amplitude envelope, altering the compressor’s attack and release settings inherently interact with the arrangement’s groove, so keep that in mind.

Panning

Pan settings can play with the stereo image and add a sense of space and texture. A mono tremolo with minimal depth or a slow panning effect can make a flat, stagnant sound more interesting across the stereo field. When it comes time for live performance, ride the mod wheel and play with filter knobs to emphasize (or de-emphasize) key parts of the overarching track.

A Pad for Any Occasion

Synth pads are your friend. They’re the support network that can build up your composition and add a unique sonic character. The right sonic atmosphere can create the horizon in an otherwise vast and empty plane. Imagine watching Star Trek: The Next Generation without the underlying hum of the engine – the illusion of space wouldn’t be the same. Frequently, it’s the sounds we don’t notice that most shape our understanding of our surroundings. So, start subtle, but don’t hesitate to be bold. Remember that some of the greatest compositions end up in an entirely different universe than their intended direction.

Synth pads are the tools of sonic architects, and Lunacy Audio is here to help you build your cityscape. CUBE is capable of all of the techniques mentioned throughout this article. CUBE’s presets and its expansion packs (especially Threads) have sounds that naturally lend themselves to pads. With the Orbit feature’s ability to morph between up to 8 sounds, CUBE is perfect for creating lush, evolving pads. So fire up the CUBE engine, start experimenting with sounds and orbits, and get creative!

Spiritualized utilizing the perpetual pad in a live rock setting.

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