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 instinctually 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 so the rest of the music can shine.  

Proper use of a pad can be a producer’s secret weapon – something you can add that makes your friends say, “I don’t know what you changed, but it sounds ten times better.” Like a pillow for the bleachers, the right pad can elevate the mundane to the exceptional. 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 (or “pad”) the harmony of a broader track and 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 thicken a piece of music can be traced at least as far back to the sustained string sections of Baroque compositions in the 17th century. Fast forward to the 1960s, Phil Spector would create a Wall of Sound with dense sonic layering. These were related to other melodies or harmonies in the track yet added a unique sonic character to Spector’s recordings.

 

When synthesizers began to emerge as functional tools in the 1970’s, the capabilities of a pad to enhance production disrupted standard recording and production processes. A compact machine could enrich a track’s harmony almost as effectively as an entire ensemble of players. Today software synthesizers can create effective pads with no tangible physical footprint beyond the laptop or desktop they operate in.

Obviously synthesizers can also be used for leads, so contrasting 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. Synth pads are intended for the background. They tend to be used for legato phrases that follow the chord changes or melodies. They don’t have a distinct rhythm of their own. When used effectively, the pad fills in the gaps of a production’s frequency spectrum and can add a sense of depth and width.

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, where everything else builds off the mood it creates.

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. 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 an effective way to create an analog chorusing effect, detuning 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 sounds, but it can also produce rich pads with an intriguing metallic timbre. Brian Eno demonstrated this with his mastery of the Yamaha DX7, the landmark synthesizer that brought FM to the masses in the mid-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, which introduced a new form of digital 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. While typically associated with glassy timbres, 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 very effective tool for creating pads. Starting with a sample that already resembles a pad yields the most immediate results. This depends on the sample’s amplitude envelope (skip ahead to the next section for details on that!). 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 with a pad. The primary characteristic of a pad is extended attack time, so it’s a great place to start. Be careful when making the attack time extra long though, as it will 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. Like within the art of war, middle ground is your enemy here. 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. Do beware of short or even moderate decay times. They can create a noticeable volume peak in the middle of the sound that could be distracting for a pad. Your sustain level is thus massively important. Sustain defines the level of volume the patch settles into after the decay and 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 after pressing a key, the release defines how long it takes for the sound to go silent after the key is released. 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: filter 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 will add sparkle to the high-end and complement low or mid-range instrumentation. 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 vastly different that the diode ladder filter used in the classic Roland TB-303.

Filter frequency (aka filter cutoff) controls where the filter’s effects begin to take effect and remove (or “filter” out) frequencies from the pad. 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 and 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 to use a filter envelope, it can add a subtle sonic character by emphasizing the filter’s timbre. You typically want longer filter envelope settings (similar to the best practices above on the amplitude envelope).

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. Sometimes folks want to make sure their pad is exciting and will EQ it to sound great alone. 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 frequency spectrum visualizer to see where its frequencies are most prominent. Now do the same with the rest of the arrangement sans 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, so just make sure it’s doing the job you want it to. Experimentation is key.

Remember your intended audience. If this song is intended for a glowstick draped rave-dome, your EQ levels for your pad will be very different than if you’re performing for a Sunday morning goat-yoga class.

How can you spice up a pad? 

OK – so you found the right sound, you’ve tweaked the envelope and filter, 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 that 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 typically include oscillator mix as a modulation destination. This can be especially interesting to use when the pad’s sound sources are very 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 also 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 (similar to the above note on not excessively detuning oscillators).

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, giving a sense of space and texture to an otherwise flat sound. A mono tremolo w/ minimal depth or a slow panning effect can make a stagnant sound more interesting across the stereo field. And 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 would be drastically altered. 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. Many of the synth and string sound sources within CUBE and its expansion packs (like those in Threads), 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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