Listen to a voice, cello, violin, 12-string guitar … many acoustic instruments have nice rich tones. Human voices in particular can have mighty fine formants because of head resonances. The solo voice (like Hendrix guitar) can stand up on its own because of its expressiveness and the interest created by richness. Much better than the operator of a pocket calculator.

Many factory synth patches fall short in the richness category … their voices or timbres are THIN. Getting really musical results with EM instruments … getting PHAT … sometimes means getting past the factory patches and playing with your gear, getting to know your tone-shaping options so you can manipulate them to shape fuller, more pleasing sounds.

(Zen dude says: become ONE with the instrument, baby!)

Here are a few ways to ‘punch up’ those timbres to add interest. (Sketches for now, I’ll fill this in more later.) Of course, expressiveness is still up to the player … but that’s another story.

In case you need help with the terminology, I’ve linked to some interesting sites (some of which are pretty rich themselves).


There’s no reason you’re stuck with only one tone, if you’ve got more than one monosynth or a multitimbral one. We learn from psychoacoustics (*) that when two not-too-different tones are heard together, the ear blends them as if they were from the same source. Adjust the volumes for best blend.

Advanced experiments
The two (or more) tones don’t have to be the same pitch! Many instruments have partial tones (*)(*) all over the sound spectrum; bass guitars, for example, often have ‘crunch’ tones (or whatever Les calls ’em) that are octaves higher – usually harmonics.Other instruments have widely separated partials. Several wind instruments only have strong odd partials (fundamental, 3rd harmonic, 5th, etc.).Bells have partials that aren’tharmonics. (Hmmmmmm ‘ring’ modulation)TONE IS LARGELY about WHICH PARTIALS ARE PRESENT … and how they change in time. Which is why synths have filters!


Most string players will play the tone ‘straight’ for a while, then add some vibrato for added interest. With layered EM tones, you can delay the entrance of a second tone for a time. (Including subharmonics … try doing that with an acoustic instrument!)

Now, suppose you’re playing two layered voices. Some synths go beyond simple ADSR to let you delay the attack of one voice quite a bit … up to a second or even longer. So on short notes, the second voice never ‘arrives’… you’ll hear only one. On long notes, a second voice enters.

If your synth doesn’t have delayed attack, just use a slow attack on the second voice.

Advanced experiments

Delay is often used for reverb or (echoing / decaying) repetition … but EM’s experimental by nature. Short delays can be used for reverse echoes or reverb. Really short delays allow nice flangey stuff like comb filtering.Experiment! For example: phasing and flanging are the result of delays. I once had a sample that was nice but it had wimpy snare hits. Then I tried running it through several plug-in effects … but they tended to affect *all* the sounds. Then I tried a phaser … bingo! the wimpy snare got SNAP, the other sounds weren’t affected. I didn’t worry why!


Most synths have a modulation matrix to let you add interest to voices. LFOs are a handy source of vibrato or tremelo. (Your synth might allow you to delay the entrance of the LFO, like string players do.).

Analog synthesis is allabout filtering. Moog’s filter design was extremely important to his success … and *that* he patented. MOOV that filter!

The most common filter trick is modulating the lopass-filter’s cutoff frequency (adding or subtracting partials.) Hit that with the ‘modwheel’ or key velocity a bit. You could LFO it. You could layer a plainjane solo voice with high-pitch noise patch … when the cutoff’s low, you don’t hear it … but when you hit the keys hard, the cutoff climbs and the noise pops out! RAAAASSSHHHH!!

But everbody do that! Get past Lopass into Highpass or Bandpass or Notch until you are the Spectrum-Master.

Some matrices even let you “modulate the modulators” i.e. control LFO speeds and individual envelope rates and levels. Some even allow feedback so that a mod source can control itself!

Rich tone sources

Early synths had only simply oscillators to work with – sine, triangle and square waves. The DX-7 took the synth world by storm because it used FM sources, which can have a very rich spectrum (often needing some filtering to tame). Bells have very rich spectra (often with -inharmonic- partials) which you can emulate to an extent with ring modulation. Feedback is rich too.

Some synths allow you to use *wavetables* for oscillators. (Think of *very short samples*.) The repeated waveform can be as simple as a square to *very complex* … which means *rich*. In the past few years this has finally gotten much easier – and cheaper.

That’s just a few ideas for now.