Presets are Pre-Dictable

/November 27, 2013

Producing albums takes many forms.

Sometimes you’re the guy up the back of the control room pondering takes in lotus pose, at other times you’re upside down on the floor trying to find out why the foot-pedal on the piano squeaks like a rusty bicycle.

There are also more times than you’re prepared to admit when you’re online buying instruments on spec, hoping that one day this latest purchase might hit the nail on the head of a song you’re working on which needs that special something. Being a producer can be an addictive pursuit.



The other day I was in the studio wandering through presets of a brand new synth I’d only shaken hands with moments earlier, looking for inspiration.

The synth looked cool, flashed invitingly… crikey, even the pitch wheel was luminous! But pretty soon a familiar feeling swept over me…

I’d been here before, many times: looking for an indeterminate sound on an unfamiliar synth. The pit was bottomless.

Once struck by this all too familiar predicament I saw the road ahead: a six-hour trip down an unfamiliar highway searching for some cure-all sound that didn’t exist… the Holy Grail, again.

Needless to say my impatience quickly grew, but in my determination to get something down I eventually came across a fantastic new sound… or so it seemed.

I recorded a couple of takes with it, cleverly running it through a couple of guitar amps and filling the large recording space with sound. I cut up the takes into a single performance, tucked it quickly into the mix and moved on. A resounding success… or so I thought.



The next day I wandered over to the studio early to catch up on some editing…

Still eating my cornflakes, and having all but forgotten about the overdub, I called up the session and hit ‘play’. When the overdub came around I almost launched a mouthful of cereal over the console.

‘That sound is completely crap’, I muttered to myself. ‘What the hell was I thinking?’

Looking around the room for an alternative to this sonic drivel I quickly spotted my Ensoniq Mirage – a long lost keyboard that I’d gotten back off a friend only days earlier. I hadn’t turned the thing on for over a decade but my memories of the instrument were warm and fuzzy.

I set it up, dragged out the plastic bag full of floppy disks – yes, the synth uses floppy disks, and everything, even the operating system, is loaded via them – and after much buzzing and clunking from the drive I managed to load up some ‘choir’ sounds. That is, after a short mobile phone call that went something like this: “Hey John, how the hell do you import sounds into this thing again?”

I armed a new track, hit ‘record’ and let the ProTools session run…

Immediate success… only this time it was for real. The ‘mirage choir’ fitted the song like a glove. Everyone was shocked, including me. The previous day we’d mucked around with the latest and greatest technology and gotten four fifths of nowhere, yet somehow today we’d struck gold with the first sound out of the bag (quite literally)!

“Must be those vintage floppy disks that made all the difference,” I joked. “Not only do they sound great, they’re reliable, fit in your hip pocket and can store several kilobytes of information! And they were only $28.95 each back in the day (they still had the original price tags on them).



The old keyboard had wiped the floor with the new one and revealed two things: that the sound of the Mirage is really quite something, and that my unfamiliarity with the new keyboard made me unfairly negative towards it. I’ve since fiddled around with it in private and discovered some interesting sounds… but the lesson learned (yet again) was that expecting a synth to pump out the perfect preset is mostly a waste of time.

Note to self: do the hard yards with your instruments; don’t expect a preset monkey to do all the work for you.

Hopefully I’ll be able to generate some decent original sounds with the new synth in the coming months, rather than scrolling down the road to nowhere…

‘Til next time.