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The Ultimate Soft Synth: Getting Started With Serum

Making sounds using synths can feel as confusing and technical as it gets, but it's really more simple than one might think, especially if you are using a visually intuitive synth like Serum, one of the most versatile and powerful synths available. Let's take a quick dive into the basics of this super synth.




Oscillators


There are 4 oscillators available in Serum. An oscillator is a sound generator, and this is where you'll begin in creating any sound. One of these oscillators is called Sub, this one you can choose one of six basic shapes, adjust the level, panning, and octave, and route it either directly out or through the FX window, briefly discussed near the end here. Another oscillator is called Noise, this one you can choose from a variety of samples, most typically some sort of white noise, however you can import just about anything into the noise folder of serum and get really creative with it. You can control the pitch, the volume, and the phase of this oscillator, as well as decide if it's going to be a one shot or loop the sample when the note is held down with the arrow pointing towards a line check box, and turn on or off keytracking with the piano checkbox, which decides if the pitch will move based on what midi note gets played.


The 2 main oscillators in Serum are the wavetable oscillators. These are the two big squares on the main view of the plugin with the green wave displayed, a saw wave being the default when you open up the plug in. If you click where it says "default" above the wave, you can choose from many different options of wave shapes and tables. A wavetable is basically a morphing wave shape that you can automate by moving the wavetable position over time to create interesting sounds. You can turn on one or both of these wavetable oscillators to create sounds with and further manipulate them with all of the knobs below.


Knobs Below The Main Oscillators





Below the main oscillators are a set of knobs used to affect the sound coming out of the oscillator above. Unison adds more voices to the oscillator, making it sound thicker and denser. Detune detunes the various voices slightly, allowing them to each be heard individually. If you turn this all the way down, it kind of just sounds like one voice but sort of weird and phasey, and if you turn it all the way up you start to really hear things sound out of tune. Typically somewhere in the middle is a good place for this knob, but theres no reason not to try cranking it either way and see what sort of weird sounds you get!


The blend knob controls the volume of the added unison voices relative to the main voice, so you can make the extra voices feel more like they're in the back supporting the main voice or feel like they're all together like a choir. The phase knob changes the phase rotation of the voices to help prevent phasing when using unison, by playing with this, you can introduce phasing between the voices on purpose to create strange sounds. The random also effects phase, by controlling how much randomness is used for the phase start point of each voice. This is also a feature that is there to prevent phasing with your voices, but it's also something that by turning all the way down you can create interesting sounds by purposely introducing phase if you have unison on.


The wavetable position is a simple but effective knob, it scrolls through the wavetable you have loaded. The next one to the right of that is the warp knob. This is off by default but has many different modes you can play with. The best way to familiarize yourself with this is to select the different modes and mess with the knob, not only can you hear the effect, but the diagram will visually show you what it's doing to the wave as well. This is one of the ways that Serum is an incredible intuitive way to learn about synthesis, because you can so often visualize what you're doing as well as hear it. The next couple of knobs are pretty self explanatory, panning and volume level.


Filter





This section is basically sending your signal through an EQ shape. There are dozens to choose from so we can't cover them all here, but similar to the main oscillators and the warp knobs, you can see a visualization of each filter when you load it up. The boxes labeled A B N S are toggle switches for which oscillators you want to run through the filter, A, B, Noise, and Sub. The piano box is for keytracking, and some filters will benefit from this by adjusting to match the midi note being played, which may result in a more musical or harmonic sound.


The cutoff, resonance, and drive knobs you can visually see as you adjust them what they do to the filter. Pan makes the filter only affect the left or the right channel, and mix controls how much of the dry signal passes through. You can also click on where it says mix to change this to level, and that will make the knob control the volume output of the filter. The knob to the left of the mix/level is a variation knob, and the type of variation available depends on the filter. Not all filters have this option, and the ones that do have different ways it affects them. Play around with it to see what it does, and again you can visually see what it is doing as well.


LFO/Envelope





These controls you can assign to any of the knobs in Serum to control/automate them over time. Envelope 1 by default is also in control of the volume, so when you edit it, you're shaping the volume output of Serum. Envelopes behave by being triggered each time a note is pressed, decaying to it's sustain point as the note is held, and then falling to 0 after the note is let go at a rate determined by its release time. An LFO on the other hand, typically behaves by constantly moving whether or not a note is being pressed. You can, however, change this by changing the LFO mode - the boxes that say "trig" "env" and "off". Off is the typical way an LFO behaves, but by switching it to "env" it will behave like an envelope - play once and then stop each time a note is triggered. "trig" restarts the LFO every time a note is played, but it continues repeating indefinitely after that.


The LFO has some other controls as well. The BPM check boxes toggles the LFO from synced to notes based on the tempo of your project to a specific HZ, or "free time". Turning off BPM can help keep things smooth when automating the speed of an LFO to slowly get faster or slower over time, while BPM is useful for rhythmic effects. The ANCH check box is useful as it makes sure that while in bpm mode you are anchored to the grid, however you can turn it off if you are finding that it is creating a problem. The trip and dot check marks add more options to the rate while BPM mode is on.


The rate is simply how fast the LFO will move. The rise knob creates a rising output over time, when the LFO is triggered by a note. So for example if your rate is 1/4 and your rise is 1 bar, then the LFO will increase its intensity each pass four times to reach its peak intensity and then start over. This is one you'll want to play with to understand fully. The delay knob delays the start of the LFO, when the LFO is triggered by a note. The smooth knob makes the LFO less pronounced, and prevents jumpiness in an attempt to create a smoother result. Mess with this one to see how it affects your LFO movement.


Other Controls


We're not going to go too in depth into the nuances of every bit of this plug in, or it would take hours to read this blog post, but let's briefly go over some of the other parts we haven't covered yet.


Macros are the four knobs on the left side of the plug in. Similarly to envelopes and LFO's, you can map these to any parameter in Serum, and to as many as you want. With macros, rather than creating time based automation and movement, you manually adjust them as needed. You can also automate these macros from in your DAW, which can streamline the process of adjusting multiple parameters at once.


On the right side, you'll see a toggle box that says "mono" and "legato". Mono makes it so only one note can be played at a time, in other words, it won't play chords. This can be useful if you're trying to overlap the beginning and end of notes in your melody and you want it to transition from one to the other rather than play them together like a chord during the overlap. Legato determines if envelopes will retrigger when a new note is played before the previous note has been let go. Below that you have a knob that says "porta" which is used to glide between notes, this causes the pitch to bend as you change notes when overlapping notes in a melody. The more you turn the knob up, the longer it takes to reach the new note.


On the top, you'll see tabs that say "FX" "Matrix" and "Global". FX is simply a handful of post processing effects you can apply to your sound. These are always applied to the final sound after anything you've done in the main window. Matrix shows everything you've mapped to control different parameters, so things like envelopes, LFO's, and Macros will show up here, and this is a streamlined way to make specific adjustments to any of those. In Global, you have some general settings for the synth. We won't go over all of these now, but if you are curious, hover the mouse cursor above any box and you should see a little description come up that explains what each of these options does.


Wrapping Up


If you've just picked up Serum or are considering doing so, you're ready to get going and make some awesome sounds now! Serum really is a top of the line synth and I believe one of the best ones to learn how to use a synth because of how intuitive it is. There's so much more we could dive into with this plug in but this should be enough to start making cool stuff, maybe we'll circle back and talk about more advanced stuff one of these days if people want! As always, I encourage you to hear how I use these techniques in my own music by going to Ryahu for dance music or philip j loaf-eye for Lofi music!


Until Next Time



Ryahu

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