Ace musician Michael Bearden shares his tips on finding the right synth for your sound
Synthesizers open up entire new worlds of music. With today’s technology, synths—digital and analog, software and hardware—offer nearly limitless options when it comes to creating sounds and textures. Synths allow musicians of all stripes to generate music from scratch or completely shape existing material to taste. But how to best harness the power of these instruments? And with so many varieties available, which type of synthesizer is right for you?
For answers, we turned to renowned musical director, composer and studio artist Michael Bearden, who’s put his formidable synth skills to work for a wide range of stars from Michael Jackson and Madonna to Lady Gaga, Sting, Stevie Wonder and many more. Bearden enthusiastically shared his expertise. “Long live the synth world!” he says. “Some purists may diminish the importance of the synthesizer as opposed to organic instruments. But remember, the piano was once a new instrument.”
What makes synths such great tools?
Synthesizers—especially those in the modern era—are generally loaded with really good factory presets. If you choose a bank of string or brass or woodwind sounds, you’ll find really great ones already onboard. Plus, you can tweak those sounds as you see fit. Depending on your level of expertise, you can dig in very deep and shape and edit sounds.
Advantages of using a synth?
Sometimes, it comes down to budget and time restraints. Say you want to put down an organ part but don’t have access to an actual B3 organ. You can pull up a nice organ patch on a synth, run it through some pedals or through an actual Leslie [rotating speaker] cabinet and really get a good simulation of that sound. The time you have to work with an instrument can also be a factor. You might get an actual Rhodes electric piano but find out that you’re dealing with tuning issues or keys that stick or pedals that don’t work. That’s when a synth can really shine—they’ve done a great job at simulating these instruments. That said, my overall philosophy is that nothing actually beats the actual instrument, as long as it’s well maintained. A really good B3 or Rhodes? There’s nothing I’ve heard that beats that.
What synths do you prefer?
I think the Yamaha Motif series is one of the most versatile series of synths ever devised. They have incredible factory patches that you can easily tweak and do your own thing to. But those stock patches are especially good.
Why choose an analog synth?
That type of synthesis lends itself well to the studio rather than a live situation—unless you’re planning to just have one sound for the entire show. To be agile enough to change sounds during a performance, I’d recommend something like a Moog modular synth, which has patch cables and knobs that allow you to change sounds. This is great if you’re going after very specific, very authentic sounds. But if you’re working with a pop artist onstage, that’s likely not a good option because many performances are so choreographed. But in a studio, you have room to create very unique sounds.
How have you used them live?
Michael Jackson’s music was very organic in its creation and production. But you can’t do a lot of things like live horns unless you have live horns on the road. And you don’t mic everything onstage in a stadium. So with Michael, I used the synth in a way that I was able to dial in lot of those sounds. A lot of artists I’ve worked with like Madonna, Lady Gaga or Jennifer Lopez created music that came from or originated in certain eras. And some of those instruments don’t lend themselves to live applications. So I’ve used new synths to mimic the sound of a vintage Roland Jupiter-8 synth or another older instrument. You can do that all from one synth. It’s also convenient, especially for a pop show, to have several different sounds. A keyboard can be split a lot of ways—you can split your keyboard into zones that let you play, say, a bass sound with your left hand and a bell sound with your right. And on another keyboard you’ll have strings on the left and brass on the right. You can play around with all of those sounds live, as opposed to having to generate them from individual instruments.
Are hardware synths the onstage standard?
Pretty much. It depends on how rigorous the performance or the tour is. A lot of acts run tracks on computers during live shows, so computers are definitely prevalent. However you need a controlled environment where you control the power source, lighting and audio, and have backup computers. Stage setups are getting better every day, but I still recommend hardware gear onstage as opposed to software-based instruments.
A synth on a computer requires a controller keyboard.
Yes, and the type of keyboard you want depends on your needs. I normally use Yamaha controllers when I can. They’re very adaptable. Plus I can use my Motif synth as a controller. But if you’re going from studio to studio and you don’t have a tech guy to transport your keyboards around, then you’re going to want a controller with a USB connection that’s lightweight and portable. There are several options out there, from compact one-octave units to six-octave controllers. I often use virtual instruments, and many controllers let you use a physical control as opposed to a mouse click. That’s always a better way to dial things in—I prefer moving a knob or sliding a fader.
Advice for a novice?
It depends on what the player wants out of the music they’re creating. If they just want to put their toe in the water, I’d recommend a software-based synth—even something as simple as GarageBand. With software-based instruments, you can see what they do and how they make sounds. If you’re more serious about creating music, you may want to look into an actual hardware synth. I wouldn’t necessarily go straight to a high-end instrument because even the low-end synths have really good onboard sounds these days. Go to a local music store and test-drive some. See what feels right. See what moves you. Then ask questions. Go to online forums. Definitely do your homework. And if you really want to dig into heavily transforming or creating sounds on a synth, you should learn about terms like attack, release and decay, and filters.
Thoughts on the future of synths?
I’m excited about any new developments that move the synth forward. I’m also excited about the move back to the types of synths that allow you to work out your own sounds, because it removes some of the uniformity you hear in music these days. It helps foster individualism. Everybody has a voice, and you want to have your own unique voice that resonates in the world. I’m always excited about anything new that’s going to help develop the language and vocabulary and color of music.