Francis Preve

Sound designer. Producer. Professor. Journalist. Author.

Pro Tip: Soloing for DJs


One of the hottest trends for clubs and festivals is incorporating drum machines and synths into DJ sets. Tastefully approached, adding live elements to recorded tracks is a great way to stand apart from the pack.

That said, I’ve seen some sets that just didn’t work because the DJ hadn’t thought their live strategy through. For one thing, the tracks in a set are already complete productions, often without much room for added parts. Another pitfall lies in attempting to be rhythmic with these live elements. Dance music is so tightly sequenced that unless you have Prince’s keyboard chops or zero latency on your arpeggiator, the new parts just won’t align.

Based on my experiences performing with a Roland System-8 with DJ/guitarist Cloudchord, I’ve discovered two key approaches to seamlessly blend additional instruments with recorded tracks.


Program a Supersaw in any Synth

Despite the fact that the Roland JP-8000 was released more than 20 years ago, its supersaw waveform is now a true staple in every synthesist’s arsenal. Electronic music historians may know that it first rose to prominence in the late 90s trance scene, but it became truly indispensible during the EDM era and can now can be found at the core of countless pop and future bass tracks. As a college professor, I’m always amazed that this is the first sound my students want to learn in their introduction to synthesizer programming.


Free Xfer Serum Pack (Winter 2018)

Since last year’s free Serum pack was so well-received, I asked the students in my Synthesis 2 course (at Austin Community College) if they’d be interested in contributing a few sounds for the 2018 pack. There are some truly gifted designers at the school and I really wanted to highlight their talents.

Fortunately, many of them agreed - providing presets for each of the following categories: Bass, Pad, Lead, and Pluck.

With their full permission, I'm sharing the results as a free download for Serum fans. The pack consists of 25 presets covering a wide variety of genres and design approaches. I also included a bonus holiday preset of my own design, “Super Snowman”.

As with the last pack, the student’s name is included in each preset — but I’d also like to post an alphabetical list of the designers, to highlight their contributions. For this, several students also opted-in to include links to their social media.

The pack is a free download that you can grab at the below link.

Download: Xfer Serum Preset Pack (Winter 2018)

Happy Holidays!

Xfer Serum Toolkit 3 Arrives

And now, a word from our sponsor… After over a year of development, Serum Toolkit 3 has finally arrived. For this pack, every patch includes original wavetables and samples, created from scratch using physical modeling and hi-res sampling. Many of the techniques used in this library are explained in my Serum Masterclass for Electronic musician.

In addition to the original wavetables, the pack also includes a huge number of sampled attacks, plucks, guitars, pianos, and percussion instruments. These elements add complexity to the wavetable oscillators and are a major departure from the usual “Serum sound”.

I also included updated Macros, including the new “XFORM” knob, that morphs between two completely different sounds. This basically doubles the number of presets to 200 - and lets you customize the results with a single knob.

Here’s a link to the pack, for Serum fans who are interested in checking out my design work - and as always, I’m happy to answer specific questions regarding these presets via my Contact link.

Serum Toolkit 3:

With Serum Toolkit Vol. 3, iconic sound designer Francis Preve takes his Toolkit series to the next level. Featuring 100 custom wavetables based on physically modeled instruments and 70 sampled transients and decays - including recorded guitars and percussion - every core element in Toolkit Vol. 3 is original.

Masterclass: Soundtoys/Modular

While it’s only been a few years since Soundtoys 5 was introduced, the package has grown considerably and now encompasses 21 distinct processors. Fourteen of these effects can be found in its Effect Rack, which lets you mix and match devices and save the entire setup as a single multi-effect preset.

This product’s sonic authenticity is a big part of why producers such as Dave Pensado and Tom Holkenborg (a.k.a. Junkie XL) have so enthusiastically endorsed it. Soundtoys plug-ins sound and behave like actual analog gear, and over the years, ongoing refinements have made these plug-ins fairly considerate in terms of CPU usage.

With that in mind, several colleagues have urged me to take a closer look at the creative possibilities of this suite, which is capable of going well beyond basic hardware emulations. In fact, certain processor combinations yield results that are reminiscent of modular synth gear, specifically West Coast-style systems (e.g., Buchla and Serge), but with the ability to easily save and recall your patches.


Design: Harmonic Sequencing

An ever-increasing number of mainstream synths are supporting microtonal tuning these days. On the hardware side, Korg’s Monologue includes a set of the most common tunings, as well as user-created scales. On the software side, synths ranging from Alchemy to Zebra provide access to custom scales.

While getting the hang of composing with microtonal tunings can be daunting, there’s a simple way to experiment with one of the more common flavors: Harmonic sequencing. Although the standard 12-tone equal temperament scale is essentially based on the harmonic series with caveats for each key, working directly on harmonic sequences offers a tonal purity that’s immediately enticing for some artists.


Recreating the 10CC Choir

In the pantheon of legendary productions, 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” ranks among the most respected tracks of all time. In fact, it reached a new generation of fans, thanks to its inclusion on the Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 1 soundtrack.

Consisting of minimal instrumentation, a lead vocal recorded in one take, and a bass-plus-music-box middle section, its arrangement was incredibly risky for a radio hit, even by modern standards. The element that glues the track together — keeping it transcendentally beautiful even after over forty years — is the song’s centerpiece: A painstakingly multi-tracked set of vocal loops, consisting of 48 tracks of voices per note over the chromatic scale. These multi-tracked vocals were then repeatedly bounced and re-recorded as eight-second tape loops that were then played via the mixing console, as sampling hadn’t even been dreamed up at that time. [Diehard fans can pick up the original choirs as multi-sampled instruments at]

Nowadays, the elaborate production technique for creating these vocals can be replicated much more easily using 21st century tools. All that’s required is a good microphone, a DAW, ample hard drive space, and an endless supply of patience. From there, it's quite straightforward.


Design: LFOs as Envelopes

In last week’s post, we examined a few methods for turning envelopes into LFOs on synths that support envelope looping. This time, we will invert that process and cover the possibilities lurking within LFOs that can also operate in one-shot mode.

One-shot mode is a neat LFO trick that can be found on several hardware and software-based synthesizers. The first time I encountered it in hardware was in Korg’s monophonic Monotribe ribbon sequencer. As for software, the ubiquitous Xfer Serum included it from its first releases.

Depending on the synthesizer’s implementation, one-shot LFOs can be either basic or mind-bogglingly complex. Here are a few techniques you can use on synths that support it.


Design: Envelopes as LFOs

Without modulation resources, a synthesizer is just a sophisticated organ. Modulation breathes life into a sound, adding motion to oscillators, filters, and amplifiers. Naturally, sound designers want as many options as possible for modulating synth parameters, but as is often the case with instrument design, pleasing every user equally is a daunting task: Some users want oodles of envelopes; others want LFOs galore.

What’s more, the feature set of a synth is a core component of its overall sound. While it’s fun to fantasize about softsynths and modular rigs having unlimited possibilities, the instruments that stand the test of time have a particular sound. And that sound is partially defined by the modulation tools that are available.

In this tutorial, we’ll look at a few ways to use envelopes as LFOs. Not every synth supports this level of versatility, but quite a few mainstream products—both software and hardware—do. Here are techniques for three of the most popular synths available now.


The #Vanlife Mobile Studio

In Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, the motto of the Nautilus was "Mobilis In Mobili", which is roughly translated from Latin as, "moving amidst mobility", "moving within the moving element", or "changing in the changes".

Pretty apt for the #vanlife thing, right?

After posting several adventures on Instagram, I received quite a few questions about the specifics of my mobile rig, so here's a full summary of the Galileo III production equipment—with links for those who are interested in more info on each item.

Field recording is covered by the Roland R-07, which is—by far—my favorite portable hi-res stereo recorder. The fact that I can use my Apple Watch or iPhone as a remote (placing the recorder on a table or closer to critters) is just icing on the cake. A full review of this unit can be found here.

The iPad Air 2 with Logitech Type+ keyboard is loaded with every relevant iOS music app. That said, my main software tools for mobile composing and production are Korg Gadget and Kymatica AUM. Gadget is simply the most complete composition tool available for the iPad—and it also exports mix stems to Ableton Live. Better still, if you own the MacOS desktop version of Gadget, it will export complete projects to Live, with MIDI clips that use Gadget's bundled array of specialized VST and AU synths.

Korg Gadget, Doss Touch Speaker, Korg NanoKey Studio

AUM, on the other hand, serves as a comprehensive hub for mixing IAA, Audiobus, and AUv3 apps and effects plug-ins, with everything synced and also available wirelessly via Ableton Link. For example, with AUM I can combine Gadget and Fugue Machine, with Rozeta controlling synths like the amazing and totally free Synth One, then apply effects. Upon returning home, I can then export the results as a mix or stems for later use. It also has options for recording audio via my latest mobile interface, the CEntrance MixerFace R4.

CEntrance MixerFace R4 self-powered interface with Kymatica AUM (and my indestructible MDR-7506 headphones)

CEntrance MixerFace R4 self-powered interface with Kymatica AUM (and my indestructible MDR-7506 headphones)

The MixerFace is wholly unique, as it's the first (and so far, only) mobile interface with an integrated rechargeable LiPo battery. This lets it do neat tricks like power 48V condenser mics with super clean pre-amps and an integrated headphone amp. It's also the only interface I own that supports AUM's 32-bit resolution, with 192kHz sampling rates. Admittedly, I don't multitrack with those settings because my current iPad crumbles under the stress of keeping up with that resolution, but it's nice to know it's there when I inevitably upgrade the rig.

Combined, those two apps make iOS a legitimate recording platform for general tasks and road compositions that I can finish later at my studio. For MIDI, Korg's NanoKey Studio adds keys, drum pads, and knobs for the iPad. It sends that performance data via Bluetooth and shockingly, latency has never been an issue. It always feels like magic...

For taking analog on the road, MeeBlip's incredibly practical BlipCase contains a set of four Korg Volcas: Volca Beats (drums), Volca Bass (three discrete analog oscillators), Volca Keys (3-voice analog paraphonic), and the Volca Mix for gluing the three units together and adding an input for the iPad or MixerFace. These form the core of my on-the-go performance rig, with the iPad running Moog's Animoog app for soloing. I got that idea after seeing Suzanne Ciani perform live with her Buchla 200e and Animoog at Ableton Loop 2016. The Volcas may not be a Buchla, but on the road, they're far more practical (and affordable).

Surprisingly, monitoring in the van isn't too tricky. In addition to my 20-year-old Sony MDR-7506 headphones (indestructible, affordable, and surprisingly flat), I use Vmoda Zn earbuds which sound fantastic and are quite sturdy. As for sound moving though air, I use the Doss Touch Bluetooth speaker, connected via cable to the iPad headphone output. It covers the basics and sounds full enough to compose bass lines. The Doss has an integrated SD card reader in addition to its analog jack, making it useful for reviewing field recordings from the R-07. I've even plugged the Volca rig into the Eurovan's stereo for additional referencing.

If I'm doing a preset project for desktop software I'll bring my laptop, but I generally prefer doing design work in the studio for optimal monitoring. The above rig has met my needs on every trip—and when I'm traveling light, it's just the iPad, NanoKey, R-07, Doss speaker, and Vmoda earbuds.

And if you've made it this far, follow the journey on Instagram.