How To Use Vibrato In Electronic Music Production

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Electronic Music Production Tutorial on Synthesizer Vibrato. With electronic music production, the difference between aweful and amazing is determined by thousands of subtle audio effects. One of these effects is vibrato. When used appropriately, it has the potential to dramatically improve your basslines, leads, and vocals. This tutorial demonstrates several ways to use vibrato in electronic music production. To follow this lesson you will need:

  • A VST Host (e.g. Ableton Live, Propellerhead Reason, Cubase, etc.)
  • A VST Synthesizer. (e.g. Synth1, click here to get Synth1)

What Is Vibrato?

Vibrato is produced when a note’s pitch is repeatedly raised and lowered while the note plays. An extreme example of vibrato is a police siren. However, vibrato is usually much faster than that. A regular human singing voice has a natural vibrato. Unfortunately, many synthesizer presets do not have any vibrato at all. When vibrato is added to a synthesizer, it often produces a funky result. Here is a simple audio example of synthesizer vibrato:

Notice how two of the notes sound “warbly”? That is the effect that a fast vibrato has on a simple synthesizer-generated tone. Now that you can identify the vibrato effect in isolation, listen for the synth vibrato in the following samples:

In all of the examples above, vibrato is heavily and repeatedly used to create interesting synthesizer sounds. The first three examples use synth vibrato to improve the melody. The last example from Daft Punk uses synth vibrato with the vocoder used to create the vocals. (For more information about this technique, click here for a SonicTransfer tutorial on vocoders.)

Now that you know what synthesizer vibrato sounds like, read on to learn how to do it.

Using Synthesizer Vibrato

For this lesson you will learn two techniques for producing synth vibrato. The first method is the most common and is usually best. For method #1, you will use synthesizer automation to produce the vibrato. For method #2, you will use MIDI to create the vibrato effect. You should definitely know both techniques because method #1 is not always available. Read on to learn about the first method.

Synth Vibrato Method 1: LFO

Virtually every synthesizer has the following sections: Oscillators, Amplifier, Filter, and LFO. This lesson will focus on the LFO section. (For more information on the other sections, click here for a SonicTransfer tutorial on Synthesizer Programming.) LFO stands for low frequency oscillator. Its sole purpose is to control other parts of the synthesizer.

An LFO is like an elevator (or lift), constantly raising and lowering all day. Sometimes it takes lots of stuff with it (e.g. people, boxes, or equipment). Sometimes it doesn’t carry anything at all. Just the like the lift, the LFO is constantly going up and down all the time. Depending on your settings, it can raise and lower the pitch, volume, or filter with it. Often, it can manipulate lots of synthesizer settings at once. And if you don’t assign the LFO to any controls, then it won’t affect the synthesizer sound at all!

This tutorial will use the LFO to produce vibrato. The LFO speed will determine how fast the vibrato occurs. The LFO depth (also known as amount) will determine how high and low the pitch is bent. See the images below for more information.

For a good synth vibrato, you don’t want the speed to be too low (or extremely high) and you definitely don’t want the depth too high. The purpose is to be subtle, yet distinct. Read on to learn how to use vibrato in Synth1.

Synth1 Vibrato Using LFO

The section teaches you how to use vibrato with the excellent free VST synthesizer, Synth1. First, load up your music composition software and load Synth1 on a MIDI track. (If you are using Ableton Live, click here to read a SonicTransfer tutorial on using VST plugins.) Select a simple bass or lead preset like Bank 1, Preset 34: E Bass 1.

Make sure that LFO 1 is enabled. (The box with the number 1 inside of it should be yellow.) Click the box beside “osc1,2″ so that it is red. This makes the LFO affect the synth’s pitch. Now you are ready to create some vibrato!

Now turn up the knob labeled “amt”. When you play a note you should now hear vibrato. Use the “spd” knob to control the vibrato speed and the “amt” knob to control the depth. For maximum playability, map these two settings to knobs or faders on a MIDI keyboard. See the screenshot below for more information.

That’s all there is to it! This method works great if your synthesizer or sampler supports LFO-based pitch control. But, what if it doesn’t? Read on to learn another way to produce vibrato using just MIDI.

Synth Vibrato Method 2: Pitch Bend

While the LFO method is usually the best way to produce vibrato, not every synthesizer and sampler supports it. Another way do this effect is to rapidly adjust the pitch bend.

The drawbacks to this technique are numerous:

  1. If you want to adjust the vibrato speed or depth, you will most likely have to move all of your pitch bend envelope’s control points.
  2. If you want a vibrato with very high depth, the pitch bend may not go high or low enough.
  3. If you perform the pitch bend using a MIDI keyboard, it is not always easy to synchronize the vibrato to the song’s tempo.

But, sometimes this is the only way to get vibrato. So, if you are stuck with a synth or sampler that doesn’t support LFO’s, just open up your MIDI editor and draw a pitch envelope that looks like this:

This produces the same effect as the LFO, it’s just a lot more work. But, it’s a great trick to know if you need it.

Conclusion

Vibrato is used by all kinds of producers to make their music more interesting. So next time your melody seems a little bland, throw in some tasteful vibrato to spice things up. It’s a powerful and often underused technique that will make you a better musician.

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Happy Producing!

Matt Sonic