How to make Synthwave Chords and Pads

I. Introduction [ 0:00 ]

Synthwave music takes us back to the sounds of the 1980s, capturing a nostalgic and dreamy vibe. This genre achieves its distinct sound by incorporating retro synths, lush pads, and melodic elements that stir up feelings of longing and nostalgia. Complementing the more rhythm based sections (drums and bass), chords play a vital role in creating the atmospheric and emotionally rich foundation of synthwave music.

II. How to Make a Synth Pad Patch [ 0:29 and 6:26 ]

A synth pad is a sound from a synthesizer that’s often used to make dreamy, ambient backgrounds. It’s key for making those lush chords that define synthwave songs.

Step-by-Step Guide:
1. Choose Your Synth Plugin : Start by selecting a synthesizer plugin. Many free options are available that can produce high-quality sounds. In my video I suggest using Logic Pro’s Retro synth, or Native Instruments’ Analog Dreams.
2. Initial Patch Setup : Select the oscillators’ waveforms, I suggest a sawtooth and/or square wave, which are commonly used in synthwave.
3. Adjust the ADSR Envelope : Modify the attack and release settings to ensure a smooth fade-in and fade-out, which contributes to the pad’s lush sound. Experiment with the timing to fit your song.
4. Filter Settings : Use the filter to soften the sound. A low-pass filter with a gentle cutoff can help achieve a dreamy quality. Find a position so your sound isn’t too dark and not too bright.
5. Filter Envelope : Assign an envelope to the filter to add movement to your sound. Start with similar settings to your amp/general envelope and adjust the ADSR parameters as needed.

Tips :
 Experiment with different waveforms and filter settings to find a sound that fits your track.
 Use modulation sources like LFOs to add subtle movement to your pad.

III. How to Make a Chord in the Piano Roll [ 2:37 and 6:49 ]

Chords are made by stacking notes at specific intervals. Knowing how to construct chords and input them in the piano roll of your DAW is crucial for establishing the harmonic base of your track.

Step-by-Step Guide :
1. Basic Chord Construction : Start with a root note and add the third (+3 or +4 semitones for minor or major chords) and fifth (+7 semitones) intervals to form a basic triad.
2. Using the Piano Roll : In your DAW, input the notes of your chord into the piano roll. Most DAWs allow you to click to add notes and drag them to adjust their length.
3. Creating Progressions : Try different chord orders to discover which ones evoke the mood you’re aiming for. If you started with the bass, continue with the foundational notes from your previous work.

Tips :
 Play around with inversions and voicings to create more interesting and varied progressions.
 Listen to your favorite synthwave tracks and try to mimic their chord progressions to understand common practices in the genre.

IV. Classic Triads and Suspended Chords [ 4:42 ]

Classic triads (major, minor, diminished, augmented) and suspended chords (sus2, sus4) are fundamental building blocks in music theory. They are key in adding depth and emotion to your synthwave songs.

Examples and Usage :
- Major and Minor Triads : Use major triads/scales for a brighter, happier sound and minor triads/scales for a more melancholic, nostalgic feel.
- Suspended Chords : Incorporate sus2 and sus4 chords to add tension and make your progressions more dreamy and dynamic.

Tips :
 Mix classic triads with suspended chords to keep your progressions interesting and emotionally engaging.
 Use suspended chords to lead into a resolution, creating a satisfying musical journey.

V. Inducing Continuity Between Chords by Putting Notes Closer [ 6:50 ]

Voice leading is the technique of moving smoothly from one chord to another by minimizing the distance between successive notes. This creates a sense of continuity and smoothness in your progressions.

Demonstration :
- Close Note Placement : When writing chords in the piano roll, position the notes of consecutive chords as close to each other as possible.
- Inversions and Extensions : Use chord inversions and extensions to achieve smoother transitions and add complexity to your progressions.

So, if you wrote simple triads following your root notes, try shifting the low notes an octave up so they are closer to the fifth notes of the previous chord, for example.
Sometimes you’ll also have to keep the lowest notes to have a fuller sound. Don’t be afraid to experiment !

Tips :
 Analyze existing synthwave tracks to see how they handle voice leading.
 Practice creating progressions with minimal movement between chords to develop your ear for smooth transitions.

VI. Layering with Another Plugin [ 8:03 ]

Layering different sounds can add depth and richness to your synthwave pads. This technique involves combining multiple sounds to create a fuller and more complex sonic texture.

Step-by-Step Guide :
1. Choose Your Layering Plugin : Select an additional plugin, such as a virtual analog synthesizer or a sampled instrument.
2. Create a Complimentary Sound : Design a sound that complements your main synth pad. This could be a brighter lead sound or a darker, more textured pad. Try a pluckier sound to add more attack and definition to your pad.
3. Combine the Layers : Balance the levels of each layer to ensure they blend well together without overpowering each other.

Tips :
 Use EQ to carve out space for each layer in the mix, ensuring clarity and cohesion.
 Experiment with panning and stereo width to create a more immersive sound.

VI. Light Processing with Plugins: EQ, Delay [10:28 ]

EQ and delay are essential tools for enhancing the sound of your chords. EQ allows you to shape the frequency content of your sound, while delay adds space and depth.

EQ Tip :
- Carve Out Space : Use EQ to remove frequencies that clash with other elements in your mix. This helps each sound sit well together. Try cutting low-end to leave space to your bass.
- Enhance Clarity : Boost or cut frequencies to enhance the clarity and presence of your chords.

Delay Tips :
- Create Space : Use delay to add a sense of space and movement. Adjust the delay time and feedback to achieve the desired effect and fit the tempo of your track.
- Subtlety : Be careful not to overdo it. A little delay can go a long way in creating a sense of depth without overwhelming the mix.

VII. Conclusion

In this article, we discussed the essentials of creating synthwave chords and pads.This includes creating a synth pad patch, writing chords in the piano roll, using classic triads and suspended chords, inducing continuity between chords, layering with another plugin, and applying light processing with EQ and delay.
By experimenting with these techniques and developing your own unique approach, you can craft your own nostalgic and dreamy synthwave sound. Happy producing !

You can watch the whole video tutorial on this YouTube playlist or keep reading the next blog article to learn how to use the arpeggiator in Logic Pro and continue your synthwave song !

Hear the final result in my song « Rewind » here.
Find more about She Died in a Parking Lot here or on Youtube