Existential Transcendentalism

Another track with no plan going in. After a few days of hardware production, I decided to turn to another old, comfortable, warm, fuzzy… virtual synth. Omnisphere has been a primary tool for me for years. In fact, it’s one of a very short list of “if I could only have one thing” tools in the studio. Along, with Stylus RMX for drums, it’s the first software I install after Digital Performer, my digital audio workstation (DAW).

I used to think of it as a chameleon – it can be pretty much anything and covers a lot of synthesis ground – but I have started hearing its “sound” in some tracks. It’s definitely present on a lot of the granular and distorted patches, but I’m even starting to hear it on bells and choirs.

  1. Existential Transcendentalism Ray Toler 4:20

This is a gross simplification, but there are four primary types of keyboards I use. The first, and this might seem obvious, are acoustic: pianos and electric pianos. The next are synths that use analog or digital oscillators as the basis for one of the many forms of synthesis such as subtractive, additive, FM, granular, and so on.

The third class are samplers. At their most basic, samplers allow you to play recorded sounds in interesting ways. They’re capable of much more than that, though, and were my primary instrument for much of my early music.

Starting in the late 80s, we saw the rise of the fourth type: romplers. These are hybrid synths that use samples instead of the traditional sine, square, triangle, etc., waves that early analog equipment was restricted to. Between samplers and romplers we had access to an entirely new world of sonic choices, and this is one of the reasons the 80s were such a fantastic decade for music.

Like any technology, these can be used for good and also for not-so-good. Fads and overuse ruin certain techniques and sounds that are otherwise pretty cool; you will almost never hear an orchestra hit these days (unless it’s ironic) and it’s a lot less common to hear that FM-generated DX-7 electric piano that was on every ballad in the 80s. We can only hope that the autotune fad dies soon…

With romplers, the issue was that a lot of really crappy music was created on them. With access to such a wide palette of sounds, you could make an entire track with a variety of sound types with just a single device. Rather than me write several paragraphs describing what made it awful, just watch 15-20 seconds of this:

Many romplers, if not most, are extremely deep synthesis platforms. The JV-2080 is another one of my “if I could have just one” choices. The problem is that with immediate access to so many sounds, most people never choose to look beyond the presets, and some of those can be pretty cheesy.

Speaking of ironic, here’s the irony of that last paragraph. I very rarely program my synths. I know how, but there are professionals who do that so much better than I do and, for the most part, I’d really rather write music. Sounds are one of my key inspiration sources, and I always love finding new ones. Where older synths didn’t have a ton of program slots (typically 8, 64, or 128, if they even had them at all), most romplers come with hundreds and hundreds. For example, the JV-2080 has 6 banks of 128 patches, along with 8 expansion slots for sound cards, most of which have 256 slots. Add in the drumkits and general midi bank, and in one device, there are almost 3,000 sounds to play with.

And then there’s Omnisphere. Out of the box, Omnisphere has over 14,000 patches. Add several thousand more for the Trilian (bass) and Keyscape (uh… keys) expansions and that number swells. And those sound designers I mentioned earlier have released hundreds of patch libraries for Omnisphere. I’d estimate I currently have acess to somewhere around 35,000+ samples just in this one synth. I have to really not be in the mood to make music if I can’t find something in Omnisphere as a starting point.

The Starting Point

Production started, as so many of my tracks do, with that lovely, glitchy pad sound that opens the track. I think I most likely had an ambient piece in mind, but when I found the right chord progression I heard drums. Moving over to Stylus, I found a jazzy / ticky loop that fit the mood for a nice loungey-chill downtempo track. I put a scratch beat up and started recording sections. 

After the pad and drums, I needed the right bass sound. In my head it was a pretty traditional bass sound, not overly synthy, but the first sound I came across was that more punchy up and down part you hear peeking through every now and then. I added that, then continued looking for the “real” bass sound, which ended up to be an upright double bass sample.

Next came the various fillers, pads, choirs, and so on. I was just following the chord progression, but it really started sounding nice and rich. I grooved along with this for awhile, but decided that all of this was a great support track, but it needed a focus and a melody.

With all of the wide frequency stuff in the pads, I figured a bell or vibraphone would be the right choice to sit on top of it all. Interestingly, the sound I chose is actually an arpeggiated patch; if I hold down the key, it plays an endless stream of 16th notes. A quick tap, however, got me the single note I was looking for. Of course, I could have just turned off the arpeggiator as well, but I’m lazy. And this is Song-A-Day. Just keep swimming.

My first pass through with the melody was sort of just some meandering noodles. As I listened back a few times, I started hearing hints of the main melody, then went to each of the various sections to record “verses” and “choruses.” Not sure those are the right words, but they’re how I think of it.

Aside from the congas and drum kit, everything you hear in this track came out of one instance of one synthesizer. I only added an autopanner to one part along with some EQ and compression, but once levels were appropriately set, there really wasn’t much else needed. I did master this one with Ozone because it was, once again, 3 am and I was ready to go to sleep. That seems to be the emerging trend for the month, though I still hold out hope that I can get two done one of these days and be in front of the curve for once.


  • Drums: Stylus RMX
  • Not Drums: Omnisphere
  • Effects: Soundtoys Panman
  • EQ and Compression:
    • MOTU Masterworks EQ
    • Brainworx SSL 9000 J
    • Fabfilter Pro-L 2
  • Mastering: Ozone

Image credit: Brett Croft

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