by Anders Johanson June 04, 2020 9 min read
When producers talk about their favorite synthesizer, you will often hear the term presets thrown around a lot. Presets is just an abbreviation for preset settings. When you open any VST synth inside your DAW for the first time and play a random note, you will encounter two kinds of default settings. The initial preset will be either a generic waveform (e.g., saw wave), or a more sophisticated preset sound that is supposed to demonstrate the power and versatility of the synth. Pretty much any VST synthesizer worth its salt comes with a library of presets. The most popular synths not only have a stock library of presets but also enjoy a constant supply of new presets that are being made by talented producers and sound designers.
One of the common questions that can spark a bit of controversy from time to time is whether using presets is equivalent to cheating. After all, you are not making the sounds yourself; you’re using someone else’s work. Purists who want to control every single aspect of their music production will often take a negative stance towards presets. More open-minded producers who are looking to speed up their workflow and spend less time on sound design will favor the use of presets for various reasons such as:
Using presets from packs or soundbanks indeed implies relying on sounds that are available to other producers too. Although the sounds won’t be exclusive to you, it doesn’t mean that you can’t make something unique out of them. Your audience won’t care whether you used a preset from a popular pack or designed the sound yourself. Your listeners will care about whether they can feel the vibe of your music; presets will be the last thing on their minds. Besides, if you want to make a preset unrecognizable from its default settings, there are many ways to achieve it. Layering presets, slightly tweaking the knobs, and applying new effects are standard techniques to make your sound stand out while keeping the creative process time-efficient. Using presets is a great way to turbocharge your production, especially if you are a beginner or intermediate producer. It would be foolish to renounce these helpful tools because of a small minority in the producer community who is speaking out against it.
Now that you’re sufficiently informed about the role of presets in music production let’s turn our attention to Serum. If you are a producer who is more focused on musical composition rather than sound design, then you’ll want to use a synth that comes with an extensive stock library of presets. Serum is one of those synths; it comes with over 450 presets in different sound categories like Bass, Lead, Synth, Plucked, Pads, FX, and more. Besides, you’ll also get 144 wavetables. We’ll cover the difference between presets and wavetables in more detail later in this article. For now, you should know that every preset in Serum uses at least one wavetable or waveform as its base. By picking a preset and changing the underlying wavetables, you can create a gazillion new variations with a few mouse clicks. In other words, having access to that many wavetables will allow you to add variety easily to the already rich sounds inside Serum.
Serum is one of those synths that the music producer community considers to be essential. If you check out any VST synthesizer top list, you'll find Serum almost always ranking near the top. The main reason for this high praise is Serum's unparalleled sound quality and versatility. Because the synth is so popular, there is a vast amount of free and paid Serum preset packs available online. As a beginner, you'll want to focus on presets published by well-known brands since they are most likely to have access to the best sound designers. One of your first contact points for presets should be the official website of Xfer Records, the company of Steve Duda, the creator of Serum. You'll find a selection of curated preset packs there, and their sound quality is top-notch. Other brands like Loopmasters and Cymatics are also known for regularly releasing presets for Serum. And lastly, you should also check our selection of Serum presets by Samplified. We offer packs for different genres, including LoFi, Hip-Hop, Trap, and Future Bass, as well as free Serum presets.
Once you've decided on where to get your presets from, you'll want to add them to your arsenal. Whether you've downloaded a single preset file or a full folder, it is easy to import the newly acquired presets into Serum.
As already mentioned, the whole point of using presets is to speed up the production of a track. Ironically, working with presets can slow you down too. After you've composed a melody or a chord progression, there is nothing more hypnotizing than browsing through different presets and listening to how they change the composition vibe. The more presets you have, the more time you will spend on auditioning them all. Choosing the perfect sound can be quite time-consuming. It's not uncommon for professional producers to have multiple instances of Serum open, each loaded with a preset that is a contender for the main lead of the track.
To find your sound quicker and become a more efficient producer in general, you should start deconstructing your favorite presets. Not only is it a great way to learn more about Serum and its capabilities, but it will also teach you how to customize the presets you have and make them unique from everyone else’s. Here are a few ideas on how you could use Serum presets as a learning tool:
The process of loading wavetables into Serum is similar to importing presets. Open the Serum Presets folder using the Menu button, navigate to the Table folder and paste your downloaded wavetables into the User folder. Don't forget to Rescan folders on disc to make the imported wavetables visible.
One of the coolest features of Serum is the ability to create wavetables from samples. You can do it by dragging and dropping any WAV file stored on your computer directly into the wavetable window. One-shot sounds from a sample pack will work best because they are usually dry, meaning they come without effects. Serum will be able to reproduce them pretty accurately. The more reverb or delay your sound has, the less accurate the wavetable will be.
The lack of accuracy doesn't mean that you shouldn't experiment with different samples of varying quality. Quite the contrary, almost any audio file can be turned into a promising wavetable and used for sound design purposes. A bunch of importing modes will appear when you drag a sample into the wavetable window. You could try them all, but the most commonly used one is the import: constant frame size mode.
If you want to check how close a wavetable is to its original sound source, follow these steps:
Now you can play the sound in Serum and compare it to the sample. There will be differences for sure, which is okay because you shouldn't treat the wavetable feature as a standard sampler. Instead, you could look at wavetables as a foundation for your sound design. One wavetable can be the base for many unique sounds, depending on how you choose to manipulate it.
If you load a wavetable from a presets pack, it will require almost no finetuning. A wavetable from a random one-shot sample will probably need at least a little bit of clean-up. Here are some tips on how to do it:
Your wavetable is now ready to use. You can close the Table Edit screen and save the wavetable by clicking on the floppy disc icon next to the wavetable name. To start creating different sounds, try increasing the Unison count from 1 to a higher amount. If you have the LFO 1 Source assigned to WTPos, you could drag and drop it on any other adjacent control knobs like Detune or Bend as well. Tweak all the knobs and try different settings combinations. You'll be surprised how quickly you can create a sound that is entirely different from the original wavetable.
If you don't want to mess around with wavetables, you can use Serum as a sampler. To do that, initialize a new preset and deactivate Oscillator A. Next, enable the Noise oscillator and drop a sample into the field where it says AC hum1. Turn on Pitch Tracking as well, otherwise the sample's pitch won't change when you press different keys. Now you can play the sample inside Serum like you would in any other sampler. The advantage of this method over conventional sampling is that you can layer the sound with oscillators and apply Serum effects to it (check the FX tab to the right of the OSC tab above OSC A). Whether you use this sampling technique to slightly spice up the sound or create an entirely new sound texture, your options are infinite.
Writer and musician based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Hannah. Extensive career as both a writer and a musician previously working with brands such as Fox Sports, Yahoo Sports, and Sports Illustrated. As a musician, Anders has played in several bands throughout the last decade, and has experience in touring, booking, band management, engineering, producing, mixing, and composing. Anders has recently composed music for short films and media presentations in universities, and has launched a podcast focusing on giving musicians and artists a place to talk about their work and the process behind their creation.
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