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This Halloween, we asked renowned modular synthesist and sound designer Lisa Bella Donna to share her secrets on dialing in spooky synth sounds. Continue reading to learn more about the best synths for sculpting haunting soundscapes, listen to audio examples and download Lisa's exclusive Spooky Synths patchbook for the Moog Grandmother! Check out Lisa's new album, Hypnosis to hear her putting these techniques to use.
When I first embarked on my journey with modular synthesis back in the 1980s, it was 20th-century classical composers who inspired me. Much of that music possessed a celestial range of musical directions and sounds. I remember thinking to myself, “How in the world could I ever create what I also heard in my head without an orchestra?”. That’s when I began putting together a small but mighty electronic music studio.
I set up my first personal studio in a dark and dingy storage room; JBL monitors, a Tascam 388, a Teac 2-Track, a Fender Rhodes Piano, a pair of ARP 2600 synthesizers, an ARP Omni, an ARP Odyssey, a Moog Prodigy, a Small Stone Phaser, and a Roland RE-201 Chorus/Echo unit. No computers, no compressors, no digital whatsoever. My musical peers of the time thought I was crazy for investing in such “old junk.”
Remember, this was the 1980s. One of my favorite pastimes was riding my bike to the nearest video store. Renting VHS horror films became a bit of an obsession. The settings and cinematography, as well as listening to some of the soundtracks and sound design, made their mark on my muse. Also, considering how I "visualized my own music" as much as I heard it, sound and vision assemblage became something that greatly inspired the arrangements in my work. Especially longer-scale pieces.
George A. Romero was the absolute master of them all. I would become immersed in films most weekends. Mesmerized by awe-inspiring VHS escapism such as: “Dawn of the Dead”, “Suspiria”, “Phantasm”, “Faces of Death”, “Des Morts (Of the Dead)”, “Evil Dead”, “Salem’s Lot”, “The Fog”, “Videodrome”, “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death”, “City of the Walking Dead”, “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane”, “Fear No Evil”, “Creepshow”, “Poltergeist”, “Midnight Express”, the list goes on. There was never a shortage of films that would inspire and scare.
Synthesizers were always used to either orchestrate or ornament the feel and look of the film. Getting to discover and learn from each of these films and their soundtracks inspired my quest for using the synthesizer as a psychosomatic tool as well as an electronic forest of musical devices.
Fast forward to the present, 2022, possibly the most amazing time for music and music technology. Enter: The Moog Grandmother Semi-Modular Synthesizer. When this perfect little system was released, I rejoiced. Finally! Something semi-modular and portable with MIDI, a digital sequencer storage, an expressive keyboard and FX! Then there was the SOUND. It hit you right where it should. I will always consider the Moog Grandmother the perfect synthesizer and recommend it to all beginners as the best place to start learning synthesis. It’s an instrument that will stand the test of time.
As I compose this article, the light outside is growing dim and the winds turn colder coming through the windows. Apparitions seem to unravel from the walls of my studio. Let’s set up our synths and get cozy between the stereo speakers. It’s my favorite time of year, All Hallows Eve.
Conjuring up eerie and evocative sounds on the Moog Grandmother is one of my favorite things. In fact, I do it all year round! It’s also easy to do because of the way the Moog Grandmother is laid out for you to create. When I set out to create sounds, especially spooky ones, the trick is to think multi-timbral. To create distance and depth between each sound source. You want to make space. This is why mixing your sounds right on the Moog is vital. Gain staging will allow you to access the range and depth of this wonderful instrument. It is “Subtractive Synthesis” after all.
For example: Get your master volume up around 1 o’clock or beyond. Crank the spring reverb up to 75% full. Then starting with your mixer section OFF, start slowly bringing in a sequence or modulation that really activates the spring reverb. Short envelopes and snappy, resonant filters help in this. Listen closely with the mixer section low; learn it. Where does it begin to create harmonics from the reverb's decay? Then, back the master volume to noon or below, then crank the mixer section. How well do you hear each sound source? Do this again with the reverb off. Listen and learn the range of how the mixer section glues the sound. How much punch does it give the filter when cranked? How much silky detail when the mixer is backed off?
Another consideration is implementing both filters that are available and sending them to different locations for the listener. Look at your output stage as the listener. What do you wish to inflict upon them? As you will see in the patch examples I have provided, I will route an oscillator into the high pass filter, shelve it back so it’s razor-sharp, then patch that directly into the reverb in. Then I’ll turn that oscillator off in the mixer section. Then, only the other oscillator is routed through the low pass filter. Heavily modulate the oscillator routed into the reverb, lightly modulate the oscillator routed through the low pass filter. Practice developing contrasts between each voice on the Moog Grandmother. This will help you develop multi-timbral sounds efficiently and quickly.
Another fun approach is using the envelope generators to control LFO. When playing the keyboard, this can add a wealth of “touch-sensitive” drama to the sound (Witches Hollow). Or, when Sequencing, you can shape a wide assortment of modulation to the pitch, filter or amplitude to create space and interesting layers (Dementia).
Bringing the LFO up to audio rate and then routing that into the VCF or VCA can bring the essence you hear in many horror films when the scenes of horror hit their peak. Especially sending a ramp wave to the filter via patch cable or with the mod wheel, making sure your cutoff potentiometer is dialed up nice and high. Then simultaneously slow the LFO rate down while you’re bringing the cutoff back to zero.
If you don’t have effects handy, no problem! Aside from the hauntingly deep reverb, the Moog Grandmother offers, you can also dial up some ‘80s Horror Flanger (Night Terrors). Send an attenuated LFO to one of the two synced oscillators and it will add even more smeared, blood-splattered phasing to your sound. Program a simple minor-key sequence, then transpose down as the sequence cycles; that’s a musical device used in horror film scoring (listen to John Carpenter’s Halloween and The Fog).
As you create patches, think about performance. Set yourself up to tell a creepy fireside story. Patches like Haunted Chapel allow you to bring the listener in with a strong modulated theme (OSC 1), chilly winds (Noise), then slowly bring up the reverb where the ghosts begin to enter the dream sequence you are casting upon your listeners. With a crystalline sine wave being modulated by just slightly attenuated S&H, shelving back the harmonics through the high pass filter, then with it patched directly into the reverb, it’s so wonderfully knocked out of phase it feels as if the ghosts are coming from behind you. Leave room on the master volume to crank it up to maximum volume when you bang the reverb tank for frightening texture and effect.
There are so many possibilities with the Moog Grandmother. It really offers an amazing array of musical and thematic detail through exploration. It also offers the sonic richness only a pure analog signal path can provide. As you go along on your journey of patching synthesizers and discovering new sounds and textures, feel welcome to reach out to me if you have any questions on Instagram or through my official website: www.lisabelladonna.com
Best wishes, stay creative, and Happy Halloween!
Lisa Bella Donna / Moog Music Inc.
Check out sound samples of each of Lisa's Spooky Synth patches below, and click the button to download an exclusive patchbook for the Moog Grandmother.
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