Adding Variation to Lead Synths
Electronic dance music, maybe more than any other genre, relies on simple, catchy, lead-instrument hooks to grab the listener’s attention. A great lead synth melody is the central element of most successful tracks: it’s what the listener will remember, and it’s often what makes one track stand out from the rest. Just repeating the same melody using the same synth, however, can quickly get boring. Here’s a quick look at a few ways to add variation to your lead synth melodies.
Alter the Melody
Modify the notes in the lead synth melody occasionally to keep the listener’s ears guessing. This can be as simple as changing one note: if your lead melody ends with an upward movement, for example, try moving the final note downward instead at the end of certain phrases (or vice versa). Transposing the entire melody can also work well: try moving all the notes in your lead synth pattern up or down by a few semitones during a breakdown (being careful to stay in key), then returning to the original melody when the drums kick back in. Change the note lengths in the different repetitions of the lead melody: you could, for example, use short notes during the track’s intro, then move to long, drawn-out notes during the peak section.
Change the Timbre
Varying the timbre (or sonic characteristics) of your lead synth adds interest and life to the melody. Probably the most-used technique for doing this is the filter sweep: sweeping a low-pass filter open during a breakdown is a classic but effective way to shift a synth’s timbre from dull and deep to bright and clear. If you automate the controls on different effects plugins, or even the parameters of the lead synth itself, more interesting possibilities open up: you can gradually add subtle distortion or reverb as the track progresses, change the vibrato speed and depth slightly for different 8-bar iterations of the melody, or emphasize different oscillators at different times.
Use Different Instruments
The most dramatic way to add variation to a lead synth melody is simply to play it with a different instrument. This technique is most effective when the two instruments have very different characteristics. If your lead synth has been playing a high-pitched, hollow-sounding patch for most of the track, switch the same melody (maybe transposed down a few octaves) to a rich, saw-wave bass patch for a few bars. You can, of course, always layer the different patches together: this works especially well during the peak section of the track.