FL Studio Tutorial: Become a Power User 8 – Working With Lead Sounds in FL Studio

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Getting a good lead sound can really help your track stand out, as Hollin Jones explains…

We often talk about “lead” sounds without ever really stopping to think what the term means. With instrumental music the lead sound is that which could be said to be taking the place of a vocal in carrying the melody and adding catchy hooks to the song. Even when vocals are present, lead sounds still play a part whether filling in breakdowns or middle eights, or providing hook lines to underscore the vocal melody. As such lead sounds tend to have certain characteristics. They occupy a similar frequency range to vocals, which is anywhere between the mid and high range, and tend to be either percussive, attacking or both. Bass sounds aren’t really leads, and neither are pads. They are often monophonic or at least not chorded, as chords tend to underpin music rather than providing hooks.

As you might imagine, FL Studio has tons of lead sounds supplied as part of its arsenal of synths and other instruments, and of course you can record any sounds like guitars in that you like. Tweaking existing presets to make them suit your song is pretty straightforward and you can even create your own sounds from scratch in many of the synths. When it comes to mixing lead sounds they often benefit from being treated the same as vocals, which is to say that they need to be prominent and noticeable while still working in the context of the track as a whole and not overpowering any other elements. They usually benefit from some careful compression and EQ in addition to any other effects like reverb, delay or distortion you may be using.

When you write lead lines you might well actually start with a sequence or melody and then add other things like beats and basslines later, or you may do it the other way round, starting with a beat then adding a complementary lead part afterwards. Whichever way you do it, FL Studio has some excellent tools for helping you program and shape your lead parts and since it’s so flexible, it’s easy to quickly substitute one synth or patch for another. Read on to get the lowdown on leads in FL Studio…

Working with Lead

1: You can load up a lead preset in any synth of course, but to really get a unique sound for your tracks it can be good to design your own, either by starting from scratch or by modifying an existing preset. Try loading an instance of Wasp XT which is one of FL Studio’s simpler synths, and loading a preset. Here we have chosen “Follow The Lead”.

2: The building blocks of any synthesized sound begin with oscillators, and here there are three. Experiment with changing the waveforms used to generate the noise. You will see that the first two oscillators have four waveforms to choose from, and the third one has two. Use the Osc Mix slider to vary the amount of each signal present.

3: In the filter section to the left you can change the filter type. A low pass filter will give a more nasal, resonant effect which can be good for lead sounds that need to pierce through the rest of the track to be noticed. Raising the cutoff and resolution knobs will also have the effect of sharpening up the character of the sound.

4: To make the sound fade in more gradually when a note is pressed, go to the Amp and Filter Envelope sections and increase the amount of Attack knob on each one. To make the sound more immediate, lower these controls. Similarly, use the decay and sustain dials to control the way the sound behaves after a note is released.

5: To add a little oomph to this particular sound, go to the output section and add some drive, working with the tone and amount controls to determine how much bite is added to the signal. The Dual, Analog and White Noise buttons can also be activated to further fatten up the signal. In the next step we’ll add some effects.

6: Go to the Browser and locate the Plugin Presets > Effects section. Here we have dropped an instance of Fruity Delay 2 onto our synth. This is a simple delay unit but delays work really well on lead synth sounds, especially in electronic music. It’s tempo synced and we can use the dry / wet control to determine how much delay is applied.

7: Next go to the plug-in database and choose to add something a little more extreme. Here we have chosen an instance of Hardcore, FL Studio’s guitar pedal and cabinet modelling suite. By flipping through its presets we can quickly dial in some crunch and compression that make our lead sound much meatier.

8: Swapping out pedals or adding new ones is easy by clicking on the chooser at the base of each pedal slot. Though you can of course use any effect you like, guitar effects can work really well on lead synth sounds if carefully chosen. Experiment with distortion, compression, delay and reverb and where possible, sync your delay tempo to host tempo to keep everything in check.

9: For something even cooler, try adding an instance of the Effector module from the plug-in database. Select an effect type from the choices at the bottom and then use the X/Y grid to paint in a setting. This allows you to make some great sounding effects with just a few clicks of the mouse, and it works particularly well on lead sounds.

10: Subtractive synths often make for good lead sounds as they tend to have a direct-sounding character and are able to cut through a mix, as well as responding well to arpeggiation. Poizone is a good example of a synth with some excellent lead presets so load it up and have a dig around to see what you can find.

11: Another good synth for learning about the mechanics of patch-building is a simple one in the plug-in database called 3x Osc. As you might imagine this is a basic synth consisting of three oscillators and not much else. Try selecting a waveform for each oscillator and adding some effects using the mixer, to create your own lead sound.

12: Even synths that aren’t specifically designed for leads can be adapted to make lead sounds. Here we have loaded an instance of Sawer which is mainly for basses but by transposing its oscillators up a few octaves and playing with filter cutoff and resonance it’s possible to make some really cool sounding leads as well as basses.