The recent reissue of the Korg Ms20 with the Arp Odyssey being developed plus the growing eurorack modular market means more people are now having fun with these things once considered deeply unfashionable (I was there in the mid 80s). However Im seeing more and more very poorly recorded examples and hearing lots of people bemoaning the results they’re getting. The thing with analogue synths is they are an essentially plastic sound (fantastic if you want that) if plugged straight into the mixer. The waveforms are essentially static (i,e. not changing over time) and it often takes more than synth modulation to get them to sound three dimensional.
However here are some well known (and lesser known) tips
1. Choose your synth. First impressions can be deceptive. An aggressive, rasping, edgy synth can easily be tamed with some EQ, which also means that when you want it to cut through the mix you can let off some of that EQ. A very mellow one can come across as being too weedy when recorded, and boosting is more difficult (danger of artifacts) than cutting. The same applies to a fat sounding synth- easier to thin the sound than it is to fatten up.
2. Beware the secondhand market. A lot of early models of all makes may have components such as capacitors dry out, which can result in lots of unwanted noise or hardly any sound at all from the amp. Check that what you’re buying can be repaired/restored if purchasing something that you cant hear first.
3. Tune up. Most (especially vintage models) do not autotune. turn it on, let it warm and tune up as you would with a guitar, only just play an A and plug in a tuner- later models are able to autotune and have heater circuitry built in to stabilise the oscillators, esp the later moogs, and some have digital counters to keep the oscillators in tune.
4. Dont underestimate using guitar effects with them. Distortions can also be used to either mellow an edgy synth or boost a weedy one- depending on the type of saturation. its worth mentioning that early guitar pedals (1970s made models) might not have roll=off circuity, which means a line level could fry it!! However modern ones have this due to active electronics in guitars.
5. Plug it into a guitar amp and mike it up! analogue synths plus valves and a good speaker can also be great- plus the speaker will add its own character.
6. Compression: generally you’ll want some if your using resonance controls on the filter, just to reign it in, but also use it heavily to add punch and weight, multiband compression also good with analogue synths as a means of enhancing the overall character of the instrument.
7. Layer them up- now there isnt the track restriction that was present when most of these synths were designed back in the 1970s, so try multitracking up with slightly differing sounds/ harmonies on each of the tracks, you can get some interesting spectral stuff this way
8. Embrace sampling: If you create a nice, wobbly sound, then sample it, when you play the sampler you will have two things 1. polyphony 2. a pad consisting of the synth with multiples of the LFO wobble at different speeds, depending on the notes you hold down. This is due to the sampler pitching the sound on the different notes, when this happens the LFO increases at the pitch increases, and slows and pitch decreases. When playing a bit chord or cluster all of this happens together. This is a great way of making weird, evolving pads.
9. Convolution. You can get some very weird effects if you put one type of synth sound into a convultion reverb, then put through it something similar when you play the synth into the effect
10. keep the knobs moving. All analogue synths have an organic quality when it comes to altering the controls in real time, and they often impact on each other, The orthodox approach is to play the filters whilst soloing, but all the other controls can be used as long as youve got a finger to move them!