Using ambience and foley to create synth pads.

Posted by James Cullen on

If you're used to working with presets and get overwhelmed by the idea of creating your own sounds from scratch, then the concept of sound design can be quite a daunting one. 

The idea of tackling all of the various controls and options within a synth or sampler is certainly overwhleming, but luckily, sound design isn't as hard to get into as it may first appear.

In this guide, I'm going to show you how to create a synth pad which incorporates some really unique sounds. And that's because the actual sound you use for the synth pad is totally up to you.

So let's jump right in.

The magic of sampling.

A sign of a really seasoned producer can often be a vast sample library. We've usually got folders upon folders of drum hits, ambiences, field recordings, instrumental loops & one shots. 

The probablility is that if you don't already have a huge sample library, you'll end up having one before you know it!

Now, many producers also record their own samples and field recordings of the world around them. And that's what we're going to focus on today.

Note that you don't have to have recorded the field recordings yourself for this pad sound, but if you have, that's great!

Building a unique pad.

So, the aim of this guide today is to teach you how to create a unique sounding synth pad using Sampler in Ableton Live


We're going to be taking a field recording or an ambience sample, and using sampling to make it into a really unique sounding pad.

Note that though I'm using Ableton & Sampler for this tutorial, you can do this in Logic with Alchemy, or whatever DAW you're running.


Step One

So, the first step we are going to do in this case is to find a nice bit of ambience or a field recording.

This can be anything; rain sounds, the background noise in a cafe, or even just a recording outside of your bedroom window. The point is that it's going to be a continuous noise with lots of little unique sounds within it.

Once you're happy with the sound, load it into an audio track.

So, remember that I'm using Ableton Live for this, so that's what all of my screenshots will be of, but the principle applies to whichever DAW you're using.

I've used a sample of Ambiance in an Antique Shop, because it has lots of unique noises in the background; there are voices, it sounds like there's rain in the background too. You can see the spikes in the waveform where all of the individual noises are hitting.

Remember, the sounds we're using here are going to form the sonic basis for our synth pad, so be sure to spend some time considering which sounds you like. You can even layer sounds, like I have.

You can see in the image below, I've added another sample called Rain & Trains underneath, which provides a nice 'white noise' to compliment the Antique Ambiance, as well as some cool individual hisses and hits from a train platform.

You don't have to layer sounds if you don't want to, but it does make for a more interesting texture.

Once you're happy with this sonic base, you're going to want to bounce it in place.

Then you should be left with a single audio file on a track which is a composite of the two samples we've just worked with.

This is where things start to get a bit interesting.

Load up an EQ Eight, and set one of the bands to 440Hz. This makes it an A note on your keyboard.

Then, you need to increase the Q value to the maxium, and do the same to the Gain level.

What will happen now, is that you'll start to hear a sine wave-like tone almost appearing out of nowhere. Duplicate your EQ Eight until this becomes quite pronounced. 

I ended up using three instances of EQ Eight, but note that I turned the Gain down on the last one, to avoid the sinewave being too prominent. 

Your results may vary, so don't worry if you don't need three instances, or indeed if you end up needing more than three. 

What's important is ensuring there's a nice blend between the sine wave and the background noise. We don't want the background noise to be overpowered by a really loud tone.

Once this is done, you're going to right click and select Freeze Track. Once you've done this, hit Flatten. This will bounce the audio in place, applying the EQ we've just done to the sample, so you're then ready to use it in the next step.



Step Two

Now that you've created the sonic base for your synth pad, it's now time to open up an instance of Sampler (or whatever sampler you're using).

Drag your audio file into your sampler, and before you start playing, be sure to change your MIDI root note to A3, as you can see in the image below.

Once you've done this, you should be able to play notes and chords on your MIDI keyboard, or draw in some MIDI notes if you don't have access to a MIDI keyboard, and then you'll hear the results instantly.

Congratulations, you've made your own pad!

But the work doesn't stop just yet, we've got some more advanced tweaking to do to really get the most out of this sound.

What's cool straight off the bat is that each note you play across the range of your keyboard when using this pad is playing back the sample at a different rates, so some of the background noises are pitched down and slower, while others are faster and more high pitched.

This is especially good if there is talking in the background of your sample, because you can hear that it's there, but not clearly enough for the words to be made out and for it to intrude on the sound of your pad.

The beauty of this is that it will be unique to whatever sound you've used.

So, what I found useful to do before moving on to all the tweaking is to set up a little MIDI chord sequence, so you can keep it looping and make your edits and hear them in real time. You can see this in the image below.

So, the first thing you'll want to do with your sample is to adjust the Envelope which is over in the Filter/Global section of Sampler. 

A pad sound typically has a slower Attack time, and usually has a longer Release too. There are no set guudelines for this part, so experiment with them until you're happy with the overall envelope of your pad.

For reference, here's my values:

  • Attack: 1.68s
  • Decay: 579ms
  • Sustain: -2.5bD
  • Release: 7.63s

So, once you're happy with the envelope values on your pad, it's time to move on to some of the more advanced and fine-tuney parts to make the most out of the audio file we've created as the basis of the pad.

It's worth noting though, that at this point you can use it as it is, if you're happy with it. Throw some EQ, Reverb & Delay on there to help hide some of the more obvious sounds within your sample.

However, read on to find out some more tips for how to enhance this sound.

Step Three

The main issue, if you want to see it as such, so far is that the sample is always starting at the same place; the beginning of the sample. But this isn't making the most out of all the unusual and interesting sonic oddities within the ambiance we made, so let's look at thow we can address this.

So, the first step is to create a small loop of the sample. 

In Sampler, you do this by heading over the the Sample window, and adjusting the following parameters;

Sample Start

Sustain Mode

Loop Start

Loop End

So, check out the image above.

You can see I've moved the Sample Start value to a specific point in my sample that I like the sound of. There's no right answer for this, so adjust it so you're happy with the sound.

Note that I've also changed the Sustain Mode to Loop

I've also changed the Loop Start position and Loop End position to create a nice sounding loop within the sample. Again, it's important to experiment around with this as you can get some really cool results if you take the time to listen through and see which part sounds best.

Now, if you end up getting a super stuttery feedback sound, just ramp up the Crossfade value to lessen this.

Once we're done, it's time to get some modulation going on.

Head over the the Modulation tab of your sampler, and turn on an LFO.

 You can see in the image here the settings I've used. 

I'm using LFO 2 to modulate the start of the Loop position, so when it's playing back in Ableton it's jumping around my sample, so I'm not hearing the same loop over and over.

I've used a ramp waveform, and my Frequency Value is at 1.80Hz, though you can set yours however sounds best.

It's useful to start with the highest value and then slowly bring it down, so you can get an idea of the overall effect.

So, once you've applied this modulation, be sure to listen to how it affects the overall sound.

If you've got noises such as bird sounds or voices in the background, this will allow random noises to jump out from the background, to create some nice sonic interest.

Now, when this modulation has been applied, you can go back and adjut the Loop End position to adjust the sound even further. The shorter the loop, the quicker and more stuttery your sound will be, but if you open up the loop a bit more, it will play more lengthy sections.


So, if you've followed along with this tutorial you should have a pretty cool and unique sounding pad to work with.

What's important here is that even if you've followed this step by step, your results will sound different depending on the samples you start with. Even doing this twice with two different samples can yield wildly different results.

But taking it even further, be sure to experiment with the settings we covered in this guide to make sure you get the most out of this pad sound. 

And once you've done the tweaking within your sampler, add whatever effects you like to really shape the sound into your own!


Thanks for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts, and we hope this tutorial helped you out and inspired you. While you're here, be sure to check out our Ableton Live project templates, which are a great way to learn even more advanced production techniques.

Our team of international producers are constantly re-creating some of the top tracks in the electronic music world out there to a fully professional and industry standard quality, and you can grab these and really dig into them to see how all of the tips and tricks of production add up to a really killer track.

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