I recently participated in a discussion about how to make compelling pad sounds on Reddit and as usual, I wanted to share a few tips here to get your imagination going.
First of all, a pad sound is generally defined by a long attack time and a wide stereo image. Those features aren’t set in stone, but they tend to show up in pad sounds as we traditionally know them.
Set up a long attack time (use your ears to determine how long is enough) and layer up some oscillators or samples that sound good together. You may want to add some kind of a sub oscillator an octave or two lower than the main oscillator tone in order to give the pad more impact. When I do this, I tend to use sine waves on the low end and something richer in harmonics on the high end such as a sawtooth wave or a custom waveform in Ableton Operator.
If you want to thicken up the pad sound a bit, try slightly detuning each oscillator layer away from one another, up to roughly 5 cents away from perfect tuning. The audible effect will still be in tune, but the sound will be “thicker” as a result of the interesting phasing that is now occurring between the detuned waveforms.
If your pad is in mono, try duplicating it and hard panning each copy to either side of the stereo spectrum. Now put some LFO low-pass filter automation on each copy so that each side sounds different from the other. The shifting in and out of high frequencies will accentuate the stereo widening effect and help define a place for the pad in your mix with very little effort.
Not many people talk about this, but the Auto Filter effect in Ableton Live has this channel-independent filtering functionality built into it: Just engage the LFO section by turning it up and then use the “Phase” parameter to alter the offset between each channel’s cutoff setting. This gives you instantaneous filter movement on each side of a stereo pad.
If your pad is still sounding too stagnant over its playback, try using slightly different attack times on each oscillator so that the longer you hold the note down, the more sonic features are added to the pad over time. If you do this, try different waveforms on each oscillator so they can be distinguished better as they fade in over their attack times.
Lastly, I like to add a pre-delay to reverb on pads so that the effect is more like a ghostly echo rather than a typical room-simulation reverb. Ableton Live’s Reverb device has pre-delay built right into it so it’s easy to experiment with.
Ableton Live Tutorial - Pad Sound Design 101 by Nick Maxwell