What do you reach for when you need a unique pad sound in a song? What happens when you’ve tried all the sounds you have but nothing is quite nailing the vibe you have in your head? Reach for a guitar! There are many great artists who create pads with guitars- Sigur Ros is one of the most well known, but there are many others. If you’re like me, you love hearing unique sounds that aren’t found in a preset within a soft synth or plugin. This is where creating organic pads with a guitar can be very effective.
I most often use an acoustic guitar to create the pad sound that I am describing. While you can use any instrument to create a pad (especially if you have delay / reverb pedals, or plugins at your disposal), I particularly like the sound I get from a DI acoustic guitar. That’s right, DI. Most of us know that to record a GREAT acoustic guitar sound, we should mic the guitar. In this case, having the guitar going in DI removes the extra room sound, additional string noise, and anything else that the microphone may pick up.
The tools you need
All you need to achieve this cool, unique pad sound is an acoustic guitar with a pickup, a DI (or some way of plugging the guitar in), a recording interface, recording software (DAW) and a few simple plugins that every DAW should come with. Once you have your guitar plugged in and set up to record on a track, grab a medium to heavy gauge pick and prepare to do some super fast picking (also called tremolo picking).
The musical approach
The musical approach that works most often for me is to find a common tone that will work throughout the entire song or piece of music. I recently worked on a song that was in E major, so I picked a 5th (E & B) which worked throughout the chord progression. You can choose any combination of 2-3 notes that you like the sound of throughout the chord progression. This way, you can use the pad as an ambient layer throughout, or bring it in and out as you see fit. I also encourage you to experiment with several layers of these pads to create new harmonic textures and sounds that you may otherwise not have found or created.
Now that you have the part figured out, lets talk about technique. I find that playing as dynamically consistent as possible will create the most reliable pad sound. You can, of course, follow the dynamics of the song, however a lot of what will make this sound like a pad is that it stays fairly static dynamically. I usually position my pick near where the neck of the guitar meets the body, and tremolo pick back and forth fairly aggressively. Experiment with this technique and use whatever method allows you to stay most consistent. I also find that it’s not necessarily crucial to play in time with the song. A more random timing, while staying consistent, will help this part feel more like a pad than a guitar part. You don’t have to play through the whole song unless you are changing the notes that you are playing to fit a certain section. I typically play for a bit, and then copy / paste the part, using a long crossfade between the two sections that I have put together. This is also important so that you don’t hear where the edit is happening. It just sounds like one long drone.
Shaping the sound with plugins
Last, but certainly not least in this equation, is creating the sonic signature of the pad. I do this with plugins or effects. I prefer to use plugins after I have recorded the part. This way, I have full control over the characteristics of the sound and can tailor the sound to the song and make changes easily. First I insert an EQ plugin. It’s important that the EQ you choose has multiple bands, and both high, and low-pass filters. I start by rolling the lows off at anywhere from 120-200, or even 300 hz. For this, and really everything after this step, really use your ears and tweak it until you like the sound. Make sure you have at least 18dB / octave curve on your high pass, as it will more aggressively shape your sound (which in this case, you want). Next, I engage my low-pass filter, again at a range of 18-24dB/octave and I usually start around 2.5-3khz. Using the low-pass filter helps disguise the natural brightness of an acoustic guitar, and smooths out some of the sound of the tremolo picking. Once these two bands of my EQ are engaged, I’ll often play around with sweeping through the mids with a few dB’s of gain reduction and a fairly wide Q of say 1-2. If your pad is feeling too mid-heavy (especially since we rolled off most of the highs and lows), don’t be afraid to carve out some mids to your liking.
Let’s move on to the second plugin in the chain that helps us achieve this pad-esque sound - compression. You can use many types of compression here, but in this case I usually reach for something that has attack and release controls. I’ll experiment with how fast to set the attack - faster if there are uneven transients from my tremolo picking, or slower if I want to really smooth out the whole track and squash it down. Same thing with release time, although I think that having your compressor engaged the whole time with a few decibels of reduction will sound pretty cool here. As with the EQ settings, there’s no wrong way to set this, just experiment and see what you like.
Third in the chain of plugins is delay. I don’t always use delay, but when I do, I use it here. If your tremolo picking is consistent and repetitive, you may not want or need delay here, but experiment with it and see what you come up with. You may want a stereo delay that ping pongs back and forth, or something that is more subtle like a slap to add some chorusing. Totally up to you!
Fourth and last in the chain is reverb. This is a crucial one as it adds both depth and atmosphere to what you played, but it also rolls off even more of the attack of the pick on the strings. To get a really washy, pad-like sound, a long, perhaps even modulating reverb is really helpful. You can use any reverb that you like, but start with a long setting - 3 or more seconds, with the mix set fairly high. That is, more wet signal to dry signal. If you want to dig a little deeper, check out the Ubermod plugin in from Valhalla, it’s really fantastic. It offers modulation, delay, and reverb all in one plugin. There’s a particular setting that you can download that emulates the legendary Ursa Major Space Station digital reverb. This preset doesn’t come with the plugin, but if you search it, you can find the code that you can then copy and paste into the plugin’s preset menu.
Let your creativity be your guide
That’s it! You now have the recipe to create and dial in a really cool, unique pad sound that was created by an acoustic guitar! Don’t hesitate to use different instruments in this same way to create other textures and pads. The only limit is your creativity! What’s your favorite pad sound? What other instruments have you had success (or failure) in using to make a pad? Share your discoveries below!