How to make a synthesizer sound like a chillwave guitar line

In the 1980s and 1990s, a new generation of guitarists armed with massive pedalboards pushed the boundaries of what the guitar could sound like. Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins was instrumental in birthing the sound now known as dream pop, later furthered by shoegazers such as Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. Listeners often mistook their ethereal and billowing guitars for synthesizers. Today, we’re putting this idea into reverse and making a synth sound like a dream pop guitar.

In this tutorial, we’re using a virtual analogue soft-synth and a chain of plug-in effects to create a massive, guitar-like sound. Once finished, you’ll be able to use the resulting synth in modern dream pop, chillwave, downtempo and ambient tracks.

Here’s the sound we’re going for in the context of a full song featuring loops from the BandLab sound pack, Dream Pop.

Setting up a synthesizer source

When making a synthesizer sound like a guitar, the synth itself is not nearly as important as the effects that come after. Experiment with a variety of synthesis types – virtual analogue (VA), FM, wavetable – and find what works best for you. Here, we’re using u-he’s Diva, a VA synth with selectable modules for each synthesis section.

We have the Diva set up with a Minimoog-style oscillator trio and the Korg MS-20-type filter, as well as analogue envelopes. A three-oscillator configuration allows you to build a harmonically complex waveform.

Set the three oscillators to sawtooth, square and pulse, respectively, detune oscillators two and three slightly apart, and adjust the volume of each in the mixer section. A relatively bright filter with lots of resonance will give the effects something to chew on later. Don’t worry too much about the envelope shape, as the upcoming reverb will do most of the shaping but plucks are a good place to start.

Next, engage the onboard arpeggiator. This will emulate strumming. Try a clock setting of one-eighth synced to the DAW’s tempo. Choose a higher speed for a faster feel. It might not sound much like a guitar now but it will once the effects are in place.

If your synth doesn’t have an onboard arpeggiator, see if your DAW has a stock arpeggiator effect.

Check your head and cabinet

Let’s bring in an amp simulator to emulate a guitar being played through a head and cabinet. We’re using the freeware effect Boogex from Voxengo but there are plenty out there.

The goal is to make our synthesizer sound like it’s blasting through a stack. To that end, use the Emphasis EQ to highlight the mids and give it a guitar-like EQ curve. In the Amp section, choose the Poppy type for a clean and less aggressive sound, and use the Pre EQ and Pre EQ Mix dial to shape the tone.

The Internal: Cab B- Beta52 cabinet sim with Amp Mix at zero gives you a fully wet guitar cabinet sound. Adding a touch of reverb at the end introduces amp authenticity.

Hot hot hot

Our synth guitar picked up some grit at the amp stage but it could be crunchier. Let’s add a distortion stage. We’re using Soundtoys’ Radiator but, again, there are many options.

Radiator is a recreation of the input stage of a classic mixer, so its controls are simple – just an EQ and in/out dials. Starting with the EQ, remove a little bass to minimise muddiness and then crank the treble to emphasize the highs.

Flip the Noisy/Clean switch to Noisy, turn up the input, and turn the Mix knob all the way to the right so that there’s no dry signal at all. Don’t worry if it sounds harsh, the effects chain will eventually smooth that out.

Modulation time

Chorus is a staple guitar modulation effect. Here it will add movement and widen your sound. We’re using Native Instruments’ versatile Choral here, part of the Mod Pack effect bundle.

Start by choosing the Synth mode, which emulates synthesizer chorus circuits of the 1980s. It has a nice, smooth character. Then, crank up the Width knob to fill out the stereo image, choose a slow rate, a medium Amount setting, and a conservative helping of delay. Finally, turn the Mix knob all the way up.

Echoes in a shallow bay

Surreal Machines’ Diffuse plug-in is a unique hybrid between an analogue delay and digital reverb. Using this will make things flowing and pillowy.

First, choose the Circle setting under the input dial. This sets the delay tap pattern. A Repeat setting of 6/32 beats works well, with a Regen (or feedback) setting of 100 per cent. A medium Size and Diffuse (the reverb part of the equation) of about 20 per cent will suffice. Increase the Spread dial to push the delay taps out into the sides of the stereo image, turn Pump up to halfway to emphasize the delay effect between notes, and set the Mix to about 65 per cent or until it sounds blurry.

Reverberation

For the final step, coat your sound in a haze of reverb to increase its perceived size. Valhalla’s VintageVerb is perfect for this.

Starting with the suitably massive Concert Hall mode, then bring up the mix to about 80 per cent and the decay to a generous 13 seconds. A little modulation won’t hurt either – apply a slow rate setting and medium amount of depth.

Take it further

The order of the effects plug-ins is important. Try changing it up for a different feel. For example, place the amp at the end of the chain for a more authentic guitar sound. You can also play around with pitch bend to emulate Kevin Shields’ style of strumming with the whammy bar in his hand.

Here is the finished guitar synth in the context of a dream pop song:

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