How To Bake Keys & Synths

Welcome to the first edition of “Cooking with JST”! Today, we’ve got a recipe for success through some full frequency baked goods for your next studio mix.

Put away the timers, blenders & cookie trays though, the cooking today only involved some raw keys or virtual instruments, plus a few special ingredients you should be able to find in any DAW.

The end result is certainly something be proud of as a professional mixer: huge ambient pads, lead synths & more that make your song pop out of speakers just like every major label release you’ve heard in the past decade.

Are you ready to learn the secret to baking keys & synths in the studio?

What Is “Baking”?

Baking is a process that goes back to some of the earliest days in the studio. Originally, baking was a process used to revive analog tape that had been subjected to sticky-shed syndrome, where the glue/binding agent on reels of tape would break down due to moisture.

In order to bring the tape back up to par, engineers used to have to literally heat up the tape to remove the moisture from it. The process involved heating the reels up to somewhere around 125 degrees for several hours. This gradual low temperature application would break down the moisture, allowing the tape and glue to settle back into a usable state.

What’s That Got To Do With Me?

Today, tape baking is still a common practice in studios using reel-to-reel machines. Its characteristics are replicated in the AgeHealth settings in many tape delay plugins.  Musicians and producers alike love the sound that some tattered, worn tape can add to a sound.

For synths and keys, we take a slightly different approach to baking, but the same basic results and elements. With keys, we’re not looking to “remove moisture” but we’re definitely looking to add some warmth. Much like the tape delay adds some warmth to a vocal or guitar part through analog emulation, baking keys can result in some truly unique character.

Baking Your Keys & Synths

The bake process for keys and synths starts at the source. If you’re recording a live keyboard, consider using a tube preamp or DI to add some harmonic distortion from the start. Tubes are a great way to add warmth during the tracking process, as turning the input gain up and the output gain down can easily saturate them.

If you’re working in-the-box with software synths, see if you’ve got a Drive option in your plugin. The Drive will act similarly to a preamp circuit, adding similar harmonic distortion to a Gain knob on an amp. You don’t need to go overboard with baking at the beginning of the process; just enough to add a bit of color to the sound is my usual approach.

Track-by-Track Baking

Individual tracks can be further baked using distortion, saturation, limiting & compression. All of these tools, while intended to treat the dynamics of a sound, can be great effects as well.

Try experimenting with higher ratiosparallel processing for truly unique sounds.

If the dynamics alone aren’t cutting it for you, you can also shift your focus to the time-based effects on that track. Pulling inspiration from analog tape, a lo-fi tape delay can provide a new tonal quality to any keys track. As an added bonus, you can add your heavy dynamic processing directly to the delay track, adding the grit to the repeats while leaving the source audio virtually untouched.

Letting The Glue Dry

The last step in our keyboard baking process is probably the most important – combining the ingredients. Using a bit of bus glue to compress all of your various keys, synths, pads, etc is one of the easiest ways to group them in the mix. Using a bus compressor pulls all of their dynamic nuances into a single stream. The end result is a gooey soundscape of synths & keys that’ll make any keyboard player envious.

What Else Will You Bake?

Look for cues in your mix that demand some baking and trust your ears. Not every synth is going to need baking to fit in the mix (especially if the whole production is very digital to begin with). But if you find your keys or vocals need a bit of a nudge to sound more live/analog, reach for some of these baking tools to make it happen.

Got other elements of a mix that would benefit from the options we discussed? Come share them with our community of engineers and producers in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum!