We are very happy to have Rafael, from Piggy Sounds Studio, here today for this awesome tutorial on designing retro 90s sounds with NI Massive. A must read!


Those big 90s synth riffs…

Oh, the 90s… we used to wear awful clothes, there were no reality shows, MTV used to play music videos and digital wavetable synths, like the JD series from Roland, were the machines to use if you were making dance music… Especially for those big sounding riffs.

The maestros of those synth riffs, were without any doubts, Faithless. The band came out in the late 90s with some massive (no pun intended!) hits and now, I’m gonna talk about one of those riffs and how you can easily recreate it in Massive. And better than that, how can you create your own big 90s synth sounds from scratch based on this example.

Lets get started!

First of all, I hope you all have listened at least once to Insomnia, a Faithless classic. If not, here it is. Enjoy!


That main repetitive riff sound came out from a Roland synth: the Roland JD-990.


Lets focus on the riff from Insomnia. As you can hear, it’s a kind of short plucked string type of sound, so, for the oscillators, we’ve got two ways to go and it’s up to you to decide which one works better. In the original JD patch, they’ve started from a Pizzicato preset and then added some tweaking. In NI Massive, unfortunately, we’ve got no pizzicato wavetable to choose, but, we have one named Guitar Pulse… that, might just work if you are in a hurry… Just turn on the three oscillators, and select that wavetable in all of them… Yeah… that doesn’t sound as Faithless at all, but, hold on, keep on reading.

I’m more of an analogue guy, so, I’m gonna talk about the second option which uses analog waves (kinda…). So, let’s turn on the three oscillators and choose the Square-Saw II wavetable in all three. Now, for OSC1 and OSC2, we’re gonna get the Wt-position knobs all the way to Saw, to do that, just turn them all the way up, and for OSC3, we’re gonna get the knob all the way to Square, so, turn it all the way down. For OSC3, we will turn down a little bit the intensity knob to 2 o’clock. Also for OSC3 (this one will be our bottom end, woking almost like a sub osc), we’re gonna turn down the pitch an entire octave (-12.00). So, your OSC3 should look something like this:

Reliving the 90s with NI Massive 11

Great! Back to OSC2, this will be our central octave sound. But, we’re gonna detune it some cents against OSC1, which, by the way, will be one octave higher. Why we do that? Why detuning oscillators one against the other? That’s what will give you fatness, period. Many people tend to use chorus to add fatness, that’s not the way to go. Let me clarify something, there are many synths that gives you chorus, and the original patch, actually uses some chorus, but, remember this: Chorus is for one oscillator synths (like Juno 6, 60 or 160) or for synths that sounds really poor Roland JD-990 Module (string machines?), in any other case, chorus, will just destroy the sound of the synth. (Unless it’s 1986, and the abuse of chorus is the trend).

So, back on the detuning, OSC1 pitch, should be around 11.92 and OSC2 should be 0.07, that will produce some desirable phase issues that will be perceived as fatness.

OSC1 and 2 should look something like this:

Reliving the 90s with NI Massive 3

Moving to the filter section, we will only use one filter, so, go ahead and select the Acid filter in FILTER1. This is an 18dB/oct fully resonant low pass filter that’s not as aggressive as a 24dB/oct nor as polite as 12dB/oct, so, that’s kinda what we need… (BTW… this type of filter is the one you’ll find in the venerable TB-303 baseline synth).

You should set the cutoff point at around 8 o’clock, don’t worry if the sound you get is kinda muddy, we will modulate this later using an envelope. Resonance should be at around 11 o’clock, this will give us a nice peak, emphasizing the frequencies around or cutoff point.

Right now, your filter section should look something like this:

Reliving the 90s with NI Massive 4

Ok, now, let’s modulate our cutoff point! To do so, we are gonna select ENV3, or anyone you prefer, just make sure you don’t use the same envelope for the filter and for the amp section! They are slightly different… Lets see.

As I’ve said, I’ll be using ENV3 to modulate the filter. I won’t be using any sustain… so, first step, turn the level knob, the one that’s right after the decay all the way down to zero. We’ll be using just Attack, Decay and Release portions of the envelope. Now our envelope has no sustain at all, it is time to adjust the attack and decay times. Our filter opens almost immediately after the we trigger it with a note, so, turn the attack knob all the way down to zero.

Ok, now, to the decay; this should give us time to listen to the opened filter, so, our decay shouldn’t be fast, lets get the knob to 1 o’clock, and finally, lets mess with the release portion. The notes we are gonna play, are kinda short notes, so, we should have some release, both in the filter and amp envelopes to let the sound fade out (amp env) and to listen, after we depress the note to the filter closing (filter env). To do this we will set the release knob to right before the 12 o’clock position, that should work…

The filter envelope should look like something like this:

Reliving the 90s with NI Massive 1

All right, now is time for us to set the modulation for the filter cutoff. As you should know, this is done in Massive by dragging the Env tab (source) right to one of the boxes below the modulation destination, which in this case is the cutoff. This tells the filter cutoff that now, the envelope (in this case ENV3) will be its modulation source. Now, all we need is to set the amount of the modulation. This amount can be positive or negative. In this case, we will set a positive amount (in this case, same results can be achieved using a negative amount, but with different envelope settings). Just drag the envelope number that’s inside the modulation destination box right below the cutoff up to 1 o’clock. It should look like this.

Reliving the 90s with NI Massive 2

Now, our filter will open really fast from its original position to the 1 o’clock position, and then will start to close slowly while the note is still pressed, when we depress the note, the release portion will be in charge of closing back the filter to original position, and that happens every time we trigger the envelope with a gate signal (a note).

Ok, we are almost there!! Now, we need to setup our amp envelope. By default, envelope 4 is set to modulate the amp in massive, so, lets just use that envelope!

This envelope should be slightly similar to the one modulating the filter cutoff, but, with a bit longer decay time. So, lets get the sustain and attack knobs all the way down. Then the decay knob, should be somewhere around 3 o’clock and finally, the release at 9 o’clock. The amp envelope should look something like this:

Reliving the 90s with NI Massive 5

All right! we’re getting really close, we just need a few more things: Fx, feedback and a bit of noise. Lets get down to the noise.

So, back to the oscillators section, right at the bottom, you should see the noise generator, turn it on, and set the color knob all the way up and the amp knob at about 1 o’clock. The noise in conjunction with feedback will make the sound warmer and richer. A little bit of noise is great for giving the sound some acoustic flavor.

Now, to the feedback. This will help making our bottom end warmer and bigger. Turn it on and set the knob at 9 o’clock. It should look like this:

Reliving the 90s with NI Massive 6

Ok, all we need now is some reverb and a bit of delay for giving it that awesome space.

So, in the FX1 menu select Reverb, and for the FX2 tab Delay synced.

This should be in this order for having some delayed reverb tail, but, I strongly recommend to experiment in a different order or with the regular delay fx instead of the synced one.

Lets set up the Reverb: Dry/wet, size and color knobs should be at 12 o’clock, and density should be set somewhere around 2 o’clock. Again, I strongly recommend for you to experiment with other settings, specially with the size density and color knobs.

For the Delay Synced, all knobs should be at center position, and just to make the sound a little bit stereo wider, I’ve set the left channel at 4/16 and the right channel at 4/8, again, feel free to experiment with time division settings.


Reliving the 90s with NI Massive 8

Delay Synced:

Reliving the 90s with NI Massive 7

Wow, now, it sounds like a very convincing recreation of the original sound, right?

Just for fun, I’ve set MACRO1 to control the vibrato’s depth and rate, and routed it to the mod wheel of my MIDI controller. To do so, go to the OSC tab, right above ENV1, and drag the macro controller to the vibrato’s depth, and then again to rate. I’ve set the macro control somewhere between 9 and 10 o’clock in the depth knob, and about 1o’clock in the rate, so now, every time I move my MOD WHEEL on my controller it produces vibrato. The further I go up with the wheel, the deeper and faster is my vibrato. Once again, this should fit your taste, so, I encourage you to experiment with the settings. It should be fun! BTW… If your controller is able to send aftertouch, I strongly recommend to map that to vibrato instead of the mod wheel.

Reliving the 90s with NI Massive 9

Last details:

Voicing: this should be set to polyphony for new notes not be “robbing” the tail of the release from the previous note… and, because it should be really fun to play your riff using thirds or fifths, or even octaves!

Keyboard should be tracking the filter as shown below:

Reliving the 90s with NI Massive 10

Well, everything is up and running! Now, it’s just time to create big 90s style riffs and experiment with every setting in Massive!!

Some extra tips you might wanna use:

Take a free envelope, and set attack, decay and release times all the way down, and sustain all the way up (GATE). Then, if you are using a MIDI controller that transmits velocity, set the velocity to control the release time, and set the amount almost all the way up. Then, go to the reverb in FX1 and drag the ENV you have just set up to modulate the size of the verb, get the amount all the way up. Now, your natural playing velocity is controlling the release time from the envelope that’s modulating the reverb’s size… So, every time you play a note with a different velocity, you get a different reverb size… Pretty cool, right?

An other cool trick you might wanna try is to get 3 different LFOs to modulate just a little bit each of the oscillator’s wavetable position. Set each LFO, to a different Rate (kinda slow ones), the waveforms to triangles and, de-select the restart option. This will bring some life and personality to your patch.

For some more fun and 90s flavor, you could set the MODULATION OSC to modulate the phase of one of your oscillators, for example OSC1. So, turn the MOD OSC on, select phase, and then OSC 1 in the mod matrix. Then, just play around with the phase knob, or get it modulated by and LFO, or better, an envelope…

Finally, remember that a great riff in combination with a memorable and unique patch is a winner combination!!!

Have fun and keep making great music!

About Piggy Sounds Studio

We are a small Sound design and music production boutique. Here you will find sound effectsSFX collections, presets for synths, royalty-free music libraries, and custom made music for TV and Radio spots, games, documentary films, theatre plays, movies, etc.


90s Synth Riffs with NI Massive

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  • ryanashton

    Great tutorial – thanks. Especially the details you explained about various things e.g. Chorus, etc. Not many people do this. More tutorials from you – please. :)