Serum VST Plugin Tutorial

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New to the Serum VST. The following Serum Tutorial will get you up an running in short order. Use the table of contents below to jump to a specific section.


Serum vs Massive

Before we delve into the Serum tutorial, there’s a question posed in many forums asking “serum vs massive”? Honestly, if you are planning on being a professional EDM producer then you should have both (as well as Sylenth1 and Nexus 3!) But if you can only afford one and you forced me to pick … I’d probably choose the Serum VST.

We’ve worked a deal with Splice. If you rent-to-own Serum from Splice for $9.99/month and hang on to your subscription, we’ll get a few bucks to help keep the site running.

Note: If you can afford it, you are much better off buying Massive as part of Komplete 12.

There’s also questions like “Serum vs Nexus” and “Serum vs Kontakt” which is like comparing apples to oranges, and here’s why. REFX Nexus is an absolutely fabulous ROMpler. What that means is that it plays back “patches”. (Think of it as going to the music store and buying a traditional keyboard loaded with tons of presets.) It’s not great for sound design, but has many decent presets, and a large library of add-on libraries that you can buy.

Kontakt is a first class Sampler. In a way, you can think of it as coming with lots of presets as well. And there are a lot of 3rd party add-on libraries. But you can also import your own samples and audio files to be manipulated and played back. While useful for all styles and particularly good for film scoring, it’s probably not anyone’s first choice for EDM. (Although it can be quite useful for vocal chops.)

As far as Massive vs Serum, they are both excellent choices and very similar, but Serum is currently a bit more up to date. A slicker interface and more wave shapes. Some even say it’s easier to use, although it borrowed some ideas from Massive and they can both be equally intimidating to new comers.

The Serum VST on the other hand is for sound generation and sound design. Yes, it comes with patches/presets, but largely you design new ones or tweak existing presets.

Wavetable Synthesis

The Serum VST has two wavetable oscillators. These are what the 2 cool looking graphs are all about. Think of a wavetable as multiple waves, lined up in a row, and you morph between them (or iterate through them one at a time.)

For example, say you have 10 waves. Your first wave is a sine wave and the last wave is a triangle wave. The 8 waves in between them slowly morph from a sine wave to a square wave. Now imagine cycling over those, which gives you a “moving” sound. The Xfer developers actually did a pretty good job of illustrating this in Serum. (A picture is worth a thousand words.)

wavetable example in Serum
wavetable example in Serum

Create your first Serum VST sound

For the first part of this Serum Tutorial, we’ll look at powerful this plugin is by creating a cool sound that I’ll call wee-oh. Here’s the sound we’re going for.

wee-oh sound

First, make sure Osc A is turned on by clicking the button next to OSC A, then from the menu, select Analog -> Jno as our Oscillator. (Should look like the image in the lower left corner.)

One of the cool things with Serum is that most of the knobs can be automated by Envelopes and LFOs.

Settings for our First Serum Tutorial
Settings for our First Serum Tutorial

Click the four directional icon on ENV1, and drag to the WT POS knob of Oscillator A. Next adjust the envelope shape of ENV 1 by clicking the points until it looks similar to the middle image.

Now click on the four directional icon of ENV2 and drag it to OSC A’s Warp Knob. This is the knob just to the right of WT POS. Click the right arrow until it says SYNC. Finally, adjust ENV2’s envelope so that it looks like the image on the right side.

What we just did was use standard AHDSR settings to configure an envelope to control the WaveTable Position. While we could have used the knobs, it is often more intuitive and faster to just drag the points. We then created a second AHDSR envelope to control the WARP effect, which is set to SYNC. This is good for buzzy type of sounds.

We’ll continue on with the Serum tutorial by adding a second oscillator and some more automation. We’ll end up with a something that sounds like this.

wee-oh with 2nd oscillator

First turn on OSC B and select Digital -> Harmonic Morph. Next, drag the 4 directional arrow from ENV1 to the DETUNE knob of OSC B. Then set UNISON to 10 (see figure 1.) Now drag the 4 directional arrow from ENV 2 to the WARP knob of OSC B (figure 2) and instead of using the arrows, click where it says OFF and select FM(From A).

Select ENV 3 and draw an envelope similar to what is in figure 3. You can see ENV 1 and ENV2 faintly underneath. Try and line it so that the peak is in between the other two. When done, drag it to the WT POS knob of OSC B as in figure 4.

Adding a 2nd Oscillator and more Automation
Adding a 2nd Oscillator and more Automation

Improve your musicianship with our article on the Dorian Mode.

To get a better understanding of how the waveforms are changing, click inside each of the wave images to turn them from 2D to 3D images. Now when you play, you’ll see the wave change as it iterates through the table. Pretty cool isn’t it?

3D waves
3D waves

Filter with Motion

Now let’s create a new sound that applies a filter to both oscillators and some automation using an LFO. We’ll get some cool talking effects that sound like this.

will he see me

Let’s setup the oscillators and filter first. Select Analog -> Basic Mini for OSC A and Digital -> Scream for OSC B. Then, turn on the Filter and select Normal -> MG Low 12 as in figure 1.

Tutorial settings with Filter and LFO automation.
Tutorial settings with Filter and LFO automation.

Draw and envelope like in figure 2 for ENV 1. In OSC A, right click the WT POS knob and for Mod Source, select ENV 1. Draw an envelope for ENV similar to figure 3. Then right click WT POS knob for OSC B and select ENV 2 as the Mod Source. For LFO 1 we will just accept the defaults. In the FILTER, make sure the A and B switches are selected so that the blue light is on. Then right click the CUTOFF and select LFO 1 as the Mod source.

Velocity

Another neat thing we can do is alter any of the knobs with the keyboard velocity. Let’s make it so that when you hit the key hard, OSC A sounds, and when you hit it softly, OSC A doesn’t sound, but instead OSC B sounds. It will sound like this.

Velocity

First let’s setup the Oscillators. Select Digital -> FFT_Animal 1 for OSC A and Digital -> Scream for OSC B (figure 1.)

Next let’s add some motion to make it interesting. Drag LFO 1’s 4 direction icon to WT POS for both Oscillators. Now drag the VELO icon to LEVEL for each of the Oscillators. For OSC A, turn the LEVEL all the way down, and for OSC B turn it all the way up (figure 2.) You’ll notice that while OSC A looks OK, OSC B doesn’t have the blue ring around it’s LEVEL knob. Click on the little button to the left of it (with the blue semi-circle on it) and pull down. This will set the modulator to “pull” in the other direction.

Serum Tutorial with Velocity
Serum Tutorial with Velocity

When you play it, it should sound like the example. You can however adjust the “angle” of the velocity. Click the mid-point and drag upward so that it looks like figure 3. You’ll notice there’s more separation between the two now when you hit harder.

Likewise you can drag downward, but you can also grab the start and end points on each side and pull them up or down.

Note Modulations

Just like velocity, you can modulate most settings based on the position of the keys on the keyboard.

Note Modulations

As a side note, we only mentioned the two Wavetable Oscillators. There is also a Sub Oscillator and Noise Oscillator in Xfer Serum. The Noise Oscillator is particularly good for creating white noise type risers.

Set OSC A to Waveterminal. Turn on the NOISE Oscillator, and select AC hum1. Now right click on each of the knobs as seen below, and select Note # as the MOD source. As you hop around the keyboard, the knobs will change. The higher the notes go, the further back you’ll go on the wave table.

Note Oscillator

Effects Automation – Gated Reverb

The effects can be automated too. Let’s create a gated style effect like this one.

Serum Effects Automation – Gated Effect

Create a new preset and select Analog -> Basic Mini for OSC A and Digital -> Scream for OSC B (figure 1.) Next, for LFO 1 draw in a curve like the one below (figure 2.) Then for LFO 2, draw in a curve that basically ends where LFO 1 starts (figure 3.) Right click on the WT POS knob for OSC B and select LFO 2 as the MOD source. Make sure the entire ring is highlighted blue.

Serum Tutorial for Gated Effect Automation.
Serum Tutorial for Gated Effect Automation.

Finally we’ll setup the effects. Click on the FX tab up top, and enable the REVERB and FILTER. First drag LFO2 to the CUTOFF for the FILTER. Select High 6 as the type and make sure MIX is all the way up. This will give us the gated effect where it cuts off.

While that sounds cool, there’s lots of “empty” space where nothing is sounding. Let’s create a Gated Reverb style effect. As the note gets cutoff from the FILTER, the REVERB kicks in so that it rings out. This is good for “filling in the space” until the next note sounds. Set REVERB to HALL and make sure MIX is at 12 o’clock. Drag LFO1 to the MIX knob and make sure the right half of the knob is highlighted. See which you like more. For an actually radio friendly song, you’ll probably want to go with the gated verb effect.

Vocal Chops

For this part of the Serum tutorial, we’ll focus on importing samples into Serum to do Vocal Chops, similar to how you would in Kontakt or EXS24. While not quite as powerful as Kontakt for sample manipulation, it’s a nice feature, and does have some automation advantages. We’ll start out making something like this.

Be Bold

First you need to put the samples in Serum’s preset folder. The easiest way to open the folder is to go to the Menu in Serum, and select Show Serum Presets Folder (see image.) Under the Noises folder, create a folder called “User” and put the samples in there. Then go back to the menu and select Rescan folders on disk so that Serum sees the new folder.

Serum Presets Folder
Serum Presets Folder

If you are enjoying this Serum Tutorial, make sure you check out our article on Serum’s FX.

Next turn off OSC A and OSC B, and turn on the Noise Oscillator. From the drop down, select User and the Sample is called “Be Bold the future ours to”. When you hit any note, the sample should play. You’ll notice though that no matter what key you play, the sample sounds identical. We’ll fix that shortly.

User Samples
User Samples

To make it a bit more interesting, add some effects. Go to the FX tab, and turn on DISTORTION AND DELAY. Set the distortion type to SoftCLip, Pre, and draw in an envelope like the one below. Put drive up about 3/4 of the way and make sure MIX is at 100%. For Delay, select TAP->Delay as the type, and the presets should be pretty good to start.

Effects
Effects

Now to fix the issue of the notes not changing. In the Noise Oscillator, you need to turn on key/pitch tracking. This is the button with the icon that looks like a keyboard, just above the Pitch knob. With this enabled, you can play up and down the keyboard, and the sample will change in pitch. The button above that (with the arrow) is for one shot vs loop. That can remain disabled for now. The release cuts off after the word “bold” so the loop doesn’t sound after that.

You can download this midi file that I used to create the audio sample.

We’ll now automate the FILTER to tweak the sound a bit. Select MG Low 24 from the drop down. Now draw in a ENVELOPE like the one below, and drag it to the cutoff. Move the CUTOFF to about 2 o’clock and play with the modulation amount by clicking the blue semicircle next to the knob, and dragging it up or down until it sounds good to you.

Now do the same thing to the DRIVE so it looks like below. You’ll notice that the last word “bold” will get loud. If you watch ENV 1, you’ll see that it never gets past the attack peak, until the long note. Once the note is held long enough to get past that point, the DRIVE modulates up.

While that can be a cool effect, it could be too loud or annoying. Try adjusting the modulation the other way, so the blue perimeter goes to the left. This will cause the word “bold” be be softer.

Effects

Serum Tutorial – Welcome to the Matrix

One of the coolest parts of the Serum VST plugin is the Matrix. This cool looking screen let’s you tweak a bunch of settings in a Matrix format. If you are more of the Accountant mindset, you can think of this as the Excel Spreadsheet approach. It forsakes the pretty interface of all the knobs and the analog interface for a the convenience of everything one one screen in columnar format.

While the Serum VST is incredible for EDM, you can add a lot of flexibility with the KSHMR Hybrid Orchestra presets. This makes a useful addition to expand your sound pallet, especially if you plan on doing film scoring.

Select the Pad preset “PD Defiant” and then select the “Matrix” tab to bring up the Matrix screen in the Serum plugin.

Serum Matrix
Serum Matrix

The Matrix lets you “route” a Source to a Destination and allows you to use external source like the mod wheel to alter the effect. The first row shows that LFO1 is controlling Osc A WTPos. Go ahead an change that OSC A Semi. Now flip to the OSC screen, click on LFO1, you’ll see it in now mapped to Semi. If you have a hard time finding it, semi is under OSC A, above the green graph. You’ll see the blue semi-circle.

Matrix Remap
Matrix Remap

Now go back to the Matrix, and in the 3rd row, change the Destination to LFO2 Rate so that it looks like below. We’ll use LFO 1 to affect LFO2.

LFO2 Rate Matrix
LFO2 Rate Matrix

Now go to the 8th row. LFO1 is controlling the FX Filter Frequency. Alter that to control the Noise Level. Notice that you can scroll through the list too if it doesn’t fit on screen.

Now let’s add a stutter to it. After the Noise Level row that you just changed, change LFO2 to LFO 3, set the Amount all the way to the right, and set the Destination to B Vol. Adjust the LFO 3 curve to look like below and set the Rate to 1/32. This will cause OSC B’s volume to “stutter”. You can adjust the volume of OSC A to blend them to your liking.

Here is the sound difference if you weren’t following along.

Serum Matrix
Serum Matrix
Original with No Matrix Changes
After the Matrix Changes

Serum Tutorial – LFOs

Let’s take a closer look at Serum’s LFOs. If you have used LFO Tool before, then this may look familiar. For OSC A select the Analog_BD_Sin as I think this gives an obvious sweeping sound. We are going to automate the Warp. Drag the LFO1 handle to the Warp knob. Next, select MIRROR. This is a really good illustration of what warping does, and in my opinion should be the first choice. You can see that the right side of the wave is a mirror of the left side.

LFO1 automating Warp in Serum
LFO1 automating Warp in Serum

Under LFO1, make sure RISE and DELAY are Off, then set Rate to 1 bar. Also make sure BPM is selected to it’ll be in sync with the beat. Draw a note in the MIDI grid for 2 bars and loop over it.

2 bars on the MIDI grid
2 bars on the MIDI grid

Now when you play it, it should take an entire bar to cycle through the LFO, and since there are 2 bars, it’ll do 2 cycles. Now if you adjust the RATE to 2 bars, it’ll take the entire 2 Bars to complete 1 cycle. Now adjust it to 4 and something weird happens. After it cycles through the loops twice, so 4 bars, it keeps resetting to the middle. (That seems like a bug. If you drag the note out to 4 bars and make that your loop, it works as expected.)

Now for the RISE, this only kicks in if the value is greater than the RATE. What’s ironic is that it behaves like a delay, even though there’s another knob called DELAY. What the developer means by calling it rise is that it takes that amount of type for the LFO to “rise” to it’s full shape.

Let’s leave things slow so that we can get a sense of what’s going on here. Leave the RATE set to 1 bar and set your loop to 4 bars, making sure your MIDI grid has 1 notes over 4 bars. Now set the RISE to 2 bars. For the first two bars, the cycle “eases in” but by the 3rd bar it’s back to normal. It’s almost like a steam engine locomotive starting up and getting faster.

Serum LFO 1 bar Rate and 2 bar Rise over 4bars

The DELAY knob is how much time to wait before the RISE kicks in. Set this to 1 bar. You’ll now see that nothing happens for 1 bar, it starts to “phase in” for bars 2 and 3, and then is back to the normal cycle for bar 4.

So now that you understand how those work, speed them up, set the rate to 1/16th. Think of this as what the “normal” or “full open” sound will sound like. Set the delay to 1/4 and this will be how long after you hit the key that the effect will kick in. Finally, set the rise to 1/4 and this will be the time of the “transition” from the unaffected sound to the affected sound to be.

Serum LFO rate rise and delay
Serum LFO rate rise and delay
LFO Effects

Play with note length, making some 1/8th notes and some half notes. Set the rate and delay to 1/32 and the rise to 1/4. This will give a nice vibrato only to the long held notes. Set the Warp type to PWM.

Vibrato Effect
Vibrato Growl

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed the Serum Tutorial so far. We’ll be updating this as Xfter Records releases updates so check back. If you found this helpful, please leave comments. If you found it lacking, let us know that too.