Kim Lajoie's blog

The role of pads

by Kim Lajoie on January 9, 2012


Nope, not the switch on your microphone preamp.

Pads are generally soft sustained notes in the background. Most synths have a preset category for this. They often sound impressive (or silly) when playing big two-handed chords.

They’re most commonly used to support the current chord and fill out the harmonic (and spectral) texture. For example, if your bassline is sitting mainly on the tonic (root note of the current chord) and your melody is mainly hovering around the dominant (fifth above the root note), a pad can add richness by bringing in the mediant (3rd) and even the subtonic (7th). You can also use a pad to bring in other other degrees (such as the 4th, 6th, 9th or even 11th) in a subtle way. While this can add a lot of harmonic richness, you have to be careful not to make it too obvious – otherwise the harmonic structure will be too dense and messy. It might be useful for an occasional effect, however, so don’t rule it out entirely.

Pads are also useful in filling out the spectral texture of a mix. By having a relatively broad spectral bandwidth, pads can fill the sonic gaps left between the foreground instruments. Like the harmonic structure, this can add richness and depth to the sound. Pads often sit naturally in the background because they’re quite diffuse, soft and slow-moving. They can be particularly useful for adding stereo width to an other-wise narrow mix. They’re prime candidates for subtle stereo-enhancing processes because – as a background part – the mix won’t suffer too much if the pads disappear a bit when collapsed to mono. If anything, it could be beneficial because it’ll make the mix more focussed in mono, reducing the effect of having all the instruments stepping on top of each other.

Pads aren’t just for electronic music! In rock and pop, distorted guitars and backing vocals often take the role of a pad – providing a diffuse background texture to support foreground instruments and fill out the sound. Orchestral strings (or string-like textures) are often called upon to fill this role too.


5 thoughts on “The role of pads

  1. Rich says:

    I love pads!!
    My wife & I had a Roland KR103 that had the most killer pad, which when split
    with piano, was really powerful.

    mmm pads

  2. Elliot says:

    As a complete newbie wanting to learn to make music, some of the terminology is head-scratching. I kept hearing people say that they were ‘producers’ which sounds like they produced records by musicians, not that they themselves were musicians. When did ‘musician’ go out of style?

    And pads: where did that term come from? I know the term drum pad, but what do synth ‘pads’ have to do with airy-fairy orchestral textures?

  3. Kim Lajoie says:

    This might help fill you in a bit:

    I think in a lot of cases, the traditional term should be ‘composer’. In my experience, however, a lot of self-styled producers (particularly the ones who are self-taught) reject any notion that what they do might be similar to what Beethoven or Mozart did. I’ve often heard “I’m not a composer because I don’t know music theory. Nor do I want to know.”

    As for the term ‘pad’… I don’t know where it comes from. It’s one of those terms that seems to have always been in existence.


  4. Tracey says:

    Came to your blog through Stumbleupon. You know I will be signing up to your rss feed.

  5. IconipemoDeme says:

    Hello! Just want to say thank you for this interesting article! =) Peace, Joy.

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