A synth is created through tone generation, manipulation, and amplification.

Generation:

A basic synth will often have a single oscillator (the generator) with the ability to generate some kind of sound wave, the most common being the square, saw, triangle and sine waves.

To start building a synth sound, first select your wave. The square wave has quite a ‘woody’ sort of sound, and is often good for bass synths, the saw wave is quite sharp and a common lead synth wave, the triangle wave sounds similar to the square wave but a bit more dull and harmonically weaker and the sine wave is very pure and lifeless. This is because the shape of the other waves creates harmonics, and if you were to filter out the frequencies around the note you were playing you would end up with something that sounds like a sine wave anyway.

These waves are often not the only choices, many synths offer you the choice of combining two waves, and some synths offer you noise waves, or even the ability to create your own wave shape.

So depending on your synth, these are your choices… for one oscillator. Very often synths will have multiple oscillators, giving you the ability to layer sounds on top of each other, and blend the volumes for an even or one sided combination, as well as a pitch control (often used to put an oscillator up or down and octave, but sometimes used for different intervals, be careful with using intervals other than an octave, it might sound cool at first but it could create problems in the harmonic progression of your song.) Individual detune controls are often available to add some crunch by putting oscillators slightly out of tune with each other.

Many synths also allow you to choose how many unison voices the synth has, which essentially means the synth adds multiple copies of itself onto itself, this is a great way to create a really huge sound, but don’t get carried away or you won’t leave any space in your mix for anything else!

If you’re just starting out I suggest you just use one or two oscillators, and stick with basic wave shapes, one of my favourite sounds is 2-3 oscillators all set to a basic saw wave. Which sounds kind of boring, but here’s where it gets more interesting.

Manipulation:

The first manipulator is the ADSR envelope (an envelope is where the signal passes through to be manipulated, feel free to call it the manipulator thing.) This stands for Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release.

The attack is how long it takes for the synth to go from no volume to peak volume

The decay is how long it takes to go from peak volume to sustain volume

The sustain is the volume from the end of the decay period to until the note you’re playing is released

And the release is the time taken for the sound to reach silence after the note is released

This is best shown using this graph:

Slow attack and release times are most common in pads to allow the chord to swell up and fade away.

Decay and release are only experimented with excessively for more unusual kinds of sounds.

The next manipulators are the filter and resonance:

The filter is used to roll of frequencies above a certain point, sometimes you are given control of how fast they roll off as well. This is often used to filter out unwanted harmonics or if the high frequencies are masking another sound in the mix and you feel you don’t need them. Another common use for it is to have the filter set low and automate it to open up gradually, allowing the synth to grow and fill out the audio spectrum. If you don’t know how to automate, leave a comment and I’ll do a post on it as I won’t be going into that in this post.

The resonance is a control to create a resonance at a certain frequency, making it more prominent in the sound. This is often used to create a bigger bass sound or to emphasise some interesting harmonics in lead sounds.

Other manipulators are –

The LFO: This stands for ‘Low Frequency Oscillator,’ but it doesn’t generate sound, however it is still a waveform, this waveform is just used to control other aspects of the synth. A common use is to have it control the volume on a bass synth so that the volume fluctuates at the rate the wave is set to, the wave is then often synced to the song tempo, and there we have… WUB WUB!

Other uses are to control things like the filter, the pitch, the resonance or anything really, and you can get some really insane sounds.

Effects: These can be anything from chorus, flange, delay, reverb, or many other things, but I won’t be going into these in this post either.

Unison Detune: This is often a single knob to control the detune for all the voices in the synth that aren’t given actual oscillators.

I’m sure there are lots of synths with manipulators I haven’t mentioned, but these are what I’ve found to be most common, but if I’ve forgotten an important one, let me know!

Finally, the amplifier:

This isn’t really something you need to think about unless you’re using a hardware synth that requires an amp to make sound, in which case you will just have to buy an amp and get familiar with it, because all amps are very different. Software synths are amplified by your DAW or your computer (if its a standalone synth) and played through your speakers.

There is also another kind of synthesis called FM or ‘Frequency Modulation’ synthesis, but I will save that for another post as it gets quite complicated.

Thanks for reading, hope you found this helpful, if theres anything you’d like me to do a post on, let me know!

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Comments
  1. HK Johansson says:

    Very nice walkthrough of the basics of synthesis! 🙂

  2. HK Johansson says:

    Sounds good. I’ll be watching. I’m kind of touching upon similar things at my own blog so don’t be surprised if they overlap :).

  3. HK Johansson says:

    More or less, but I’m also interested in creative processes and composing in general. My current angle is electronica, but I’m also trying to learn the guitar and basic keyboard playing as well… There seems to be an endless array of things to learn :). What’s your goal?

    • Oh awesome! Sounds heaps interesting! I’m quite interested in the psychological side of music and stuff as well, though I know little about it, for me this is basically just a record of anything I do music/audio related, but I work as a live sound and recording engineer and a piano teacher (I also play guitar, same as you 😀 ) and I’ve also written for orchestras and stuff, but then electronic music and other stuff like electrical engineering (ie building speakers/synths/doing car audio) are just hobbies for the moment, I just like to have somewhere to record what I’ve done for reference, in answer to your question… I don’t think I really know haha but I’d love to be a game music composer, so things will probably eventually head in that direction

  4. HK Johansson says:

    Wow, sounds like you are light years ahead of me ;). I’ve always been interested in music, and I’ve had a lifelong dream of learning to make music myself, but for me the journey has just started. I’ve been fortunate enough to pick up a few game soundtrack gigs and that has been a lot of fun, so I would like to explore that further too. My real direction though is more towards the ambient, ‘spacey’ kind of ‘traditional’ electronica in the style of Neu, Kraftwerk, Yagya and the likes… Would love to continue exchanging ideas as the journey continues!

    • Haha no you’re clearly ahead of me! Was just reading about the iOS games on your blog! So awesome that you got gigs doing game sound tracks, I’ll bet they were loads of fun to do! I’d love to try and get a few gigs like that, but I don’t really know anybody who designs games and not sure about putting myself out on the internet or something to try find some people yet, I know a few who do movies and I plan to try and get in on that at some stage, but thats about it. And ahh yes, ambient electronica, its not a style I know much about but the sounds fascinate me a lot. You’d really have to know your stuff about synths, some of the sound design they use would be so complicated. Yes most definitely! I think we could learn a lot from each other.

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