If you're a producer, you've probably played around with a synthesizer a bit. You might be really familiar with your favorite synth and know every knob, or you might just scroll presets, randomly turn knobs and hope for the best. Today we're going to break down the basic functions of a synthesizer so hopefully you'll start feeling comfortable with what you're looking at in any synth you open again in the future. As much as each synth looks different and has unique sounds and capabilities, most of their basic functions are pretty much the same, and every producer should get to know these functions inside and out. Let's dive into 10 tips that will help you make sense of any synthesizer!
Get to know how each basic waveform sounds
There are 4 basic shapes that are pretty much universal to every synth, and are often the building blocks of the more complicated shapes and sounds that we are able to make inside of a synthesizer. These shapes are the saw, triangle, sine, and square. Each one has a uniquely recognizable sound, and getting familiar with each one is an important first step to designing sounds inside of a synth. Once you know how each of these shapes sounds, you'll have a good idea of what you want to start with when you go to make a sound. The texture/timbre of the sound that you have in mind will likely lean towards the character of one of these shapes more than the others.
For example, sine waves are very pure, soft sounds, and are great for sub bass, bells, and soft keys. Saw waves are very full with the most harmonic frequencies of any of these waves. They are great for big sounds like future bass chord stacks, big edm leads, or drum and bass reese's. Triangle waves are somewhere in between a saw and a sine wave, they have more focus on the fundamental than a saw, but have many harmonic frequencies unlike a sine. It sounds more like a softer, purer saw or a sharper sine, and can be good for sub bass, keys, and less aggressive lead sounds. Square waves have a really unique sound, and are great for chiptune leads, video game like sounds, and nasty basses.
Oscillators are the sound generators each synth offers. Many synths offer multiple oscillators that can be combined, modulated, and affected to make up the sound it produces. Each oscillator will typically be playing a waveform, see above, and by combining multiple oscillators together you can get a more complex sound. Often times synths will also offer noise oscillators, where you can blend in white noise to a sound, (which is all the frequencies played simultaneously) and a sub oscillator, which is typically just a basic waveform played at a lower octave as your dedicated sub.
Shaping the sound using envelopes
Envelopes are shapes that modulate the sound in your synth. The most basic envelope is the volume envelope, and this will affect the shape of your sound, such as whether it sounds like a quick pluck, a long pad, or a ringing bell. The parameters of an envelope are the attack, decay, sustain, and release (often referred to as ADSR). The attack affects the beginning of a sound, a longer attack will make the sound come in gradually while a short attack results in an instant stab as soon as the note is played. The decay affects the length of time it takes to go from the peak level to the level of the sustain. The sustain affects the level during the length that the note is held, so for example, you could have the sustain all the way up, in which case as you hold the note it will continue playing at a static volume, and if you bring the sustain down some, the level will decrease (over the amount of time selected via the decay) following the maximum volume until it reaches the level set by the sustain, and will continue to stay at that level for the duration of time the note is held. The release is how long it takes after the note is released for the level to return to 0, giving the sound a tail. Sometimes, as seen in the picture above from the synth Serum, you also can have further controls such as hold (a set time for the max level to sustain before the decay time starts).
The envelope can be used for more than simply volume shaping, however, and oftentimes there are multiple envelopes available in a synth which can be mapped to multiple parameters. For example, you may also map the envelope to the filter cutoff which will cause the cutoff to move in the manner specified by the envelope. If you are using a synth such as Serum, Phaseplant, Vital, or Massive, (along with plenty of others) the mappings available are almost limitless and you can use envelopes to shape all sorts of aspects of the sound, so play around with them!
Using filters inside synths
Filters are basically EQ's, shaping the frequency of your sound, and many synths have filters inside of them! The advantage of having a filter inside of your synth is that you can often map the parameters of the filter (such as high cut, resonance, and low cut) to an LFO or envelope to add more movement! You can also oftentimes select which oscillator to effect with the filter, or to affect all of the oscillators. The typical knobs on a filter include cutoff and the resonance. Depending on the type of filter, you may have 2 cutoff knobs to be able to control 2 points on the filter. The cutoff knob will determine what frequency is getting cut or boosted by your filter. The resonance knob adds a little bump at the point of the cutoff, with higher resonances offering a more pronounced peak where the cutoff happens.
Modulating parameters with an LFO
LFO stands for low frequency oscillator, however it's actual function differs quite a bit from an oscillator. An LFO is a shape used to modulate different parameters in a similar fashion as an envelope. The main difference here is that an LFO moves continuously, you can set it to repeat every quarter note, bar, or at any certain frequency if you set it to Hz rather than BPM. Where an envelope responds to the note being played, an LFO is a continuously moving cycle. It can be assigned to just about anything you want and can be a great way to introduce some pitch wobble, filter movement, or create a rhythm by mapping it to the volume and drawing your rhythm in the LFO so you can just hold a note and the sound plays rhythmically. The possibilities are nearly endless!
Some synths, such as Serum or Massive, are known as wavetable synths. A wavetable is basically a 3 dimensional waveform in which you can modulate the wavetable position to morph the waveform over time. The position of the wavetable is the waveform that is currently being played, and modulating the position allows for smooth changes in the timbre of the sound. You can use a wavetable to further add interest to the sound you are creating and give it more character. You can use it subtly or extremely aggressively, the possibilities are endless!
Most synths have a parameter that can be enabled and adjusted called glide, or portamento. This parameter will allow you use multiple midi notes to create a pitch bending effect when they overlap. You can also increase the time of the glide, which will increase the pitch bending effect when you play the second note. This is a very useful technique for leads or 808s.
These are switches that either allows or prevents the synth from playing multiple notes, such as a chord, simultaneously. Using mono prevents notes from being played at the same time, and is a useful move when utilizing glide on a lead or a bass. Often, we don't want to play chords in the lead instrument or bass instrument, but if we do, make sure this switch is off! Legato will allow you to slide between notes if they overlap, rather than retrigger the envelope. So, using legato, you can change the pitch during the envelope of the sound without restarting the attack.
Voices are the amount of individual sounds being produced by the synth at any given time. This will have a significant effect on the CPU usage of your synth. Things that add more voices include adding more oscillators, and increasing unison (a parameter which adds more voices to any one oscillator making it sound bigger). Then, that total number is doubled, tripled, or quadrupled, or even more when you play chords and have multiple notes each playing every voice in the synth at the same time. This can quickly eat up your CPU if you're not careful, and if you aren't running a very modern and higher end computer, you probably want to keep an eye on your voices, more than 64 is pretty extreme (and probably unneccessary) in any one instance.
Making the most of presets
Most synths come with many presets, sounds already created for use in the synth, and often times you can download even more from the internet. In some circles, there is debate on whether using presets is original or if you're cooler if you make every sound from scratch. I'm here to tell you, go ahead and use those presets! These are often sounds crafted by professional sound designers that will usually sound great in your productions if used well. I like to spend time in each synth that I have just scrolling through as many presets as possible so I can have an understanding of what each synth has to offer and I'll instinctively know what to reach for in the music writing process. If you do desire to craft your own sounds, presets are still highly valuable. You can reverse engineer them to find out how they're made and use that knowledge to create your own presets! This is an entire rabbit hole that can be really fun (and time consuming). You can also start with a preset, and if you understand all of the things we've talked about above, can easily adapt it to your liking to shape more accurately exactly what you're looking for in the specific project you're working on.
In summary, these are the 10 points covered above:
If you understand all of these concepts you'll be a pro synth user in no time; able to pick up any synth and immediately hit the ground running!
If you want to hear how I use these tips in my own productions, don't hesitate to look me up anywhere music is streamed under "Ryahu" for my dance music and "philip j loaf-eye" for my lo-fi music.
Until next time!