a VERY BEGINNERS guide to a Synth- Foundation Builder


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First things first- I DID NOT write this for the purpose of posting this online to help other people. I wrote this about a year ago when I knew absolutely nothing; it was used as a reference guide for me and my buddy when we were first started trying out synths and didnt really understand the basics. All I did was used online sources to define each characteristic and main knobs of a synth to build a foundation we could learn off of. This doesnt teach you how to use a synth it was designed solely for someone who has absolutely NO idea. Hasn't been edited or anything since I first made it, and like I said it was only meant for me and another guy to reference off of so its in my own words and I might make a personal comment or two somewhere in there I can't even remember. Anyway I figured I would post it finally just for the hell of it. All it really is is me looking at various sources online and translating it into my own words and making everything a little more 'noob' friendly so you actually have a foundation to learn from rather then being completely lost.

Synth Basics
Oscillators produce the original sound which you can hear in your patches, which is then fed through the rest of the synth. Oscillation itself is the production of a certain type of wave form, which produces a different sound depending on the shape of the wave form. The wave consistently runs depending on the speed/pitch of the note, so if the osc is set low enough youll eventually hear gaps because its moving so slow(LFO). Depending on the amount of oscillators on a synth you can mix waveforms together with different pitches and sound.

Common Waveforms
Saw Wave - shaped like the teeth on a saw blade, this produces a very common sharp, biting tone.

Square Wave - looks like a (near) perfect square, produces a reedy, hollow sound.

Pulse Wave - a variation on the above, the pulse wave is half as wide as a square wave, and has the unique ability to have its width modulated (called ‘Pulse Width Modulation').

Triangle Wave - unsurprisingly shaped like a triangle, this sounds somewhere in between a saw wave and a sine wave.

Sine Wave - a smooth rising and falling shape (like a horizontal ‘S'), this produces a mild, soft tone.

Noise - not exactly a waveform, but a source of sound produced by a certain colour of noise.
LFO(Low Frequency Oscillator) is a special kind of OSC that operates so low you cannot hear it unless you tune it into the standard hearing range. It can also be used to modulate other parts of the synth, such as the pitch of an OSC or the frequency of a filter. An LFO is like any other OSC, but it just moves so slowly that you can clearly tell the variation in time from the start to the finish of the waveform. For example, with a sine(smooth rising and falling) wave you can clearly hear it go up and down, when used properly it adds animation and a moving texture to your synth.
Filters are one of the most important parts of sound creation and the foundation to the whole concept of subtractive synthesis (which is when an electronic circuit produces a standard wave form which is full of lots of harmonics, this circuit is then followed by of electronic filters to convert the basic tone signals into the desired waveform). Basically, they filter out part of the sound leaving you with a reduced portion of it. The main control on the filte is the filter frequency, or cut off.

Common Filters

Low Pass – the most common type of filter, the low pass allows all frequencies below the cutoff point to pass through.

High Pass – the opposite of the low pass filter, the high pass filter allows all frequencies above the cutoff point to pass through.

Band Pass – allows a band on frequencies to pass through in the centre, but stops all frequencies outside of this band.

Band Notch/Reject – so called because it looks like a notch, this filter stops a band of frequencies in the centre from passing through.

Each of these filters can have a different type of attenuation slope (usually 6db,12db,18db and 24db per octave) and the higher the number the more effective. Basically, the higher the number, the steeper the slope per octave. Similar to having more poles in the filter which attenuats the signal more, so a 4 pole filter will be more dull and muted hthan a 2 pole filter, which is less effective in reducing frequencies.

Another feature of the filters are called resonance which basically boosts the frequency the cutoff point is currently set off, higher the boost, higher the set frequency, in most cases to the point where the filter will 'self oscillate,' meaning it creates its own sine wave - the pitch of which can be controlled by changing the filter frequency. By itself, resonance is useful for giving a sound a little more high end, but it can make pretty sick sounds when used in conjuction with an envelope or an LFO - this is called a filter sweep
Envelopes are the key to the articulation (fading in and out) of the sound. Without envelopes your pitch would start at full blast and end at full blast. Envelopes help you to regulate that sound and give it a smoother flow.

The standard envelope is in 4 main stages

Attack – The sound rising up to its maximum level. If it’s set to nothing, the sound plays at full blast right away, whereas if you set it high then the sound gradually fades (good for string sounds).

Decay – This is how long the sound stays at the level the attack brings it up to. If it’s set as high as it will go, it will stay at the maximum level forever (making the sustain stage useless).

Sustain – This is the level that the sound stays at after the decay stage has passed. Some synthesizers also have a dedicated ‘sustain time’ setting, which decays the sustain stage after an adjustable amount of time too.

Release – A bit like reverb (echo) at the end of your sound. It's how long the sustain level takes to die down to silence. Set the release to nothing and you won’t get that effect, it will just be instant.

Rises through the attack> Dies down through the decay> Stays at selected level for sustain> When it lets go it dies down through the release.

Easiest way to program the envelope on your synth is to practice and visualize the envelope as a graph with 4 stages, and you are plotting notes higher or lower on the domain as the sound changes through the stages of the envelope
Filter envelopes are the same idea, they do the same shit for the filter. There's usually a knob dedicated to filter frequency (cut-off point) specifically for the filter envelope. To do this turn the normal filter cut off down then turn the filter envelope cut off higher then program the filter envelope like a normal envelope. I guess it takes awhile to figure out but apparently its worth it, one example that this article is saying is pretty sick is " turn the sustain on the filter envelope off, forget about the release and attack (set them to zero), and make the decay short – then turn up the release." Remember, its not the volume you're your changing, its the cut off frequency with the envelope.
Arpeggiators are used to play notes in a sequence for you. For example if you turn the arp on, and HOLD a C note, the arp will automatically play that C note, following the C in the next octave up, then in the next octave up again, and so on depending what you have the Range dial set as. This also works with chords. If you hold down a C note, an E note and a G note (a C major chord) the arp will automatically play that chord back to back however many octaves up that you have the range setting set as (it can also play them faster or slower back to back using the speed dial).

The range knob is the amount of octaves the note will travel, for example, if range is 3 then the arp will play whatever note you press and then 3 octaves upward, the speed option makes it climb the octaves quicker and puts the notes closer together.

The gate knob determines how much the note sustains, if gate is higher the note will hold more, if lower its a sharp shorter note.

The Slide knob makes the notes all slide together rather than playing seperately for a nice upwards or downwards flat noise.

The Repeat knob determines how often it plays each note before moving on to the next note/octave.

The chord peremeter when set to none basically just means itll play whatever note your holding down. But with this option you can set a chord so you dont actually have to play the whole chord, you can just set it to Major for example, and when you press C it will play every note in that C major chord all the way up to your desired octave determined by the range. There is also a scale section within the chord peremeter which allows you to choose a scale rather than a chord. So instead of playing just the notes in the chord it will pay all the notes that are valid in your selected scale.

Arpeggiator Modes
Up: the arp travels in an upwards diection meaning the notes will go higher from where you started
down: obviously the opposite of up but it goes to a lower octave
up/down bounce: note will go up to desired octave then back down to the original note without pausing . Ex. c4/c5/c6/c5/c4
up/down sticky: same is up/down bounce but it repeats the highest and lowest note in the range before going back the other direction. Ex. C4/C4/C5/C6/C6/C5/C4/C4
Random mode: picks any note between the high and low notes in the range including the high or low and will play them in a random order, sounds pretty stupid to me.
A Portamento/glide/slide gives the synth the ability to 'slide' between notes and flow them together rather than them being played seperately like they normally would. Basically what it does is makes the original note gradually rise or lower in pitch until it reaches the next note that you assigned, then it just smoothly transitions into that note so there is no break in pitch at all.
Notes must overlap each other for it to be a perfect slide. A cool sounding technique is if you hold down one note, then alternate off an on pressing the next next highest and the note next lowest to the one your holding down. It will alternate back and forth over top of the middle note you are holding down and sounds pretty sick.
You can also increase or decrease the time of the glide/slide to make it sound more or less distinctive.
Synth Effects
Unison: Not really an effect, but more of a fixed option for your synth. Basically used to multiply the signal which is being produced by the synth, and in most cases to detune each signal against the other (like detuning oscillators, which means you make them run slightly faster or slower then each other and go out off beat with relation to each other). This creates a bigger sound and is useful when you have few oscillators. Can be done on more then 1 signal.

Chorus: Similar to unison effect, but a bit more complex sound modification process. Popular technique to make the sound larger and more attractive by adding shit to it. Some people say its identical to unison. Best way to describe it is it's an artificial effect where the signal is copied and mixed with a bunch of other copies of itself, which have their pitch (at a small level) constantly swept by an LFO. Because an LFO is used to control this effect, the rate, feedback and depth can be adjusted.

Distortion: Mostly used with electric guitar sounds, it boosts the synths signal over the limit to the point where it clips and can rmove parts of the audio range. Its possible to distort signals so brand new harmonics in the frequency range are created. It usually sounds like shit though because of the clipping of the sound so it's not used often.

Phaser: The signal is fed through an all-pass filter which creates peaks and notches (highs and lows within the frequency spectrum). This creates modifications in the signal from the synth, then to create the phaser sound an LFO is used to to sweep the comb filter. The more stages being used in the phaser, the more effective the signal.

Flanging: Is a varient of chorus and phaser technique. You mix 2 identical with one of the signals delayed by a very small (usually in the milliseconds) and gradually changing period. This produces a swept comb filter effect with peaks and notches again being created in the signal. This creates a jet plane type sound. Like the phasrer and chorus effects, flanging is modifiable by changing the rate of the sweeping delay, as well as the feedback and depth of the signal. When the feedback of the signal is turned too high it sounds like shit though.

Delay: Very commonly used, AKA an echo. Simple process of copying the original ignal from the synth and playing it over and over between different time intervals. You can also reverse the delay playback or create feedback loops whih run back to back never stopping.

Reverb: The effect is similar to creating sound in a large room, where the sound will reverberate (kind of like an echo but more electric). Created by using many delats and using accurate simulations of room sizes which is usually adjustable in the reverb section of the synth


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O hey look at that, first post is a sticky. I should probably go do some gambling or something right?


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Thanks for this article! I've even printed it out and posted it on my wall so I never forget!


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Thanks guys, If I would have known it would've been pinned I would've at least edited it or even LOOKED at it before I posted it haha.


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This is helpful actually. Call me lame, but understanding these definitions is important. I feel like I will be able to create better samples now. Thank you!


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This is exactly what I've been looking for! I'm sick of just tweaking different knobs until I get an enjoyable sound, it has brought me success lol but I'm trying to know exactly what each effect does and this is alot of help so thanks!


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This is exactly what I've been looking for! I'm sick of just tweaking different knobs until I get an enjoyable sound, it has brought me success lol but I'm trying to know exactly what each effect does and this is alot of help so thanks!

Yah its weird, I'm sure they are out there but I could never find one source as a whole that supplied all this information on the same page. When writing this I think I got it from 2 or 3 different sources. Funny how its not easier to find this kind of stuff online.


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This is a good read for all beginners. I learned most of this stuff from watching sadowick's tutorials, but this puts all the information in a nice concise format.