Synth Jargon Buster -Part 2

Korg Radias Rackmount Synthesiser

The Second Part in our Guide to Synthesiser Jargon

We continue our journey through the sometimes confusing world of synthesiser jargon with the very un-confusingly titled ‘Synth Jargon Buster –Part 2’ (part one can be found here). Before we move along, it is worth stating that knowing just what these terms mean is incredibly useful, making the process of translating the sound you have in your head into a sound you can play on you synth, a far more straightforward process. You will know what the controls on your synth are all designed to do, after all. And, with that in mind, let’s kick off with one of the most important controls, in terms of sound-shaping…


 ADSR Envelope

These are what your ‘Final-Notice’ bills come in if you’re ‘keepin’ it real, yeah?’ or your fat royalty cheques come in if ‘you sold out, man’. No? Okay… The easiest way to explain envelopes is to consider each of the common controls of an envelope individually: Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release (or ADSR).

The most commonly used envelope controls volume (or amplitude). The ‘attack’ control on a volume envelope controls the amount of time it takes to go from no sound at all, to maximum volume when a key is pressed. Still confusing? Imagine you’re stood on a pavement by a long, straight road, when a car drives past at a constant speed. The sound will slowly get louder and louder, until it’s right in front of you, when it will be at its loudest. That would be a very long attack time. Then think of, say, a snare drum. The sound goes from nothing to maximum volume, almost (well, to human ears, anyway) instantaneously. That would be a very fast attack time. Musical instruments all have different attack characteristics, but it should be reasonably clear whereabouts they lie in terms of attack time- if it’s quite ‘percussive’ sounding (like a piano, or drums), it will have a fast attack, it sounds quite soft (like, say, strings or woodwind) it will have a longer attack.

Decay controls the amount of time taken for a sound to reduce from its maximum volume (at the end of the attack stage) to the sustain level (more of this shortly) when a key is held. The sustain level is the volume of the overall note when the key is held (after attack and decay stages have passed). Occasionally a sustain time control may also be included. As a real-world example, think of an acoustic piano note, being played reasonably hard, and held. The initial attack is quite fast, rising to a fairly loud ‘peak’ but then it decays quite quickly to a considerably lower sustain level (while the note is held). Obviously, on a real piano, this note will eventually disappear to nothing, but on a synthesiser the note will hold at this level as long as the key is held.

Finally, release controls the amount of time taken for a sound to reduce from the sustain level to nothing, after the key is released. Again, using a real piano as an example, when the damper pedal is depressed, notes will continue to reduce in volume naturally, without having to have the keys pressed. This would be achieved of a synthesiser by setting a long release time.

Roland Gaia SH-01 EnvelopesThe above descriptions all relate to a volume envelope, but envelopes can be used to control many sound parameters- it really depends on which synth you are using as to how many envelopes are available, and what they can be used to control. As an example, the Roland Gaia SH-01 has a separate amp (volume) and filter envelope. Other synths often have envelopes that can be assigned to other things, such as pitch, FM and much more…

LFO (low frequency oscillator)

Roland Gaia SH-01 LFOYes, we’re talking about oscillators again, but these are slightly different. Whereas a regular oscillator (as discussed in part one), is essentially a sound generator, an LFO is another means of controlling different aspects of your sound. LFOs still follow simple waveforms (square, sawtooth etc.), but these run at relatively low frequencies, and can often be assigned to things such as filter cutoff or resonance, pitch or other parameters, depending on the synth. A simple real-world example would be a police siren, which is a simple oscillator sound, with a triangle wave LFO (of sorts) controlling the pitch. LFO’s are very commonly used in dance music for extreme filtering effects. Again, Drum and Bass and Dubstep basslines are often laden with LFO manipulation.

Phew… And that’s it for part 2. Now there’s no need to be afraid of the scientific sounding controls on your synth, just get stuck in and start tweaking! Stay tuned for more synth terminology soon…

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