It’s one of the most commonly found features on a synthesizer…
But, what is an arpeggiator and what does it do? Synthesizers, as you may have already gathered, are packed with features that have incredibly complex-sounding names. Oscillators, ring modulators, modulation envelopes… the list goes on and on.
In most cases, these features are a lot more straightforward than they may sound. Here, we’re going to illuminate one of the most commonly found synth features: the arpeggiator.
It might sound like an instrument of torture (‘take him to the arpeggiator!!’), but in actual fact, it’s not only very painless but very inspiring, too.
To find out why, read on, as we answer the question ‘what is an arpeggiator?’
Hold down, and repeat…
When playing the vast majority of musical instrument types, you’ll generally find that, well, you have to play every single note. Unsurprising, I know- but stick with me…
Music is typically based around progressions of chords. These may not be presented in a very obviously ‘chordal’ way- i.e. the notes of the chord may not be played together simultaneously. As an example, think of a guitarist playing finger-style, and using intricate plucks to create a far more complex pattern. Often, this is still based around simple chord shapes.
An arpeggiator takes advantage of this fact and provides synth players with an easy way of playing complex synth parts via simple chords.
Switching on an arpeggiator tells the synth to ‘listen’ to the notes being played. Then, it creates a pattern (an arpeggio, typically) using these notes, played at a set master tempo – all that is required of the player is to hold the notes. Or, if the arpeggiator has a ‘latch’ function activated, just hit the chord once, and the pattern will continue to play until another note, or chord is hit. Simple.
Arpeggiator types and features
At its most simple, an arpeggiator will simply cycle through the notes played, either up or down in pitch, playing each note to a specified note length. These days, however, most arpeggiators have far more options.
Typically, even a modestly equipped arpeggiator will have the option to switch between ‘up’, ‘down’, and ‘up and down’ modes, with a random mode usually thrown in for good measure. These, with the ability to change tempo and note-length, are a surprisingly creative set of tools in their own right.
More sophisticated designs will offer the user to specify more complex pre-programmed patterns, or even program their own. Some arpeggiators allow for polyphonic patterns, meaning that chords can be played and repeated to set, tempo-synchronized.
For an idea, check out the awesome Modal Electronics SKULPT arpeggiator in the video below:
Often, octave ranges can be set. This means that notes held will leap up, or down to higher or lower octaves according to the notes held and specified pattern.
Workstation-style synths – such as the FM8, which is part of Native Instruments KOMPLETE software (pictured below) – often have immensely complex arpeggiators, which allow the user to program multiple layers of sounds with differing patterns, such that very complex, evolving, layered sounds can be created.
So, there we are- an arpeggiator is a sort of simple ‘auto-accompaniment’ that generates musical patterns from held notes. It can be an incredibly creative tool in the right hands- try it and see.
Here are some audio examples demonstrating how the different settings sound.
1. Four-note C-Major chord – Arpeggiator ‘UP’
2. Four-note C-Major chord – Arpeggiator ‘DOWN’
3. Four-note C-Major chord – Arpeggiator ‘UP & DOWN’
4. Four-note C-Major chord – Arpeggiator ‘RANDOM’
5. Alternating Chords – Edited Reason RPG-8 Pattern With 4-Octave Range
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.