Image credit: Anton Shuvalov
Oscillators and LFOs, waveforms and filters, attack, delay, sustain, etc. What does all this mean? Our how-to guide will walk you through the most common terms on digital synthesizers and analog synthesizers.
There is a lot of unique jargon and terminology involved in the use of synths. Whether you’re playing with old electronic gear or creating synth sounds in your digital music software, knowing what all of this means is essential to getting the best results in creating your own sounds.
For a more in-depth guide to what a synthesizer is is even, how the heck they work to create such unique and seemingly endless sounds, what the different types are and all you need for a 101 introduction to the world of synthesizers, then head over to our guide here.
ADSR: Attack, delay, sustain and release. What are they? We’ll cover each of them individually below.
Amplitude: The volume of a waveform tone, represented by the pitch of a waveform on an oscilloscope (click here in case you don’t know what it is too).
Analog: An analog circuit is an electronic system that uses a continuously variable signal. The term “analog” describes the proportional relationship between a signal and a voltage or current that represents the signal.
Arpeggiator: Arpeggios are chords that are played in sequence, like strumming each string of a guitar in order rather than a single quick hit. An arpeggiator simulates this movement of notes for you, in sequence a pattern of notes that make up a chord.
Attack: This is the time it takes for the sound to go from nothing to its maximum. The longer the attack, the more the sound will seem to slide rather than start immediately.
Attenuator: A method of reducing the amplitude of an audio signal, primarily by reducing its volume.
Bandaged: A range of frequencies in an equalizer.
Band pass filter: A filter which only lets through the frequency band surrounding the cutoff and prevents frequencies outside this band.
Bandwidth : This is the width of a band or the number of frequencies that are boosted or cut around a selected frequency.
Bank: No, it’s not a slot machine in your synth. This is where a group of patches is stored in MIDI instruments.
Low: The generally accepted low frequency bandwidth is between 20 Hz and 400 Hz.
Chorus: An effect that plays multiple copies of a signal, slightly timeless to create a new sound. Think about the difference between a solo singer and a choir of singers all singing the same note. It can also be called a set.
The clock: This creates a consistent sync that you can connect across synths and other devices in your setup to keep them in sync.
To cut: It’s controlling the frequency cutoff, pretty simple eh? Acting as a filter, it controls the removal of certain EQ frequencies.
Controlled voltage: Often presented as a simple CV. This can control all parameters of an analog synth. This is used to adjust oscillators, filters, and envelopes.
Caries: This measures how long it will take for the tone to fall after the sound is triggered.
Delay: A copy of the signal that is played after the original sound and varies in time between repetition and the number of times it will be played. It comes in many different forms, find out more here.
Digital: In synthesizers, this refers to a module that uses digital processors and uses the direct digital synthesis architecture. It uses a digitally controlled oscillator. Um, it’s basically computer-controlled sound.
Distortion: An effect that increases amplitude, often to a climax which gives a crisp and overwhelming tone to the sound.
Dynamic: The volume range of an audio signal.
Envelope: A filter that determines the tones of your synth sound. A standard envelope filter will use the ADSR configuration to control the sound.
Equalization: Usually referred to simply as EQ. This is used to control the frequencies in a sound.
Eurorack: A modular synthesizer format that has become incredibly popular. They use compact 3.5mm mono plugs and cables to patch signals. To know more, head here.
Filtered: Filters are what defines the shape of your synth sound by removing specific harmonics.
Frequencies: This is the number of times per second that a sound wave repeats its cycle. When this is increased, it will provide a higher tone to the human ear.
To win: Another way to designate the level of a signal.
Portal: These signals can turn notes on and off, change the steps of an envelope, or control the start and stop of a sequence. It can also be used to refer to a dynamic effect that cuts a sound below a certain level.
Harmonics: Harmonic frequencies that are at intervals equal to the fundamental frequency.
Low frequency oscillator: Usually referred to as an LFO, this is an oscillator moving so slowly that it is below the range audible to the human ear. It is used to modify the movement of a sound by modulating the audible frequencies from its own range.
Low pass filter: A filter that passes frequencies below the cutoff frequency, thus eliminating high frequencies.
MIDDAY : Stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Without going into the technical complications of it, it is a system that allows you to control digital synthesizers with a keyboard. You can find out more with our Introduction to MIDI here.
Modulation: This describes the changes in a signal. You can modulate most elements of an audio signal to define its output and the way it moves.
Module: The units that make up modular synthesizers. These come in many forms… so many forms. You can find out more about what these modules can be and how they work. here.
Noise: No, we haven’t just added an obvious term here. In reference to synths, noise often refers to generators that add electrical noise to your signals. First found in analog synths, digital synths sometimes simulate the effect but cannot authentically reproduce it.
Octave: The intervals between a half or double frequency, providing the same note but a different pitch.
Oscillator: These generate waveforms. Defining the shape of these waveforms has a huge impact on the sound you produce from a synthesizer.
Panoramic: The position of a signal on a stereo output in terms of left and right.
Room: A pre-programmed sound that has been composed from oscillators / samples and customized then recorded in a synthesizer. The name comes from the days when manually connecting cables created the desired sound.
Ground: The frequency of a sound wave. The higher the frequency, the higher the pitch of the sound will be to the ear.
Polyphony: The number of voices a synth can play at a time. A monophonic synth can only play one voice, a paraphonic and duophonic synth both play 2 voices but work differently, and a polyphonic synth simply refers to multiple voice synthesizers.
Portamento: This sweeps the pitch up or down between two notes when played one after the other.
Pulse width: This is the time it will take for a waveform to go from its highest point to its lowest point. Width refers to the visual length on the signal waveform.
Quantification: This aligns a signal to the nearest increment within a specified range. Most often used to refer to rhythm and align notes in time with a beat grid.
Exit: This defines the time it takes for a sound to reach its lowest point, regardless of the definition of the envelope.
Resonance: Using feedback, this amplifies the frequencies around the cutoff. This can emphasize harmonics and generate a sine wave if it is high enough to increase feedback.
Sample: A recorded sound clip that can be replayed and manipulated.
Sequencer: The arrangement of musical patterns that can be repeated to create looping rhythms and melodies.
Sine wave: The simplest waveform and the one you think of most often when you imagine an oscilloscope.
Square wave: A waveform with very abrupt changes in its peak and trough, creating a shape with almost right angles.
To support: This describes how the sound will vary and defines the peak. For example, this will be the volume of the note when the attack reaches its destination.
Tempo: The speed at which music should be played defined by the number of beats per minute.
Threshold: The level an effect must pass before it is activated.
Stamp: The character of a sound that is unrelated to its pitch or intensity. May also be referred to as the Tone Clur or Tone Quality.
Triple: The high-end frequency bandwidth. Commonly accepted between 5.2 kHz and 20 kHz.
Tremolo: A modulation effect that impacts the volume.
Triangular wave: Waveforms with linear rise and fall giving it a triangular shape.
Trigger: The method uses to activate the sound of a module or synthesizer.
Speed: Normally equivalent to the volume of a note, this represents the dynamic attack of a trigger.
Vibrator: Pitching up a pitch creates a funny chirp from a signal.
Voice: The sound created by an oscillator or a group of oscillators together.
Waveform: The visual display of a sound wave.