Image credit: Anton Shuvalov
Oscillators and LFOs, waveforms and filters, attack, delay, sustain, and so on. What does it all mean? Our handy guide will explain what all of the most common terms on digital synthesizers and analog synthesizers are.
There’s a lot of unique jargon and terminology involved in using synths. Whether you’re playing with an old piece of electronic hardware or you’re creating synthesized sounds in your digital music software, knowing what it all means is vital to getting the best results in creating your own sounds.
For a more in-depth guide looking at what a synthesizer even is, how the hell they work to create such unique and seemingly infinite sounds, what the different kinds are, and everything else you need for a 101 introduction into the world of synthesizers then head to our guide here.
ADSR: Attack, delay, sustain, and release. What are they? We’ll get to each of them individually below.
Amplitude: The volume of a tone of waveform, represented by the height of a waveform on an oscilloscope (click here in case you don’t know what that is too).
Analog: An analog circuit is an electronic system that uses a continuously variable signal. The term “analogue” 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 out each string on a guitar in sequence rather than one quick flourish. An arpeggiator simulates this movement of notes for you, sequencing a pattern of notes that make up a chord.
Attack: This is how long it takes for the sound to go from nothing to it’s peak. The longer the attack the more the sound will appear to glide in rather than start immediately.
Attenuator: A method of reducing the amplitude of an audio signal, essentially reducing its volume.
Band: A range of frequencies in an EQ.
Band Pass Filter: A filter that allows for only the band of frequencies surrounding the cutoff to pass through and prevents the frequencies outside of that 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 this isn’t a coin slot in your synth. This is where a group of patches are stored in MIDI instruments.
Bass: The bandwidth of low frequencies, usually accepted to be between 20Hz to 400 Hz.
Chorus: An effect which plays multiple copies of a signal, slightly out of time to create a new tone. Think about the difference between a solo singer and a choir of singers all singing the same note. This can also be called an Ensemble.
Clock: This creates a consistent timing that you can connect throughout the synths and other devices in your setup to keep them in sync.
Cutoff: This is controls the cutting off of frequencies, pretty simple huh? Acting as a filter this controls how much certain EQ frequencies are removed.
Controlled Voltage: Often presented as just CV. This can control any parameters in an analog synth. This is used to adjust the oscillators, filters, and envelopes.
Decay: This measures how long the tone will take to fall out after the sound has been triggered.
Delay: A copy of the signal which plays back after the original sound and varies in the time between repeating and how many times it will play back. 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 numerically-controlled oscillator. Erm, it’s basically a computer controlled sound.
Distortion: An effect which boosts the amplitude, often to a point of peaking that provides a crunching, crushing tone to the sound.
Dynamic: The range in volume of an audio signal.
Envelope: A filter that determines the tones of your synth sound. A standard envelope filter will use the ADSR setup to control the sound.
Equalisation: Usually referred to simply as EQ. This is used to control the frequencies in a sound.
Eurorack: A modular synthesizer format which has grown to become incredibly popular. They use compact, 3.5mm mono jacks and cables for patching signals. To find out more, head here.
Filter: Filters are what defines the shape of your synth sound by taking out specific harmonics.
Frequencies: This is the number of times a second that a sound wave will repeat its cycle. When this is increased it will provide a higher pitch to the human ear.
Gain: Another way of referring to the level of a signal.
Gate: These signals can turn notes on and off, change the stages of an envelope, or control when a sequence is started and stopped. This can also be used to refer to a dynamic effect that cuts off a sound below a certain level.
Harmonics: Overtone frequencies that are found at intervals equal to the fundamental frequency.
Low Frequency Oscillator: Usually referred to as an LFO, this is an oscillator moving so slowly it is below the audible range for the human ear. It is used to alter the movement of a sound by modulating the audible frequencies from its own range.
Low Pass Filter: A filter that lets frequencies below the cutoff to pass, eliminating high frequencies.
MIDI: Stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Without getting into the technical complications of it, it is a system that allows control over 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 how it travels.
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 which add electrical noise to your signals. First found in analog synths, digital synths will sometimes simulate the effect but can’t replicate it authentically.
Octave: The intervals between a frequencies half or doubles, 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.
Panning: The position of a signal on a stereo output in terms of left and right.
Patch: A pre-programmed sound that has been made up from oscillators/samples and customised then saved into a synthesizer. The name comes from the days of old when manually patching cables together created the desired sound.
Pitch: The frequency of a soundwave. The higher the frequency the higher the pitch of the sound will be to the ear.
Polyphony: The number of voices that a synth can play at a time. A monophonic synth can play only one voice, a paraphonic and duophonic synth both play 2 voices but work differently, and a polyphonic synth simply refers to multiple voiced synthesizers.
Portamento: This sweeps the pitch up or down between two notes when they’re played one after the other.
Pulse Width: This is the time a waveform will take to go from its highest point to its lowest point. The width refers to the visual length on the waveform of the signal.
Quantisation: This lines a signal up the closest increment in a specified range. Most commonly used when referring to rhythm and aligning notes up in time with a rhythmic grid.
Release: This defines the time taken for a sound to reach it’s lowest point in whatever the envelope is defining.
Resonance: Using feedback, this boosts the frequencies around the cutoff. This can emphasise harmonics and can generate a sine-wave if it is raised enough to boost the feedback.
Sample: A recorded sound bite which can be replayed and manipulated.
Sequencer: The arrangement of musical patterns which can be repeated to build up looping beats and melodies.
Sine Wave: The most straightforward waveform and the one you’re most likely to think of when you imagine an oscilloscope.
Square Wave: A waveform with very abrupt changes to its peak and trough, creating a shape with near right-angles.
Sustain: This describes how the sound will vary and sets the peak. For example, it 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 in a minute.
Threshold: The level an effect must pass before it is activated.
Timbre: The character of a sound that isn’t related to its pitch or intensity. Can also be referred to as the tone clur or tone quality.
Treble: The bandwidth of high end frequencies. Commonly accepted as between 5.2kHz and 20kHz.
Tremolo: A modulation effect that impacts the volume.
Triangle Wave: Waveforms with a linear rise and fall giving it a triangular shape.
Trigger: The method uses to activate a module or synthesizer’s sound.
Velocity: Normally equating to the loudness of a note, this represents the dynamic attack of a trigger.
Vibrato: Effecting the pitch of a tone, this creates a funny warbling sound from a signal.
Voice: The sound created by an oscillator or a group of oscillators together.
Waveform: The visual display of a soundwave.