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Master the technology and techniques needed to bring your unique sound to life.

following lesson material is taken from Berklee Online instructor Loudon Stearns Composing
and Producing Electronic Music courses, which are part of the online Bachelor of Professional
Studies degree program in Electronic Music Production & Sound Design. Want to learn more
about earning a degree online? Contact us at 1-866-BERKLEE (USA) / +1-617-747-2146 (INTL)

3. Create The Sound

Oscillator | Voltage Controlled Oscillator (VCO)

6. Shape the Spectrum

Filter | Voltage Controlled Filter (VCF)

7. Shape The Volume

Amplifier | Voltage Controlled Amplifier (VCA)

9. Vary The Sound

Oscillator | Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO)

10. Modulation Strategies

13. Meet Instructor Loudon Stearns

14. How Berklee Online Works

15. Get in Touch

Create The Sound
Oscillator | Voltage Controlled Oscillator (VCO)

At first, synthesis seems like a complicated subject

full of numbers and diagrams and signal flow Synthesizer
without a direct connection to music and emotion.
But, with a little dedication, the study of this topic
Sine Triangle
is highly rewarding.

Sawtoo Noise
The fundamental element in synthesis is the
module. All synths are built from components, or Squar Pulse
modules, that are connected together to influence
each other. The connections and the influences
are the joy and depth of synthesis. Even with just a Sampler
few modules, a whole world of sound opens up.

Sound must start somewhere and the oscillator is

that place. Though the synthesizer is one of the
most important tools of contemporary music, and File Playback

creating pop or electronic music without it would

be impossible, the most important aspect of
learning synthesis isnt the synthesizer or even the
sounds you are creating. The most important part
is how the explorations change the way you hear.
By giving you a language of timbre a way to
describe what you hear you will be a better
listener and thus a better producer, performer, and

Create The Sound Oscillator | Voltage Controlled Oscillator (VCO)

Waveforms | Oscillators are the sound creation portion of a synthesizer. Typically they generate a variety
of waveforms such as saw, sine, square, triangle, and noise. In subtractive synthesis, an oscillator with a wide
spectral content, (like sawtooth) starts the signal. Then a filter is used to carve out any unwanted portions. Think
of the oscillator like marble and the filter a sculptors chisel.

Saw to filtering at all, because there are no upper

Saw waves are the standard harmonics to remove. They do however form the
starting point for synth sounds. basic building blocks for additive and FM synthesis.
They have a rich buzzy timbre
that includes all harmonics and respond well to Triangle
drastic filtering. Triangle waves sound like a
heavily filtered square wave.
Square Like the square, triangle waves
Another rich waveform, square contain only odd harmonics, but they are much less
waves arent as complex as saw harsh because the upper harmonics are quieter.
waves because they only Triangle is a great choice when an extra filter is not
includes odd harmonics, giving them a hollow available and a sound that is more interesting than a
timbre. Often with square waves, the synth will sine wave is needed.
include an option of pulse width modulation. Think
of a square wave as a switch going up and down. A Noise
typical square wave spends equal amounts of time Noise comes in a variety of
up and down, but it doesnt need to. Pulse width flavors usually denoted by
modulation allows the proportion of the switch colors. White noise is
being up and down to vary: at 50% they are equal, scientifically useful because it has equal amplitude
and at 1% the wave spends a small amount of time across all frequencies, but sounds harsh to our ears.
up and most of the time down. Pulse width has a Pink noise is white noise that has been filtered to
dramatic impact on timbre and can be modulated the natural characteristics of our ears and is much
with an low frequency oscillator (LFO) to create rich smoother and generally pleasing. Noise can add
undulating textures, but it is also very useful as a softness to a patch, provide additional high end,
static parameter. A square wave with a low pulse width and make modulated delays like flangers and
is the best starting point for nasal and vocal sounds. phasers stand out nicely. Noise is also very useful
at the attack portion of a note. In most instruments,
Sine there is a wide range of inharmonic noise right at
The simplest of all waveforms, the attack, before the instrument settles into the
sine waves are energy at a single steady state note. Percussion synthesis also relies
frequency. The more heavily on noise oscillators. Many synths will include
complex waveforms can be thought of as a separate oscillator just for noises. If you are lucky,
collections of hundreds (even thousands!) of it will have its own envelope.
individual sine waves. A single sine doesnt respond

Create The Sound Oscillator | Voltage Controlled Oscillator (VCO)

Combining Waveforms
When combining waves, consider the harmonic
series of both waves. A spectrum or frequency
analyzer (FFT) can assist with this. One helpful
combination is a square wave with a sawtooth that
is an octave up. The result is a complete harmonic
series, with the two oscillators interlocking like a
zipper, never playing the same harmonic.

Voices Standard Voices Parameters

The word voice takes on a very specific meaning Voices, Poly, Max Voices:
in synth land. If a four note chord is held, the synth This parameter sets the maximum number of voices
interprets the chord as having four voices. The to be played at a single time. 1 often puts the
synth will limit the number of simultaneous notes synth into monophonic mode, although sometimes
as a way to decrease the CPU load (and also for a mono button will be present.
creative purposes). It should be noted that the
number of voices is not always the same as the Unison/Unisono:
number of notes held. Often, a synth will have a This parameter enables multiple, slightly varied
unison/unisono feature designed to create thick voices to be used for each played note. The voices
ensemble sounds by playing multiple voices with are slightly out of tune to create a chorus or celeste
slightly different qualities like pitch, timbre, and sound, and the amount of detune is often user-
onset delay. These qualities typically multiply the configurable.
number of used voices, so if unison is set to two and
max voices is set to four, only two notes will play Glide (Portamento):
at once before the synth starts stealing or stops On a mono synth, the pitch of a note can be made
playing notes. to glide from note to note, as would be heard in an
instrument like the trombone or violin. The amount
of time to get from note to note is the glide time or
portamento time. On many synths, a legato/glide
option is located near the portamento time control.
In legato mode, only overlapping notes glide,
enabling more control over the gliding.

Shape The Spectrum
Filter | Voltage Controlled Filter (VCF)

Filters are the sound shaping component of the

synthesizer. Usually the oscillator produces a strong, Low Pass

spectrally intense sound. To remove the harshness High Pass

and make it sit well in the mix, that brightness needs

Band Pass
to be tamed, which is where the filter comes in.
Cutoff Frequency Notch
20 Hz to 20KHz
A filter is a frequency specific volume control. Each Comb

filter description includes both amplitude and

frequency information. For example, cutting the
highs refers to an amplitude reduction of the Resonance
high frequencies. To do this, a low pass filter (the When talking about low and high pass filters,
most common synth filter type), would be used. resonance refers to a boost at the cutoff frequency.
Conversely, when cutting the lows, a high pass A high resonance will dramatically boost harmonics
filter would be used. that are right at the cutoff frequency, and moving
the cutoff frequency around will bring harmonics up
Cutoff Frequency and down in a beautiful cascading series. The higher
Cutoff frequency is the most important parameter the resonance, the more pronounced the effect, and
on any filter. The cutoff frequency defines at eventually the filter will begin to oscillate. When this
which frequency the cut or boost should start. happens, the filter acts like an additional sine wave
For example, a sawtooth wave playing at 261 Hz oscillator.
(roughly middle C) creates harmonics that exceed
the range of human hearing (20,000 Hz). The sound On notch and band-pass filters, resonance acts
is buzzy and annoying, and in order to cut the highs, differently, becoming a width control. The higher
a low pass filter is required. If the cutoff frequency the resonance (sometimes known as Q), the
is too high, the filter will only eliminate frequencies narrower the band of frequencies boosted (band-
that are imperceptible to the human ear. However, pass) or cut (notch). A low resonance notch filter is a
as the cutoff frequency is reduced, more high end secret weapon of synthesis, particularly on big bass
frequencies will be cut, creating a duller sound. If sounds -- it removes a large amount of mid-range
the filter is set at a very low frequency, the synth will energy (leaving room for the other instruments), but
become completely quiet, as all of the sound will be still retains the brightness to cut through the mix
well above the cutoff frequency. and the deepness to move the club woofers.

Shape The Volume
Amplification | Voltage Controlled Amplifier (VCA)

The final stage (before the delay effects) is Sustaining and Non-Sustaining Sounds
amplification, which provides volume control. All instrumental sounds can be placed in one of two
An amplifier is almost always modulated with an categories, sustaining, or non-sustaining. If energy is
envelope and works to create the volume contour being added to the instrument over the course of a
of individual notes. To truly understand the amplifier note (e.g. blowing, bowing, mechanically vibrating),
you must first learn about envelopes. it is a sustaining instrument. If the instrument gets
an initial burst of energy that is left to resonate
Envelopes are general purpose modulators. and decay (e.g. striking or plucking), it is a non-
Although envelopes can be sent to a variety of sustaining instrument.
destinations, the most important destination is the
amplifier envelope. The typical amplifier envelope To emulate sustaining instrumental sounds, the
is divided into four stages. Attack, Decay, Sustain, sustain portion of the amplitude envelope is non-
Release (ADSR). zero. To emulate non-sustaining instruments, the
sustain portion of the amplitude envelope is zero.
Some Common Settings for the Amp Envelope
Note Off
Note On

Switches are on or off with nearly instant movement.


Therefore, it takes no time to go from zero to full

volume, and attack is 0. Sustain is at 100%, which
means that decay is not present. On note off, the
0% Attack Decay Release
sound will stop instantly, which means that release is
set to 0. Organs can be emulated with this envelope.
Attack, Decay, and Release are all amounts of To add a little bite to the beginning of a note, reduce
time (often represented in milliseconds). Sustain,
sustain to 80% and make the decay very short. This is
however, is different, as it represents a level.
good for emulating percussive organs.

In the example above, the envelope starts at zero

and proceeds to full level over the attack time. From
here, the envelope decays until it reaches its sustain
level and a MIDI note off event is received, at
which time the envelope returns to zero over the
release time.

Attack 0, Decay N/A, Sustain 100%, Release 0

Shape the Volume | Amplification | Voltage Controlled Amplifier (VCA)

This non-sustaining envelope is perfect for

Blowing or Bowing
emulating struck or plucked instruments. When
an instrument is struck or plucked, it goes to full
volume nearly instantly, then decays based on the
decay time. Release is set similar to decay so that
if the player releases the MIDI note, the envelope
will continue to play out naturally. The decay (and
release) parameters are adjusted based on the

Attack 0-10% (almost 0), Decay 0-10% instrument. For instance, a gong would have a very
Sustain 50-90%, Release 0-10% long decay, while a marimba note would be short.

The percentages in this example are a rough guide

and will vary from synth to synth. When a musician Damped Pluck or Strike

Note Off
begins to bow or blow into their instrument, there is
an initial strong burst of energy, and then the note
settles into a steady sustaining level. The initial burst
of energy causes the envelope to jump from 0 to full
volume quickly (e.g. low attack time), then quickly
drop back down to the sustain level (e.g. low decay
time). The note holds at the sustain level until the
Attack 0, Decay 10-80%, Sustain 0, Release 0
note off event, when the instrument vibrates for a
moment, trailing off after the player has stopped
This envelope is similar to the pluck or strike, but
blowing or bowing.
because release time is zero when the envelope
receives a note off event, the sound is stopped.
Increasing attack and decay time softens the initial
This is representative of a piano -- when the key is
transient. Increasing sustain level gives more power
pressed, a felt hammer strikes a string, and when
to the note and brings it to the forefront of a mix.
the key is released, a damper raises up and stops
Increasing release time sounds similar to adding
the note. A similar envelope would be used to
reverb and can help smooth out the lines when
emulate electric guitar and bass.
moving from note to note.

Pluck or StrikeThe
Shape Volume
Note Off

Attack 0, Decay 10-80%, Sustain 0

Release same as decay 8
Vary the Sound
Oscillator | Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO)

A low frequency oscillator, or LFO for short, adds

steady cyclic motion to a synth parameter. While Triangle

an LFO is a general purpose modulator that can

Sawtooth Down
control a variety of parameters, creating a vibrato Depth
Sawtooth Up 0-100%
effect is its most common use. To create vibrato,
the LFOs destination must be set to the frequency Square

of the oscillator. This particular modulation is so Random Rate

0Hz - 20Hz

important that many synthesizers have a dedicated

LFO specifically for vibrato. The LFO shares many of
its important parameters with the oscillator, An important consideration of free mode is in
including shape and rate (frequency). Notice the playing chords. With retrigger off, all notes that are
range of the rate parameter -- an oscillator runs at played will have perfectly in sync LFO movements,
audible frequencies (20Hz to 20,000 Hz), whereas an like a single LFO controlling all the voices in perfect
LFO runs at much lower frequencies (0Hz to 20Hz) -- unison. This is useful for synced LFOs as they will
though many synthesizers include LFOs that can run always be in time with the global meter.
faster for interesting effects.
With retrigger on, the LFO restarts with each note,
Sync: so a chord played with staggered attacks will also
Most LFOs can be set to synchronize with the global have staggered LFO movements --- it is like there
song tempo. When in sync mode, the rate parameter is an LFO individual to each voice and it starts over
will be set in metric subdivisions (eighth note, quarter at the note on. The vibrato in a group of players
note, etc.). This is helpful for making rhythmically is never in perfect sync, so it makes sense to have
accurate pulses and timbre variations. Use triplet individual LFOs to emulate their vibrato.
values to keep a sense of sync while also decreasing
the rigid quality of eighth and sixteenth notes. LFO Attack:
Often, vibrato is absent during the attack of a note,
Retrigger or Free: becoming more dramatic as the note sustains. This
An LFO in retrigger mode will start from the effect is emulated in synthesizers by controlling LFO
beginning of its shape at the MIDI note on event. depth with an envelope. Unlike adding an entire
This is perfect for keeping consistency between Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release (ADSR) envelope,
notes. With retrigger off (also known as free mode), the LFO depth is a simple ramp up to full level. The
the LFO keeps running even when no notes are time it takes for the LFO depth to reach maximum
playing, so each note starts at a different point in level is set with the LFO attack parameter.
the LFO cycle. This adds note to note variations and
an unpredictability to the patch.
Modulation Strategies

Modulation is the time dimension of synthesis. The standard modulators are direct control (key, velocity,
CC, pitchbend, and pressure), low frequency oscillators, and envelopes. The most common destinations are
frequency, filter cutoff, and amplitude. This scheme is extended by adding secondary modulation, which means
modulation of the modulators. Thus, LFOs get two modulation inputs, rate and amplitude, and envelopes can
have each stage (ADSR) modulated.

Primary Modulations:

Modulator Parameter Comments

Key Pitch Also called keytracking, this is on by default in most


Key Sample Select Only on samplers with multi-tracking, this creates realistic

Key Filter Cutoff Controls brightness across keyboard.

Key Pan Emulates natural piano panning.

Velocity Sample Select Only on samplers with multi-sampling, this creates realistic

Velocity Amplitude Accented notes are louder.

Velocity Filter Cutoff Accented notes are brighter.

Velocity Sample Start On samplers, negative modulation with higher velocity

starts the sample earlier, bringing in the natural attack of
the sample.

Envelope Amplitude Gives the sound its basic shape.

Envelope Filter Cutoff Usually used to add bite to the attack of every note.
Longer attacks can create auto-wah type effects.

Envelope Filter Resonance Usually used to add bite to attack, can be more natural
then moving cutoff frequency, or can be used in
combination with it for complex filter movement.

Modulation Strategies

Primary Modulations (cont)

Modulator Parameter Comments

Envelope Pitch Used to add pitch movement to the attack. Usually starts
high and settles quickly down into the pitch.

LFO Pitch Vibrato, usually between 2Hz and 8Hz, and a depth of
less than a semitone.

LFO Amplitude Tremolo

LFO Pan Autopan

LFO Filter Cutoff Used to add motion and interest to sustained notes.

CC74 (Brightness) Filter Cutoff Allows for manual control of brightness.

CC10 (Pan) Pan Standard mixing pan control.

CC7 (Volume) Amplitude Standard mixing volume control.

CC 11 (Expression) Amplitude Acts as a percentage of CC7.

Aftertouch Filter Cutoff Used to add motion and interest to sustained notes.

Pitchbend Pitch Adjustable range: whole step, minor 3rd, and octave are

Modulation Strategies

Secondary Modulations

Modulator Parameter Comments

CC1 (modulation) Amp Envelope Manual control of attack time. This is a great control for
Attack switching between legato and staccato passages with
one sound.

CC73 (attack) Amp Envelope Manual control of release time. This is a useful control
Release adjusting the density of a part. Release often acts similarly
to reverb, reducing it leaves space between notes.

CC Amp Envelope Manual control of decay time. This is most useful on

Decay percussive sounds with no sustain. It will control the
length of the sound.

Velocity Amp Envelope Negative modulation with higher velocity will have a
Attack shorter attack phase.

Velocity Filter Envelope Higher velocities have greater filter movement. Usually
Amount makes the attack brighter while leaving sustain consistent.

Velocity Pitch Envelope Accented notes have larger pitch change.


Envelope Pitch LFO Depth Usually used to fade in vibrato with a slow attack. Often
a simple envelope is built into the LFO itself as an attack

Key Amp Envelope Controls the length of percussive notes across the
Decay keyboard. Higher notes have a shorter decay than low

Often, modulation defines a sound by making it expressive and dynamic. When creating and exploring
synthesizers, the configuration of modulation can be the most complicated aspect and the part that requires the
most thought. However, once the modulation is configured, the performing and knob tweaking can start. This
is particularly true with modular and semi-modular synths. With these devices, configuring a patch with your
standard modulations and saving it as a template for future patches is a useful practice.

Loudon Stearns
Loudon Stearns is an associate professor at Berklee
College of Music, a course author and instructor at
Berklee Online, and and active media-artist. Within
the Contemporary Writing and Production department
at Berklee College of Music he prepares students to
work as independent composers and producers in a
technology-laden music industry. Online, he focuses
on the latest electronic music styles and music-
technology innovations, showing students how to
analyze contemporary styles and use the latest music
technology in their own works. An innovator in both
education and art, Loudon authored a Massive Open
Online Class, Introduction to Music Production, that
has provided high-quality, free education to hundreds
of thousands of students. He has also received an
award from the University Professional and Continuing
Education Association for Excellence in Teaching
and the Excellence in Media Art award from the
Emerson College Visual and Media Arts department.

What makes the degree program at Berklee Online so

unique is that its a full course of study that gives you
everything you need to be a well-rounded and capable
producer and musician. A degree in Electronic Music
Production and Sound Design is going to prepare you
for a wide number of jobs. The idea is to prepare a
student to be able to adapt to whatever is happening

in the music industry with the knowledge that a
computer is going to be an essential component of it.

- Loudon Stearns
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