How Do Synthesizers Work?

Synthesizers are indispensable in modern music. But how do they actually work? This is a simple explanation. 

An analog synthesizer consists of several parts. 

An Oscillator generates the initial sound. In a physical, analog synthesizer, the oscillator is a small device that converts power to sound.  

The oscillator lets the power through or out very quickly. Compare it to turning the light on and off. This sounds like an infinitely long note. 

The oscillator doesn’t stop until you unplug the power. And the faster it responds, the higher the sound. This speed is called Frequency. A low key on a synthesizer has a lower frequency than a high key. 

Most synthesizers are subtractive  #

Most synthesizers are subtractive. That means that you take away bits and pieces of the basic sound that the oscillator makes. Until you have the desired sound. 

The oscillator can power the synth in different ways. For example, constantly on and off, or more gradually. The way the oscillator works determines how the synth sounds.

👉 Read also: What is Additive Synthesis?

Envelope generator determines length of sound #

An envelope generator determines how long a sound sounds. It does this by dividing the sound into 4 pieces:

  • Attack
  • Decay
  • Sustain
  • Release

Attack, decay, sustain and release determine how fast a sound rises and dies out.

Then the sound goes to an envelope generator. This makes individual notes from the infinitely long sound. 

Thanks to a envelope Generator you can determine how long a note should last, and how fast it starts. 

This generator allows you to create short sounds, such as drums. Or swelling tones, like strings. 

Low Frequency Oscillator influences oscillator behavior #

In analog synthesizers there’s also an LFO. This is called a Low Frequency Oscillator

The LFO can make the generated sound louder and softer. Or it influences the frequency of the oscillator. This is how you get a vibrato effect. 

Filter makes synthesizer sound like bass or flute #

Another important component in an analog synthesizer is the filter. 

A filter cuts off bits of sound from the tone. For example, the treble or the bass. This allows a synthesizer to sound either like a low bass guitar or a high flute. 

The filter breaks down sound into different pitches or frequencies. Then it turns down the sound of high frequencies, for example, with a Low Pass Filter. This makes the sound lower and duller. 

Filters can also take away the low frequencies, with a High Pass Filter. Then a patch sounds harsher. 

Volume finishes sound synthesizer  #

Finally, you determine the loudness of the sound with a volume knob. 

Sometimes there are duplicate parts in a synthesizer. If that’s the case you can use this, to set the volume of each sound separately. And make more complex sounds. 

Finally, many analog synthesizers have built in effects, such as reverb, chorus and delay. With these effects, you can make patches sound even better. 

Tip. TAL-U-No-LX is a great sounding and easy to program virtual analog synthesizer. It’s an emulation of the popular Juno 60. Try it out yourself, it’s great fun. 

Internal structure of virtual analog synthesizer Sylenth1 #

Sylenth1 is a virtual analog synthesizer. In the VST you can use and influence up to 4 oscillators at the same time. 

The basis sound is send to the Filter section. There you can edit it with filters. 

Then you determine with the Envelope Generator how long and fast notes should be. 

With the Mixer you determine the volume of the sound and individual oscillators. Finally, you can spice it up with Effects

More articles about synthesizers #

These Are The Best Juno 106 / 60 VST Instruments
These Are The Best Roland Juno 106 / 60 VSTs #

With its rich, full and fat sound, the Roland Juno-106 and Juno-60 are legendary synthesizers. These are the best Juno 106 / 60 VST emulations. 

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