Sick of synth videos that sound like graduate-level textbooks? Today you’ll learn all the basics of synths at a beginner level. By the end of this lesson, you’ll feel way more confident working with any synth you get your hands on!
Drew Swisher: Sick of synth videos that sound like graduate level textbooks. Today you’ll learn all the basics of synths at a beginner level. By the end of this lesson, you’ll feel way more confident working with any synth you got your hands on.
Hi there Drew here for Musician on a Mission, and today I’ll be going over the four fundamental building blocks in every synth you’ll run into. If you’re like me, you’re tired of complicated synth tutorials that leave you with a few answers, but even more questions. So to keep things simple, I’ve picked out the four most important things you need to know to get started with synths. So keep watching if you want to turn up the heat in your tracks with great synth production.
And don’t forget to download our free synthesizer cheat sheet. It’s a really handy guide with a glossary of synth terms and a couple of graphics that will help you quickly hone the tone of your synth. Click the link in the description below or on screen to grab it now. Let’s jump in.
Now let’s talk about these four basic building blocks of synthesizers. These are four things you’re going to see in any synthesizer you come across: Number one, Oscillators; number two, Filters; three, LFOs; and four the ADSR Envelope, also known as the amplitude envelope. Don’t worry if these words don’t make a lot of sense right now, by the end of this video they’re going to be second nature.
Now while every synth you come across is going to have these four tools, they’re not always going to look the same. Different synths are laid out differently, so don’t panic if your synth doesn’t look exactly the same as the ones I’m using today. It should still have these same tools. Just look for the names, oscillator, filter, LFO, and amplitude envelope.
I think it’s helpful to think about these four building blocks of synths like we’re building a house. First you’re going to start with a foundation, a strong base that you can build everything else on top of. Then you’re going to put in wall frames to fill it out, and put bricks on those to keep them strong, and then you’ll put on the finishing touches to make it look like a complete house. Four steps to getting a finished house and we’ve got four steps to building a finished synthesizer.
So let’s start out with the foundation of the synths, the oscillator. The name sounds really complicated, but oscillators are actually really simple. An oscillator is just the part of the synth that makes the sound. Every other thing we’re going to talk about is shaping the tone of the sound that we’re creating, but the oscillator is the actual origin of the sound we’re making. So an oscillator just creates a waveform which is what we hear.
Let me show you. Let’s go into Alchemy, a stock plug-in that Logic Pro has and let’s just check out. Here we’ve got a sine wave, so here’s our oscillator, and as you can see, there are a couple of other ones. We’re not going to worry about those right now. Let’s just focus on this one oscillator, and I’ve picked out a sine wave.
Sine waves are the most basic type of sound out there. It’s just a single frequency. Every other sound you hear in the world is comprised of a bunch of different frequencies. For example, my voice is not just one pitch, but there’s a bunch of harmonics on top of it. In the same way, when you play a C on a piano, it sounds different to playing a C on a guitar, because there’s a bunch of different harmonics on top of that one bass note. But when it’s a sine wave it’s just one single note.
Now let’s check out what a sine wave sounds like. It’s really clear toned and round, and as you can see a sine wave also looks really round. So this is a good rule of thumb when you’re working with synths. Different waveforms kind of sound like how they look. Let’s check out a saw wave for example.
Saw waves look a lot more jagged and rough and they also sound a lot sharper. Square waves are kind of the same thing. They’re kind of in between a saw wave and a sine wave as far as sound goes. They’re not as jagged as the saw wave but there’s still a lot sharper than a sine wave is. So yeah as you’re playing around synths, just keep in mind how a different waveform looks and think about how it might sound.
Now let’s go back to these multiple oscillators. A lot of synths out there will have more than one oscillator, which will allow you to layer different sounds on top of each other and make something more complex and interesting. So let’s see what it sounds like when we put a saw wave and a sine wave together.
Now by itself the saw wave is going to overpower this sine wave, so I’m just going to go ahead and turn it down. So let’s hear them by themselves, and together that’s just a lot more full, a lot more rich of a sound. We’re already a lot closer to having a really cool synth sound. So play around with the oscillators in your synth and see what kind of layers you can create by putting different waveforms together.
Let’s see when we put a square wave on top of all of this, how does that sound.
We’re starting to get something really full here. So what I’ve done here in addition to introducing the square wave is turn it up an octave, and putting octaves in your synth is a great way to fill out the space. If you’ve got a track that sounds a little empty, try putting multiple octaves in your synth. This is a great way to take up some extra bandwidth and make sure your song isn’t sounding hollow.
So now that we’ve got the foundation of our synth setup, let’s build a frame. Let’s pop over to another type of synth Logic has, Retro Synth. So as you can see, everything looks different but we’ve still got the same basic tools. Here’s our oscillator, and we can choose between a square wave, a saw wave, and even a noise wave. Now get ready that’s going to be kind of harsh. Yeah it’s not great to hear, but if you mix it in lightly with another sound wave, it’s actually going to add a really nice texture to your synth. But for now we’re just going to focus on our filter.
If you’re already familiar with EQ, this is going to be really easy for you, but for those of you that aren’t, EQs are handy tools that let you turn frequencies up or down, and filters inside of synths do the exact same thing. So let’s check out an EQ. And I’m going to put this MIDI file on our track that we’re using and I’m going to loop it so we can just see what’s going on here in the EQ.
This is a real-time representation of all the frequencies inside of our synth. So these are the low frequencies down here, the high ones up here, and we can turn them up or down depending on if we think something’s too loud or too quiet. Filters also let us cut out parts of a frequency spectrum we don’t like. So let’s go back over to retro synth.
Yeah, there’s a cool blend of sounds so let’s use that, but what if we think it’s a little too harsh or thin. We’ll probably want to cut out some of the high frequencies. To do that, we’ll use something called a Low-Pass Filter. Low-pass filters allow low frequencies to pass through but cut out the higher ones. So if you’re trying to tame some unruly high frequencies this is what you want to use.
So let’s grab a low-pass filter right now. All these things that say LP are just low-pass. Let’s go with this one called Lush, because I want this sound to sound lush. Let’s hear a synth again without the filter turned on, and here’s with it turned on.
As you can hear, we get something dark and mellow and we have the low-pass filter on. This isn’t just about cleaning up your mix. Filters are great for setting the mood of your synth. If we like the low-pass filter but we want it to be a little bit more subtle, we can give it a different strength.
So if we look back at our filter options, you’ll see that they have numbers as well. These numbers describe how strong the filter is. The higher the number, the more frequencies that’ll cut out. So by picking a low-pass filter with a lower number, I can cut out the high frequencies in a more subtle way. Check it out.
So that’s what to do if your synth is too harsh, but what if it’s too bass heavy or muddy, then you’ll want to get rid of some of these low frequencies and for that, you’ll need a High-Pass Filter. High-pass filters cut out the low frequencies while letting the high ones pass through.
I know it can be kind of counterintuitive that the one that gets rid of low stuff is named the high-pass and the one that gets rid of high stuff is named the low-pass, but don’t think of it as what you’re trying to get rid of instead they’re named after what you’re trying to keep. So if you want to keep the high frequencies, you’re going to use a high-pass filter.
Just like low-pass filters, high-pass filters come in different levels of strength. So here’s how it sounds with one put on our synth. As you can tell, it cuts out a lot of the body of our synth. That might seem like a bad thing, but in the context of a full mix, it can actually be really helpful. If you want your synth to add movement or texture without drawing the listeners attention, a high-pass filter is perfect.
This sounds pretty cool, but I actually want to make the effect more pronounced. I can cut out more of the low stuff by moving the cutoff. The cutoff tells the filter where to start cutting. When working with a high-pass anything below the cutoff is going to get filtered out. So here’s how it sounds when I make the cutoff even higher, really strong.
Low-pass filters have cutoffs as well and they work the same way except this time everything above the cutoff is getting filtered out. Whatever type of filter you’re using, try moving the cutoff up and down this should make honing in on the tone you want way easier.
Let’s hit one last thing about filters before moving on, resonance. Resonance is a sharp spike in the frequency spectrum and it’s usually right before the cutoff, and the resonance turns the volume of those frequencies in front of the cutoff way up. So here’s how that sounds. By turning it up we make those frequencies louder and this is a great way to help your synth cut through a busy mix or you can use it as a sharp effect.
If you like the sound of your synth but you want to make it sound more lively and interesting, you can try automating the cutoff or the resonance. That will give it some nice movement and help it sound a bit more natural.
Let’s move on to our third building block, the LFO. LFOs can be really confusing at first and there when I get the most questions about when it comes to synths. So I’m going to break it down and hopefully make them a lot more understandable. LFO stands for Low Frequency Oscillator.
Low frequency oscillators are special kinds of oscillators inside your synth. They’re super different from regular oscillators, so it’s best to think of them as totally different things at first. By itself an LFO won’t do anything, but if we tell it to modulate some other part of the synth, we can make some cool changes to the sound. Let me show you how it works.
I’m going to be using a synth called Massive to show this off, but you’ll find LFOs in any synth. Here’s our LFO and this is the waveform of our LFO. As the waveform goes up and down, so will whatever we assign it to. So if I assign the LFO to the pitch of our oscillator, it’s going to make the pitch rise and fall at the same time as the LFOs waveform, because the LFOs waveform is actually telling the pitch to go up and down in accordance with it. Check it out.
And we can use LFOs to modulate other parts of the synth as well. If I put it on the volume it’s going to make the synth fade in and out over time, but what if we want to change how the LFO sounds.
LFO s have a few different tools inside of them and first off we can change the type of waveform it’s using. Right now we’re just using a sine wave but by picking a different waveform, it’ll give us a totally different effect. So you’re going to get a totally different sound depending on what kind of waveform the LFO is using.
The rate is how fast the LFO is. By turning the rate up and down, I can speed up or slow down the effect. So if I make the LFO even slower, the volume is going to fade in and out as slower rate, or I can make it way faster. A lot of synths even allow you to sync the rate up to the tempo of the song so you can make the effect match the beat of your track. Check it out.
So that’s eighth notes, twelve, sixteenths. This is a great way to make sure that your synth is cohesive with the rest of your track. If the LFO is modulating things at the same BPM as the rest of your track, it’s going to sound way more glued and way more like it’s meant to be part of the song.
I can also change the depth and for this part I’m going to put the LFO back on the pitch because I think it makes a little more clear what’s happening. Some synths like Massive call it amplitude, some call it intensity, but most just use depth. One way or another, if you’re working with an LFO in your synth and you see either the word amp or intensity or depth, just know that those are all describing the same thing and that is how tall the waveform of the LFO is.
Turning up the depth will make the LFO’s effect stronger and turning it down will make the LFO effect weaker. When the depth is all the way up, the LFO is going to move way up and way down, but as we turn it down, we’re going to get way less movement. If you want your LFOs effect to be more subtle, turning down the depth of the LFO is going to turn down how much movement there is.
One of my personal favorite ways to use LFOs is to combine them with a filter. So by assigning the LFO to the cutoff of a filter, you can change how intense the filter is over time. Check it out. Just like before, we can turn the rate up or down and make the cutoff change faster, or we can turn the depth up or down and change how subtle the effect is.
The main thing to take away is that LFOs make whatever you assign them to change in time with the LFOs waveform. They’re incredible tools for adding life to your mix and they kind of act like automation, giving movement to your synth sound. Like I said different synths have different layouts so how you assign the LFO might differ.
In Massive, you just drag and drop the LFO on the thing you want to modulate, but your synth might do it differently. Just google the name of your synth followed by the word LFO and you should be able to find what you need.
Now that was a lot of information so let’s review. LFO stands for a Low Frequency Oscillator and it’s basically an effect that you can put on different parts of your synth. It will turn that part of your synth up or down in accordance with this waveform you select here and you can make it go faster or slower by setting the rate to be faster or slower.
You can also make the effect more or less pronounced by turning the depth up or down. To make things easier, I’m going to turn off the LFO for this next section. That way, we’re not getting confused about what we’re hearing.
Last but not least is the ADSR or the Amplitude Envelope. This is the finishing touch on your sound and I think it’s the most important thing for you to learn so you can get exactly the types of sounds you want out of your synth.
Really simple sound waves can sound incredible if you know how to use ADSR. So as you can see, it kind of looks like a rollercoaster. You’ve got this first he’ll climb up to the top of the first drop and then it goes down to a second height and then there’s a second drop down to the end of the ride.
This is all about the timing of your synth. This is how long it takes for your synth to reach full volume and then it’s going to drop off to a secondary volume before totally fading out. So the different parts of ADSR are the Attack, the Decay, the Sustain, and the Release. These are all related to different parts of the timing of your synth.
So the attack is how long it takes to reach that first hill, how long it takes for the synth to reach its full volume, and then the decay is how long it takes for it to fade way to this secondary volume, and that secondary volume is the sustain. So as you can see, I can turn this up or down, make the hill less steep, and that’s the sustain while I can elongate it, and that’s the decay. The decay is how long it takes and the sustain is how high the volume is after the attack.
Then the release is how long it takes for the sound to totally fade out after that. A long release will sound like a really natural reverb and a short one will just cut out really quickly. So let’s see all of this in action starting with attack.
Let’s start with a really short attack, and as you can hear, the sound just cuts in really quickly, and as we elongate the attack, it takes longer for it to fade in. A really high attack will just take a really long time to fade in. And after the attack, the sound will start to fade out to a second volume.
The decay is how long it takes to do that and the sustain is how loud that second volume is. So to make this more pronounced, I’m going to turn the sustain way down. As you can see, it fades out really quickly but if we elongate it, the volume of the sound sticks around a bit longer. We can also make a short decay in a higher sustain. That’s often a bit more natural of a sound especially if you’re going for something that sounds like a keyboard.
And finally is the release, which is just the tail end, how long it takes for it to totally fade out. A high release is going to take a long time to fade, but a short release will fade out very quickly. So like I said, setting the ADSR is super important to getting the sound you want.
So as you’re creating your synth, think about how you want it to sound timewise. If you’re wanting to make something that’s really percussive and punchy, you’re going to want everything to be pretty short, a short attack time, a pretty quick decay. You’ll want a little bit of a sustain so that you can actually hear the sound, and then a really fast release. So let’s see how that sounds. As you can see, that comes in and cuts out really quickly.
Now if you’re going for something really ethereal like a pad that you want to blend into the background, you’re going to want to have a longer attack, a longer release and a pretty high sustain. Here’s how that sounds. That sustain could be even higher. See that’s a great way to have something that feels kind of far off, and the more that you pull that release out, the more in the background it’s going to feel as it just fades away really slowly.
So as you’re shaping the tone of your synth, think about the timing of the ADSR and how that’s going to affect the sound that you’re getting and check out that free cheat sheet we’ve got in the description, because that actually has a few pointers for how you can set the ADSR correctly for the different kinds of sounds you may be wanting to get.
So I’m going to pop over to retro synth again I am going to go from start to finish and create a new synth really quickly. So let’s go ahead and set our oscillator first. I’m going to turn off the filter so that it’s not affecting anything, and let’s just get a blend of these two oscillators that we like.
I think that sounds pretty cool. It’s got a really rich texture there. Next, let’s go ahead and set the filter. I’m going to go ahead and give it a low-pass filter. I’m just a big fan of low-pass filters honestly. Nothing too drastic just something that gets rid of a little bit of that harsher high-end.
Now let’s add in our LFO. In retro synth, the LFO is automatically set to affect the filter. So I’m just going to turn it up in here, turn it up in here. Yeah, let’s turn it up in here. And I’m going to turn up the rate on this LFO as well, because it’s just not quite cutting it speed wise for me. There we go, that’s cool. Here we’ve got our depth, something more pronounced. I’m going to mix it in a little bit. There we go. I think that sounds pretty cool.
Now I’m going to set the amplitude envelope or the ADSR. I kind of like this as a pad sound, so let’s draw out the attack and the release, and give that a nice high sustain.
So what I might do in an actual track is automate the LFO to come in over time to give it a nice cool effect, and there we have it, a synth sound from start to finish.
First we went ahead and selected the waveforms we wanted to use for our oscillator and got a nice blend between the two going. Then we set our filter to cut out some harsh higher frequencies, got our LFO going to give some movement to the filter, and then set our amplitude so it would be a nice pad sound.
Now remember these four fundamental building blocks are crucial to getting the sounds you want out of synthesizers. So let’s review them real quick and make sure any time you’re creating a new synth sound, you’re going over these in your mind and just using it as a checklist to make sure you’re thinking about how you want to use each of these.
First we’ve got our oscillator, which is what creates the sound in the first place. You can layer multiple oscillators together to create a richer sound. Then we’ve got our filters where we can cut out unwanted frequencies that are muddying up our mix. Next is the LFO or the low frequency oscillator, which can be used as a cool effect to add movement to different parts of your synth. And finally and perhaps most importantly is the ADSR or the amplitude envelope, which affects the timing of your synth and how long it takes for it to fade in and fade out.
And that’s it. If you follow this guide, you’ll be ready to take your songs to the next level with new and exciting sounds. If you want a little bit more help, don’t forget to download our free synthesizer cheat sheet by clicking the link in the description or on screen right now.
It’s got some great tools to help you shape the tone of your synth quickly so you can get the sound you want without getting a headache. If you’re new here, don’t forget to subscribe and hit that notification bell. I’m Drew with Musician on a Mission, and remember Create Regardless.