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Subractive Synthesis

Subractive Synthesis

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Published by Matt Gooch

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Published by: Matt Gooch on Apr 15, 2013
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Subtractive Synthesis
How Subtractive Synthesizers Work 
 Although there are numerous differences between synthesizer models, most follow afundamentally similar architecture and signal flow that is based on
subtractivesynthesis
principles. According to legend, when Michelangelo was asked how he managed to carve David out of a block of stone, he replied, “I just cut away everything that doesn’t look like David.”In essence, this is how subtractive synthesis works: You
filter
(cut away) the parts of thesound that you don’t want to hear. In other words, you subtract parts of the frequency spectrum, consisting of the fundamental tone and associated harmonics.The subtractive approach to synthesis assumes that an acoustic instrument can beapproximated with a simple
oscillator
—which produces waveforms with differentfrequency spectrums. The signal is sent from the oscillator to a filter that represents thefrequency-dependent losses and resonances in the body of the instrument. The filtered (orunfiltered) signal is shaped over time by the
amplifier
section of the synthesizer.The distinctive timbre, intonation, and volume characteristics of a real instrument cantheoretically be recreated by combining these components in a way that resembles thenatural behavior of the instrument you are trying to emulate.In reality, however, because subtractive synthesizers aren’t ideal for emulating real worldinstruments, no synthesized clarinet is going to fool anyone—particularly now that thereare multigigabyte sound libraries available for samplers like the EXS24.The real strength of subtractive synthesizers is that they offer a unique sound palette of their own. All analog and virtual analog synthesizers use subtractive synthesis to generate sound.
 An Overview of Subtractive Synthesizer Components
The front panel of most subtractive synthesizers contains a collection of similar signalgenerating and processing modules—coupled with a number of modulation and controlmodules. The signal-generating and processing modules typically run left to right,mirroring the actual synthesizer signal flow.
 
Subtractive Synthesis
Signal Generating and Processing Components
Oscillators:
Generate the basic signal. This is usually a waveform that is rich inharmonics. Many synthesizers offer more than one oscillator.
Filter section:
Used to alter the basic signal by filtering out (removing) portions of thefrequency spectrum. Many synthesizers offer a single filter, which is applied universally toall oscillator signals. Multioscillator synthesizers can provide multiple filters, allowing eachoscillator signal to be filtered in a different way.
 Amplifier section:
Used to control the level of the signal over time. The amplifierfeatures a module known as an envelope, which is broken down into several elements thatprovide level control for the beginning, middle, and end portions of your sound. Simplesynthesizers generally offer a single envelope, which is used to control the oscillator (andfilter) over time.Modulation and Control Components
Modulators:
Used to modulate the signal-generating and processing components.Modulations can be machine-based—automatically generated by a synthesizercomponent—or can be manually activated by using the modulation wheel, for example.Most synthesizers provide a component called an
LFO (low frequency oscillator)
toprovide a waveform that modulates the signal.
Global controls:
Affect the overall characteristics of your synthesizer sound, such asglides between notes, pitch bend, monophonic or polyphonic playback, and more.
Oscillators
The audio signal of a synthesizer is generated by the oscillator. Usually you would choosefrom a selection of waveforms that contain differing types and varying amounts (more orfewer) of harmonics. The level relationships between the fundamental tone and theharmonics of the chosen waveform are responsible for the basic sound color or timbre.
Common Synthesizer Waveforms
The qualities of the most common synthesizer waveforms are discussed below.
Sine Wave
Clean and clear-sounding, a sine wave contains no harmonics but the first harmonic; inother words, it is the fundamental tone. The sine wave—used standalone—can be used tocreate “pure” sounds like whistles, the sound of wet fingers on the rim of a glass, tuningforks, and so on.The symbol for a sine waves typically looks like this:

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