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How to imitate your favorite synthesizer

Written by: Aaron Rosansky

Introduction
Things you'll need: 1. a specific sound you want to replicate 2. headphones 3. a synthesizer with analog programming 4. amp with speaker Environment: Ideally, a quiet room. Avoid spaces with traffic noise, HVAC fans, noisy appliances, etc.

Other notes: You will need to commit one hour per each sound you intend to replicate. Don't start work when obligations will cause distraction. Every time you lose focus, you are likely to forget what you have done! Keeping track of numerous functions of a synthesizer requires being “in the zone.”

Close Listening
The first part of the process involves auditory analysis of the sound you have selected. 1. Turn on synthesizer and amp.
Ensure they are connected and working properly. If there's a connection problem, address it before you go any further.

2. Conduct an initial screening of source track.

Use headphones for this. Listen to the entire track from beginning to end. Write down the time within the track (mm:ss) at which the sound occurs. If the synth is played multiple times, write the times of all instances.

3. Listen to one instance on repeat.

Listening to the sound over and over will help you visualize the qualities of the sound. If using a CD or computer file, loop the section of the audio track where the sound occurs.

Close Listening
4. Pay close attention to several aspects of the 'shape':
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Pitch → determine the exact note by humming through different frequencies until the right one 'locks in', then hum into an instrument tuner and write down the note How percussive is each note? Does the sound flutter? How quickly does each note fade away? Does the sound have any vowels or 'wah-wah'? → That is, could you imitate the sound by changing the shape of your mouth? How big is the sound? How bright or dull is the sound? Is the sound thin? → Does it sound like it's coming through a telephone receiver?

5. Physically write a description for each parameter.

Now that you have finished close listening, it's time to start actually programming the synthesizer. The oscillator will be the first component to program.

Oscillator
1. Select a wave shape.
The core waveform can difficult to identify correctly right away, so pick sine wave, triangle wave, or square wave to start. We will revisit this step later on.

2. Select a pitch range.
The range is usually denoted either with stop notation (32', 16', 8', etc) or semitones (+/- 12). Select the range so that the pitch you found during close listening is in the center of the keyboard.

Wave shape Pitch range

Roland Juno-6. DCO stands for “Digitally Controlled Oscillator.

Moog Minimoog.

Amp Envelope
1. Attack.
Amount of time from when key is pressed to when sound reaches maximum volume. Recall how percussive the sound was during close listening. Short attack will be like a piano, while longer will slowly fadein.

2. Decay.

Amount of time from when maximum volume is reached to when sustained volume level is reached. Analogous to how long the hammer sound of a piano lasts.

3. Sustain.
Relative volume during sustain period (i.e. after attack and before note has been released). Analogous to volume of the resonant part of a held piano note.

4. Release.

Amount of time from when key is released to when sound completely fades. Refer to how quickly each note faded during close listening. Comparable to reverb, though fundamentally different parameter.

Roland Juno-6; note the simple “ADSR” control scheme.

Moog Minimoog. Not all 4 parameters are always present.

Filter
1. Low-Pass Filter (or High-Cut Filter).
This type attenuates all high frequencies beyond a user-specified cutoff. Using an LPF dulls the sound. Most common filter type.

2. High-Pass Filter (or Low-Cut Filter).

This type cuts all low frequencies beyond a user-specified cutoff. The HPF creates choked or 'thin' sound, similar to a voice through a telephone receiver. Not always present in a synth.

3. Resonance.

This function boosts the frequency slightly before the cutoff. Gives the sound vowel-like properties. If any 'wah-wah' was noted during close listening, consider increasing resonance.

4. Filter Envelope.

Allows user control over dynamics of the filter. In other words, the filter parameters will change in the duration of the note. Uses 'ADSR' controls similar to those in the Amp Envelope section.

High-pass filter Low-pass filter

Resonance

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Filter envelope

Effects
1. Low Frequency Oscillator.
This is an oscillator whose frequency is below audible levels. It can be used control volume (tremolo effect) or filter envelope (wah-wah effect). Practically ubiquitous on analog synths.

2. Chorus.
This effect is included on many synths. Accomplishes this by duplicating sound and modulating phase of the copy by a few milliseconds. Gives a brilliant, shimmering quality to sound, as well as creating a sense of stereo width.

3. Reverb.

Digital reverberation is included on some newer synths. Similar to increasing Release time in the Amp Envelope. Most times, increasing Release will do the same job. Primary use is to increase stereo width in a melodramatic manner.

4. Arpeggiator.
Each individual note being held is played sequentially. If the arpeggiator is on and notes of a C major scale are held down, the synth will play up and down the scale.

5. Noise Generator.

This mixes white or pink noise into the signal at the oscillator stage. All envelopes, filters, and effects apply to the noise. Often works well for creating electronic drums.

Examples of several common effects.

Closing Tips

When creating the attack part of the sound, play around with the ADSR controls simultaneously. Each forms a part of the overall attack. Don't worry about picking the wave shape immediately. Pick one randomly to start, decide the rest of the parameters, then if it still doesn't sound quite right, try a different shape. Revisit the sound you're imitating at the end of the project. You may decide a slightly different version is better than the exact sound you started with. If you have preset banks in your synth, save your work frequently. There is no auto-save to help you if you trip over the power cable. If you do not have preset banks, write down the approximate settings on a sheet of paper. There's no reason preset-less synths can't do everything those with presets can do! Give every sound your own signature. A synthesizer is an instrument meant to be used artistically; mere imitation is fun but lacking in creativity. Both the keys and the analog settings are meant to be played on a synthesizer!