In this post you will learn the very basics of synthesis to get that better understanding of sound design as a beginner. For the sake of this lesson, we will be using FL Studio’s 3x Osc, because that’s about the simplest synthesizer and easiest to understand.
If you want to learn FL Studio (fast), start now with the FL Studio Beginner’s Guide.
What is a synthesizer?
Before you make a sound, it’s a good idea to draw some notes. This way you get the synth to play a sound.
Now, to understand how a simple synthesizer works, just look at that thing as a sound creator and editor.
How to use oscillators?
Each row on the 3x Osc (1, 2 & 3) is an oscillator. An oscillator basically creates a starting signal/sound. The type of sound gets identified by these waveform icons. The most common types are the ones you can see on the 3x Osc. It’s the sine, pulse, triangle, saw, pulse-saw and noise wave. Each generates a different sound. When you want to make a sound, it’s best to start here: selecting waveform types for the oscillators you want to use.
Each oscillator has a phase offset slider. The phase offset controls the starting point of the waveform. A difference in phase between the left and right signal (speaker) results in a stereo sound.
Each oscillator also has a detune slider. The detune controls the tune (mild frequency) difference between the left and right signal.
Coarse & fine
The coarse knob controls the pitch of the oscillator in semitones (1 semitone is 1 key/note on a piano). The fine knob also controls the pitch, but to a much lesser degree. It’s called “fine” for a reason: finetuning.
The panning knob controls the stereo balance (between the left and right speaker) of the signal.
Volume or mix multiple different oscillators
To add another oscillator, we have to make sure to open up the “mix level” knob. Oscillator 1 doesn’t have one. You always need at least one oscillator to begin with.
At the bottom of the 3x Osc there’s the phase randomness knob. Opening it up causes all the oscillator’s waveforms to start at different points each time you play a key/note. This will sound awesome when we have many voices in a supersaw type of lead. If you just have 1 voice or if you want to have a tight waveform, it’s best to close it.
If you’re still confused about all these settings, you can now grab the Sound Design for Beginners guide by clicking this link. It will explain all the essential basic synthesizer settings in extreme detail, so you will know exactly how they work.
So, when you want to make a sound, this is where you start: the oscillators section, including the phase, detune and pitch settings. Use music theory logic for the right pitch settings.
12 semitones = 1 octave.
How to use envelope and LFO controllers?
Now, the next settings are also very common. They’re the envelope and LFO controllers. You can access them by selecting the envelope tab at the top of the 3x Osc. An envelope creates the shape of a certain setting and the LFO creates a movement of a certain setting. The first “certain setting” on the 3x Osc is the panning.
With the panning LFO you can create a movement between the left and right speakers. This movement can be defined by changing the LFO controls. The movement can have a shape, a delay, an attack, an amount and a speed. By simply changing the settings you can immediately hear what they do.
Volume LFO & volume envelope
Next is the volume tab. You can also give the volume a movement by using the LFO settings. Besides the LFO, you can also control the volume with an envelope. The volume envelope can give a certain volume shape to the sound.
So, what do the knobs of the envelope mean?
- The delay and attack control the start of your sound.
- The hold and sustain control the middle of your sound.
- The decay and release control the end of your sound.
With these knobs you can shape the volume of your sound any way you want. You can make your sound long, short, rise up, fall down, you name it.
In the video I am playing around a little bit for you to hear the changes. But it’s best to practice it yourself to get that “feel”.
Now as you can see in the video, the visual envelope lines (graph) represent the shape of the parameter’s sound. But you can also curve some of these lines by using the tension knobs. This creates accelerating or deaccelerating volume shapes. You can only change the tension of the attack, decay and release settings. If you want your sound to be played normally without any specific volume shape, just close every knob, except the hold setting. Open it completely.
The next envelope and LFO tabs are for the filter. So, let’s quickly take a look at the filter first. A filter can simply change the frequencies of your signal/sound that gets passed through it. The mod X knob is the frequency cutoff point. The mod Y knob boosts a frequency band near the cutoff level (called “resonance”). As you can clearly hear in the video, the mod Y (resonance) knob gives a sharp exaggerated frequency boosting effect when you open it.
You also have the option to select different types of filters. Each filter affects the frequencies of your sound differently, blocking or allowing certain frequencies. The most common filter types are: “low pass (high cut)“, “high pass (low cut)” & “band pass“. But there are also other types that are usually variants of these.
- The “low pass” cuts off the higher frequencies.
- The “high pass” cuts off the lower frequencies.
- The “band pass” cuts off both high and low frequencies.
So, with the filter you’re very flexible to determine which frequencies should be allowed in your sound and which should be disallowed, depending on your settings.
Now that you know what the filter is and what the knobs do, you can understand how the envelope and LFO affect the filter to create a certain sound (effect).
The mod X tab controls the filter cutoff knob. With the LFO you can now create a filter movement, resulting in frequency sweeps.
The parameters on the LFO and envelope settings are always the same in every tab. With these tabs, you can just control different knobs, like this filter cutoff.
By selecting a different filter type (for example changing low pass for high pass), the mod X knob also changes its purpose, thus the LFO or envelope effect will sound differently as well.
Back over to the envelope section, you can control the filter cutoff shape of your sound. Just like with the volume envelope, you can use the parameters below the graph to shape the curve the filter cutoff knob has to follow. When the line is at the top it means that the knob is open. When the line is at the bottom it means that the knob is closed. As you can see in the video, by just playing around and tweaking the settings, you can create nice moving filter effects that allow you to create all kinds of different sounds.
The AMT (amount) knob controls the amount of cutoff (in this case) the other parameters can work with. It needs to be turned open a bit to get an envelope effect.
Again, you can change the tension of the lines to get accelerating or deaccelerating filter cutoff shapes.
This was the mod X tab. Let’s go to the mod Y tab. The mod Y tab contains the envelope and LFO settings of the mod Y filter knob, which is the resonance. As far as the envelope and LFO settings go, it should be self-explanatory now. We’re just in a different tab that now controls a different knob (the mod Y filter knob).
The mod Y knob basically controls the amount of frequency boost around the cutoff point. This way you can get a really high peak of a small range of frequencies at the range the cutoff knob dictates. This creates that resonance effect. By changing the mod Y (resonance) envelope and LFO, you can determine how this band of frequency peaks should behave and move to get a certain sound (effect).
Pitch LFO & pitch envelope
Let’s go to the last tab, the pitch. The pitch tab has the envelope and LFO settings that control the pitch/key/tone of your sound. With the pitch LFO you can create these wobbling tonal movements in your sound. The more extreme you use the settings, the dirtier your sound will become. You can go with slow movements, fast movements, with a lot of pitch difference or just a little pitch difference. It’s up to you to decide.
And of course, with the envelope you can control the pitch shape of your sound. This allows you to get these quick or slow tonal “rises” or “falls”, or any pitch shapes for that matter.
Make sure to use the AMT knob, because it will determine the amount of pitch. No AMT (knob in the center) means no pitch, thus no pitch movement possible. So, the AMT dictates the amplitude of the pitch lines in the graphs. The amplitude of the lines represents the amount of pitch.
- AMT knob turned to the right means: higher pitch.
- AMT knob turned the left means: lower pitch.
I believe that a fully opened or closed AMT knob is equal to a sound being pitched a full octave up or down.
All right. These were all the envelope and LFO settings. They simply control the shapes and movements of your sound by using certain different parameters.
Again, for more details about LFOs and envelopes, get the Sound Design for Beginners guide.
How to use other basic synthesizer settings
The next main tab of the 3x Osc contains the miscellaneous functions. These are different functions that affect your sound a certain way. Let’s take a look at the basics.
Volume, panning & filter settings
There are these knobs that control the volume, panning, mod X (cutoff) and mod Y (resonance) settings. You don’t necessarily have to use them.
The polyphony function however can be a handy tool. It controls the maximum amount of voices (notes being played together) and you can make your sound slide/glide.
The time function controls the timing of your sound’s notes. You can create shorter or longer notes, add a bit of “swing” or slightly change their position. It’s not complicated, just experiment with it if you want.
The next function can be an important one. It’s the arpeggiator (or arp for short). It can create an arpeggio with your sound. An arpeggio is a rhythmical and musical sequence. It takes your current sound and chops it up (virtually) in many different notes and/or octaves or chords. The time and gate knob control the speed and length of the arpeggio notes. The range sets the number of octaves and the repeat sets the repeating note pattern in the arpeggio. There’s more to it, but these are the important basics.
Echo delay & fat mode
The last function is the echo delay and fat mode. This controls the amount of voices of your sound and when these voices should play (either delayed or together). The feed knob controls the loudness of all the voices. You can set the amount of voices in the echoes box below. You can also give all these voices a panning direction, a filter cutoff, filter resonance and a pitch. With the time knob you can determine the timing the voices should follow up on each other (delay).
But that’s not all. You can also use this function to get these extra voices all play together, creating one big fat sound. To do that, enable the fat mode and open up the feed knob completely. Also close the time knob completely, because they all have to play at the same time. When you’ve set it like this, the synth will generate your sound multiple times. You can now slightly change the pitch to have them all play a slightly different frequency. This creates a fat detuned sound.
Of course, you’re the architect of your sounds, so simply understand the functions. By understanding them, you know how to create certain sounds or effects.
Changing the amount of voices and detuning them are very common settings on most synthesizers. On the 3x Osc they’re only a little bit hidden.
The essential basics of synthesis
Wow, we covered a lot already. These were actually the essential basics of synthesis. You can find all the explained settings on many different synthesizers.
- So, you got the waveform oscillators in the beginning, changing the shape, key/tone and dimensions basically.
- You then have the envelope, LFO, filter and pitch settings.
- And finally, the glide, timing, arpeggiator and voices settings.
Many options for you to make sounds!
Understanding your synth
So, when you make a sound, you have to know what the knobs mean and what they do. When you understand that, you can use them to create the sounds you want. Keep in mind that there are probably more settings or functions on many synthesizers that aren’t explained here. But, the most common ones are.
If you’re relatively new to synthesis or sound design, I encourage you to play with all the different settings. This way you’ll quickly get that intuitive “feel”. You can watch or rewatch the video as many times as you need and use it as a beginner’s guide.
Better sound design
However, to keep the video short(ish), it lacks a considered amount of detail. That’s why I decided to publish a complete beginners guide to take away any confusion about synthesis and sound engineering.
So, if you want a better blueprint, start today with the Sound Design for Beginners guide by clicking this link. Many people have already read it, but if you haven’t, check it out now.
The following FL Studio stock plugins were used in this lesson:
- 3x Osc
- Fruity Reeverb 2