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What exactly are ADSR envelopes and why do you need to know how to set an attack, decay, sustain and release time? Here’s the answer…

The ADSR envelope functions are an essential part of a (subtractive) synthesizer that you can usually find in the envelope area.

What are envelopes?

An envelope is a function on a synthesizer where you can create sound movements. The movement can take many shapes or forms, depending on your design. Thereby, you can create different types of movements, such as a volume movement, panning movement, pitch movement or filter movement. But also, you can determine when the movement should happen and how extreme the movement should be.

So for example, you could use a volume envelope to give your sound a quick fade-in and fade-out. Or you could use a pitch envelope to slightly move up the tone of your sound. This way, you can set your sound in motion very flexibly, depending on the effect you wish to produce. Thus, it’s very important to understand all the settings on the envelope area, such as the ADSR envelopes.

How to use ADSR envelopes

Now, what the heck are ADSR envelopes? ADSR stands for Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release. The attack, decay, sustain and release control how and when the movement occurs. They set the shape and timing of the sound movement.

With the ADSR envelopes you can control the beginning, middle and end of the movement. Each will affect your sound in a different moment in time and in a different way. This way, you have surgical precision to create the movement exactly how you intend.

Attack, decay, sustain & release explained

So, how does each of the ADSR envelopes work? Let me give you a very quick summary.

  • The attack deals with the start of the movement. It controls the time it takes to reach the maximum amount. That is of course, at the moment you start playing your sound.
  • The decay then takes over and deals with the start and middle of the movement. It controls the time it takes to go from the maximum amount to the sustain amount.
  • The sustain deals with the middle and end of the movement. It controls the amount the sound stays at until you stop playing your sound.
  • Finally, when you stop playing your sound, the release will take over and deal with the end of the movement. It controls the time it takes to the reach the minimum amount, which is 0.

I know, examples speak louder than words, so here’s one for you.

ADSR envelopes example

Let’s say you want to make an intense volume envelope. Therefore, you select “volume” as the target and fully open up the envelope amount. All set, you are now ready to define the shape and timing of the movement.

First, the attack. You set it to 1 second. This produces a fade-in sound that takes 1 second to reach maximum loudness. Then, the decay. You set it to 1 second as well. This produces a gradual one-second volume drop to the loudness set by the sustain. Next, the sustain. You set it to 50%. This produces a volume level of 50% as long as you’re playing the sound. Finally, the release. You set it to 1 second again. This produces a fade-out sound that takes 1 second to reach absolute silence. That is, at the moment you stop playing the sound.

So, the sound fades in, then fades halfway out and stays at that level until it fades out completely when you stop playing the sound.

Play with the ADSR envelopes

Of course, this example uses a volume envelope, but it works exactly the same with any of the other types. So, I hope it all makes sense to you, but if you have difficulties following it, no worries. Just try it out on your own synthesizer and you will understand this in no time. Thereby, play around with the ADSR envelopes, but also with some different targets and amounts.

So in the end, it’s your job to find the sound movement you wish to create. Once you’re happy with it, you can tweak the other settings, which we will explore next in the complete “Synthesizer for beginners” series.

Synthesizer for beginners

The “Synthesizer for Beginners” series is a huge collection of quick lessons about sound design and synthesis. Each lesson explains one part of how a subtractive synthesizer works, which is vital to know if you’re an electronic music producer.

Most people have the attention span of a butterfly and therefore miss all the important tips later in my videos and posts. Still, I don’t want you to miss a thing and that’s why you will see these short clips on Screech House. Each short clip explains a bite-sized topic from one of my longer videos. This gives everyone the chance to focus solely on what they need and thereby also saving a lot of time.

Today’s short clip is from the 4-part “Synthesizer Explained” video course. Watch the full episodes here:

Synthesizer explained!

Synthesizer Explained Cover

The “Synthesizer Explained” video course is now finally available as an exclusive guide. This easy-to-read book is jam-packed with valuable info about the essential basics of sounds design, including practical tips and bonus cheat sheets.

Since the day of release, many people have already read it. But if you haven’t, click this link to get your copy: Synthesizer Explained.

Make sure to get it now, else you risk being too late and miss out.

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