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SYNTHESIZER EXPLAINED: HOW TO USE ENVELOPES | Sound Design for Beginners (Envelope Tutorial)

After you’ve explored this exclusive tutorial, you will know exactly how to use envelopes on your synthesizer.

Sound design basics part 3: envelopes

This is part 3 in a 4-part series where you will learn the absolute essential basics of sound design. In today’s post, you will discover how to use envelopes. In the remaining parts of this series, you will find out how to use oscillators, how to use filters and how to use LFOs.

Why you need to know how to use envelopes

When you look on your synthesizer, you will see a gazillion knobs and settings. Like most people, you may get completely overwhelmed. Now you have to spend weeks to figure out what the heck they mean and how they work. Because if you don’t, your sounds simply end up being a total disaster.

That’s why; to help you understand your synthesizer as fast as possible, I decided to create this unique short course and share it with you. Thereby, make sure to watch it to the very end, so you can instantly take advantage of some of the sound design basics, which for today is: using envelopes. To keep it short, we’ll save the other major segments, such as oscillators, filters and LFOs for another time.

As you can understand, in a brief post it’s impossible to go into full depth. But if you want to benefit from more valuable details and strategies, you can start now with the Sound Design for Beginners guide. This well-received guide will take you step by step through all the essential synthesizer settings, including oscillators, filters, envelopes and LFOs. Just click the link and you can begin straightaway.

What are envelopes?

One of the important topics the Sound Design for Beginners guide explains is envelopes. Envelopes are on the menu of today’s post as well. But what are they?

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.

Free sample pack

Envelopes also play a big role in my own sound design, as you may have heard in my other tutorials or free sample pack. But if you haven’t yet, click this link to download my free sample pack straightaway. After downloading, open it and listen closely to the sounds. Especially in many of the screeches, you can very easily spot a variety of nasty sound movements.

Make you own sound movements

Now, let’s find out how you can make your own sound movements. And for demonstration purposes, we will briefly talk about each individual envelope setting on the Sylenth1 synthesizer. However, feel free to use your own favorite synth, but mind you, the way synthesizers present these settings may be different for each. But most will have a similar functionality.

Okay, enough talk. Let’s get into it.

How to use envelope targets

An envelope target, also called destination, defines the sound movement. It dictates which knob has to move. So, by setting the target you choose upfront which type of movement you wish to create. There are usually many targets to choose from, but the most common ones are volume, panning, pitch, filter cutoff and filter resonance.

Again, if you don’t have the basic understanding about volume, panning, pitch and filters, start with the Sound Design for Beginners guide first.

So, in order to make a sound movement, you always must select a target. Thereby, if you want to create a volume movement, select volume. If you want to have a pitch movement, select pitch. And so on.

Now, selecting a target on itself doesn’t create a movement. Thus, you won’t notice any effect. That’s why, to set your sound in motion, we have to use the other envelope options. So, pay close attention and don’t miss these.

How to use envelope amount

On most envelopes you will find an amount setting. The amount controls the intensity of the sound movement. It dictates how extreme the movement occurs. This way, a higher amount results in a stronger movement and a lower amount results in a weaker movement. So, the more you open up this knob, the higher the intensity.

Two directions: left & right

Though, usually you will find the envelope amount knob going in two directions, whereby the center represents a zero value, which means no movement. By choosing between left or right, you dictate in which way the movement occurs. This way, the behavior of the envelope will completely invert if you move the parameter to the opposite side. So, the orientation of the envelope amount sets the direction for the movement.

Example: pitch envelope

I guarantee you, it’s much easier than it sounds. So, let me give you an example. Let’s say you want to make a pitch movement. Therefore, you carefully select “pitch” as the target and you open the envelope amount to the right. Perfect, the tone of your sound moves up.

However, instead of choosing right, you now orientate the envelope amount to the left. Can you guess what will happen? That’s right, the tone of your sound suddenly moves down. The movement has been inverted.

And to make it even more clear, let me show you this immediately in the video above.

Mind you though, in order to shape the movement, we also have to tweak the ADSR settings, which we will explore next. So, stay with me for a few more minutes.

How to use ADSR envelopes

What the hell 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 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.

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

Attack

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.

Decay

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.

Sustain

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.

Release

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.

Example: volume envelope

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.

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. Let me just show it to you in the video and you will understand this in no time. Thereby, I will play around with the ADSR envelopes, but also with some different targets and amounts.

Beyond envelopes: sound design for beginners

As you can see, it’s really cool what you can do with envelopes. And you now know exactly how they work. We have covered all the essential settings, which includes the envelope target, envelope amount and the ADSR envelopes.

Nonetheless, if you want to benefit from going into way more depth, click this link to start now with the complete Sound Design for Beginners guide. I’ll show you in full detail how to use envelopes, but you will also learn how to use oscillators, filters and LFOs. Many people already have their copy, but if you don’t, go ahead click the link and I’ll see you there.

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