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SYNTHESIZER EXPLAINED: HOW TO USE OSCILLATORS | Sound Design for Beginners (Oscillator Tutorial)

At the end of this tutorial, you will know exactly how to use oscillators on a synthesizer.

Sound design basics part 1: oscillators

This is part 1 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 oscillators. In the remaining parts of this series, you will find out how to use filters, how to use envelopes and how to use LFOs.

Why you need to know how to use a synthesizer

When you don’t know exactly how your synthesizer works, your sounds usually end up being a complete mess, even if you put in hours of your time. Inevitably, you simply must know what all the knobs and settings on a synthesizer mean, else you cannot take full advantage of them.

How to use oscillators

That’s why; if you’re struggling to create professional sounds or if you just want to find out more about your synthesizer, this lesson is for you. Thereby, let’s quickly go over some of the sound design basics and find out how to use oscillators. To keep it brief, we’ll save the other synthesizer segments for another time.

What are oscillators?

Let’s first explore what oscillators are. An oscillator is a function of a synthesizer where you can generate an audio signal. The audio signal, aka soundwave or waveform, can be shaped and tweaked to produce a unique sound. So, an oscillator is the absolute starting point of your sound design process. Thus, it’s very important to understand all the settings that come with it.

That’s why; just take a seat and read until the end, so you don’t miss any crucial information you need to start making impressive sounds. That is, if you are serious about gaining this knowledge.

To keep it short, we’re going to skim over all the settings one by one very quickly. But if you want to benefit from more valuable details and extra strategies, start now with the Sound Design for Beginners guide. This unique guide will take you step by step through all the essential settings on a synthesizer, including oscillators, filters, envelopes and LFOs. Just click the link to begin immediately.

How to use waveform shapes

Now, the first choice you have to make when you create a sound is determining which waveform you wish to use. You see, an oscillator can generate different waveform shapes, all producing different sound characteristics and harmonics, like a sine, triangle, pulse, saw, tri-saw and noise. These are the most common ones and feel free to select each of those to find out what they sound like.

In the video, I am using an empty Sylenth1 preset in FL Studio. However, you can use your own favorite synthesizer and application, since most of the settings will be similar. Also, don’t forget to draw some notes to produce an actual sound.

How to use pitch

After you have decided which waveform shape you want to generate, you can manipulate it further with the other settings, starting with the pitch. So, an oscillator can be set to a precise pitch by defining the octave, semitone and even some smaller musical intervals. Generally, this basically means specifying the fundamental frequency of the oscillator.

To understand this fully, it’s essential to know a thing or two about music-theory basics. Therefore, if you want to learn more about octaves and notes, but also scales and chords, just get The Ultimate Melody Guide. Again, click the link and it’ll take you to the page where you can start right away.

Now, let me show you in the video what happens when we change the pitch settings and how it affects the sound.

How to use volume and panning

Next in line will be the volume and panning settings. The volume and panning settings are kind of self-explanatory. They control the loudness and stereo balance of the sound. So, by adjusting the volume, you change the amplitude of the signal. By adjusting the panning, you change how much of that signal should go to the left and right speaker.

How to use voices

When you’re satisfied with the volume and panning of your sound, it’s time to determine the number of voices it should have. The number of voices dictates how many signals the synthesizer needs to generate. Therefore, by using multiple voices, you can create a bigger or fatter sound with the same generated signal. Simply put; more voices equal a thicker sound.

The ability to have multiple voices goes hand in hand with some of the other oscillator settings, which we will cover next. More specifically, the detune option, stereo spread function and phase randomness setting all influence each other in combination with the number of voices you wish to use.

Again, you will find everything in full detail in the Sound Design for Beginners guide.

For now, go to the voices area and give your synth a few different numbers of voices. Thereby, feel free to modify some of the other settings too, so you can hear the full potential of having these different voices.

How to use phase offset

Now that you know how voices work, we can go to the phase offset function. With the phase offset, you can change at which position of the waveform the generated sound starts. You see, each musical sound is merely a constant vibration. Therefore, by changing the phase offset, we can actually determine at which point in that vibration the signal needs to begin.

This way, you could let it begin anywhere from 0 to 360 degrees, whereby 360 degrees means one full oscillation. Thus, 180 degrees for example means shifting the starting position forward by half an oscillation.

Mind you though, offsetting the phase only really shows when you’re using multiple oscillators or voices that have different phase settings. So, different phases go together to produce richer or wider sounds. And let me demonstrate that in the video by adding an extra oscillator with the same settings, yet a different phase position.

How to use detune

As you could hear, having different phases result in slightly different sounds, especially when combined. But we can do much more, like using detune. Detune is the option where you can give all the available voices slightly different pitches. This produces a bigger frequency coverage, and usually a fatter type of sound.

Now, since you need to have at least two voices to be able to create a tune difference, you cannot detune a one-voice signal. So, if you are going to use detune, make sure to have at least two active voices.

But just watch the video to find out what it sounds like when we play around with different detune levels and different voice numbers.

By the way, if you have a question or suggestion you want me to cover, scroll down and leave a comment below. If I can provide a good answer, you will most likely see a post coming up soon.

How to use stereo separation

Alongside the detune and voices settings, your synthesizer usually has the stereo separation or stereo spread function. This function creates a phase difference of all the available voices between the left and right speaker. So basically, your sound will split up between left and right where both start at a different phase position. Again, the phase means the initial point of the vibration and you need to have at least two active voices.

So, by using stereo separation, you will get different signals in both ears in terms of timing, which then results in your brain interpreting the sound as being stereo. This effect is best hearable via a headphone.

Now, there are only two more options to explore, then I’ll let you go. When you go, don’t forget to grab my free hardstyle sample pack by clicking this link. It includes many hand-crafted EDM samples that you can use immediately to give your songs a huge quality boost.

How to use phase invert

One of the remaining options we have to discuss is the phase invert function. By using phase invert, you can flip the generated waveform upside down. Literally, you can invert the signal the oscillator is producing.

Just like the phase offset setting, you don’t really notice the effect when you only have one active oscillator. However, when you add another one into the mix, these phase differences will clearly show. Speaking about showing, watch the video so I can show you that right away.

How to use phase randomness

The last major setting on the oscillator’s section is the phase randomness function, often also called “retrigger”. By changing the retrigger, you change the random phase distribution of all the available voices. So, either each voice starts at a random position of its waveform or they all start at the same fixed point. Of course, depending on the amount of phase randomness you give it if your synthesizer provides this option.

Just as the other phase settings, you will need to have at least two voices for it to work. Also, giving your voices random phases results in a stereo sound, whereas having the retrigger option enabled, produces a mono sound. That is, if you don’t use any of the other oscillator settings that can create a stereo effect.

I know it can be a little bit challenging to understand, so just watch the entire video to see it in action.

Beyond oscillators: sound design for beginners

There you have it. Now you know exactly how to use oscillators on a synthesizer and what the main settings do. But if you want to benefit from a complete step-by-step approach, start now with the Sound Design for Beginners guide by clicking this link. You will get all the essential synthesizer settings in full detail, including oscillators, filters, envelopes, LFOs plus bonus content.

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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