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Digital Subscriptions > MusicTech > July 2019 > SUBTRACTIVE SYNTHESIS


In order to create exciting, original music, first you need exciting, original sounds. Unleashing the power of your synths is key to this, but there’s a lot more to sound synthesis than just waggling knobs until it sounds good…


So, there you are with your stack of instrument plug-ins. You know how to load presets and which knobs and switches to fiddle with to get certain results. But do you know what those knobs and switches are actually doing? And if you’ve imagined a particular sound, or heard something you want to recreate, would you have an idea of how to use a synth to craft that sound?

If your sound-design sessions usually involve randomly waggling knobs and flicking switches until you land on something you more-or-less like the sound of, then stick around – because over this series of features, we’re going to talk in-depth about sound synthesis, looking at the technicalities and the history and giving practical guidance, for all of the principal synthesis methods.


In this first part of our study of the various aspects of synthesis, we’re taking a look at subtractive synthesis. To understand this principle – or any other form of sound synthesis for that matter – we first have to take a quick detour through the science of sound. A sound wave is a series of pressure changes, or waves of compression and rarefaction in the air or other medium and our ears hear sound because they are sensitive to these pressure changes.

The waveforms drawn in our DAWs or on an oscilloscope screen are a graphical representation of the pattern of compression and rarefaction that comprises a sound wave – compression corresponds with where the line on the graph is above the horizontal centre and rarefaction corresponds with where the line is below the centre.

When looking closely at such a graphical waveform, it can at times appear chaotic and random, but often, we can see shapes and patterns in there, too; when we perceive pitch in a sound, what we’re detecting is those repeating patterns in the sound wave.

The pitch of the note we perceive is determined by the rate, or frequency, at which the pattern repeats. The faster the repetition, the higher the perceived pitch – and a doubling of the frequency is perceived as a pitch increase of an octave. This rate of repetition is referred to as a particular sound’s fundamental frequency.

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