Sign Up

Synthesizer design and programming lingo

Synthesizer design and programming lingo
| ,

An overview of analog and digital synthesizer design, its components and how they work.

This article list the essentials in subtractive Synthesizer design and programming.


Synthesizer programming

Programming synthesizers require basic knowledge of the different modules in a synthesizer.
This article explains the most important modules with programming tips.

What is Subtractive Synthesis?

Subtractive synthesis is a synthesis method where oscillators generates waveforms and then filter out frequencies over time to make the sound interesting and evolving.


An oscillator is the waveform generator in almost all analog synthesizer designs. It has a limited number og waveforms and on some synthesizers like the famous Prophet 5 they can be combined.

The simple waveforms:

  • Sine
  • Triangle
  • Saw
  • Square
  • Noise

A synthesizer can have 1 to many oscillators per voice but 2 or 3 is typical on an analog synth.

In synths the oscillator abbreviation is:

  • VCO for Voltage Controlled Oscillator
  • DCO for Digitally Controlled Oscillator


Arturia Pigments Oscilators

Arturia Pigments analog oscillators

Minimoog Model D oscilatorsMinimoog oscillators

Jupiter 8 VCOsThe VCO section on a Roland Jupier 8 Synth

Cross modulation

Cross modulation is a design where one oscilator can modulate an other one. This is effective for generating overtones and sounds outside the fundamental frequency.

Jupiter 8 Cross ModulationCross Modulation on a Jupiter 8

Roland Jupiter 8 has Cross Modulation where VCO 1 can be modulated by VCO 2 for interesting sounds.


An envelope is a timebased controller used a lot in synthesizers.
ADSR is a typical envelope design containig 4 points. Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release. Some synthesizer has a Hold stage too.

Envelopes are typically used in the filter and amplifier to modify sound over time based on keyboard events (Note on)

Pigments Envlope

A modern Pigments Envlope

Mordern software synthesizers has more control over the envelops than older analog synthesizer had. Arturia Pigments has curves on attack an decay for non linear control.


The filter is an important part of any Subtractive Synthesis design.

The filter is typically controlled by an ADSR envelope with an amount that contolls its impact on the sound.

In synth the abbreviation is:

  • VCF for Voltage Controlled Filter
  • DCF for Digitally Controlled Filter

Arturia Pigments Filters

Arturia Pigments Filters


Amplifier or in short amp is the gain stage in a synthesizer. Amp controlls the volume and amp velocity.


Low Frequency Oscillator or LFO is essentially the same as the sound generating oscillator but it has a much lower frequency.
It is typically used as a controller for modulating parameters to make a sound change over time.
LFO modulation

Arturia Pigments LFOs 

LFO is often used to pitch- or filter modulate the sound. Tremolo, Vibrato and Autopan is essentially done with an LFO.


A Wavetable is like digital oscilator that generates complex waveforms instead of the simple waveform oscilators.
It is actually a list of samples (called a table) that can be morphed over time.

Some wavetable based synthesizers:

  • Access Virus TI
  • Waldorf Quantum
  • Waldorf Blofeld
  • Steinberg Halion
  • Arturia Pigments
  • NI Massive/Massive X
  • Xfer Serum


Modulation is a way to make the sound interesting over time.
Modulation uses a source to modulate a paramter in the synthesizer.

Some modulation sources:

  • Velocity
  • After touch
  • LFO
  • Envelope
  • Mod Wheel
  • Modulation Macros
  • Functions
  • MIDI continuous controls (CC) 

A modulation source can modulate another source for complex modulation.
For example 2 LFOs modulation each other.

Programming synthesizers

Programming synthesizers is a lot easier when you know the basic modules of a generic synthesizer. There might differences in your synths but still they have the same over all components.
It is usually not that hard to program a new synth if you already know and program your own presets on a few synths.

Basic preset programming steps:

  • Set the Oscillators
  • Set the Envelopes
  • Set the Filters
  • Set the LFOs
  • Modulate Oscilators and Filters with the Envelops and/or LFOs

It takes a lot of practice to program a specific sound from the top of you head or from listening to other artists music.