Basics of Synthesis and Sound Design — A Beginner’s Guide

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash. Not actually a synth, just a plain ol’ midi controller.
  • FM (Sytrus, FM8, Operator, Dexed, DX7)
  • Additive (Harmor, Harmless, Loom)
    *both Harmor and Harmless are actually additive synthesizers that functions like subtractive synthesizers
  • Wavetable (Serum, Massive)


The 4 basic waveforms. You could find them in pretty much any synths.
Graphical representations of the different waveforms (played at C4) and what frequency it occupies.
A sine wave in an oscilloscope.
A triangle wave in an oscilloscope.
What the red arrows are pointing to.
A square wave in an oscilloscope.
Picture for comparison. Ignore the extra things down there, they’re probably noise/artifacts from the synth I’m using.
Notice on the bottom left how one of the “square” gets closer when it’s turned up.
A saw wave in an oscilloscope.
There’s more of those sines in between the odd harmonics.

Lead : Square, Saw

Pad : Square, Saw

Basses : Triangle, Square, Saw

Sub-Bass : Sine, Triangle

Now that we’ve covered waveforms, let’s move onto envelopes.


Envelopes in Synth1. Don’t mix it up with the paper kind.
  • Decay
  • Sustain
  • Release
A saw with a fast attack, followed by another one with a slower attack.
A saw with a short decay, followed by another one with a slightly longer decay.
A saw with a short decay and a sustain set to 50, followed by another one with the sustain set to 100.
A saw with the sustain set to 100, and the release set to around 500ms.

Envelopes are helpful in controlling a sound’s parameters. Sometimes, automation is not needed and would only clutter things up, envelopes help solve this problem.

Now let’s move onto something that’s a bit similar, LFOs


The LFO panel in Synth1. Huh, it kind of looks like you’re piloting a spaceship.
Different LFO shapes, followed by different rates. The LFO is controlling the filter cutoff point of a saw.

LFOs are pretty similar to envelopes, except that it triggers indefinitely rather than on every note. Though you can make it retrigger on every note by turning on retrigger.

AM, RM, and FM.

An FM/RM matrix in Sytrus. This is only for really complicated modulation stuff though. Synths usually just have one knob for basic modulation.

If you set these to really low frequency, it actually acts like an LFO. LFO does mean “Low Frequency Oscillator” afterall.

Now that we’re done with that, let’s get into filters.


The filter panels in Synth1. The numbers on the right of a filter shows how intense the cutoff of the filter. Higher being more intense.
  • High Pass
  • Band Pass
An equalizer. Band 1 is a high pass, band 7 is a low pass.
An equalizer denoting a band pass.
Resonance. Band 1 has a high resonance value, while band 7 has a low resonance value.

Filters are important in shaping the timbre of a sound, they can make a bright sound dull, or a harsh sound soft. If you use high resonance, they can also make something sound twangy. Think the TB-303.

You can also use LFOs and envelopes on filters too.


Effector, an FX rack. It’s my favourite and I use it all the time.
  • Expansion
  • Saturation
  • Distortion
  • Bitcrusher
  • Flanger
  • Phaser
  • Chorus
  • Unison
  • Stereo Separation
  • Delay
  • Reverb
OTT, the secret to everything. If you think you’re missing something, it might actually be this.
A distortion unit. You can turn down the mix to turn it into a saturator.
Effector. It says lo-fi but it’s actually a bitcrusher and a downsampler.
A flanger. You could turn this into a phaser, but it’s better to just use a phaser for that.
Just your typical chorus effect.
Unison panel in Charlatan.
Stereo knob in Charlatan.
A robust delay effect. Pretty much the only delay I use.
A digital reverb. There are other types, but I’ll leave that for you to explore.

Where to start?

Charlatan. Seems simple enough.


Synth1, a popular subtractive synth. Lots of functionality and things to mess around with.

Also, a good thing to do is to use a spectrum analyzer and study the sounds. It will aid in imitating or recreating sounds if you know how they look like with certain things applied to them.



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