This question discusses sound design for film in some depth. I'd like to look into similar strategies for building analog synth sounds which approach real instruments from the perspective of the waveform itself.What are the broad categories of waveform, modulation, and ADSR envelope that apply to the instruments of the orchestra and/or the rock ensemble? Are there any good books for this?

Of course the goal is not to make a bassoon from a minimoog but there are sounds we can get that resemble real intruments, in the way grape soda resembles grape juice.


4 Answers 4


The Sound on Sound series of articles Synth Secrets provides a step-by-step approach for modeling range of instruments using analog techniques.

Music, Physics and Engineering by H. Olsen provides examples of mechanical and electrical analogues to various instruments, and is in general a useful, if dated, reference. These examples are more directly useful for physical modelling and may not directly map into analog synthesizer patches, but I still think that it is a useful starting point.


There are patch books out there that describe how to approximate various instruments and sound effects with a subtractive synth. Your best bet is probably to scour eBay for a few titles and see if they are close enough to what you are looking for. The Synth Secrets series that Dave mentions is the way to go if you want to build up your own patches from scratch.

If your goal is to create recognizable timbres with a synthetic edge, definitely consider FM synthesis. You often hear people talking about the "thinness" of digital synthesizers, but what they are really talking about is early (digital) virtual-analog synths and romplers with weak or nonexistent filters. Some of the thickest, punchiest basslines came from Yamaha's DX series. And FM synthesis can definitely do otherworldly synthetic sounds.

From a sound design perspective, you can accomplish a great deal with the 4-op Operator synth that is available with Ableton Live. Native Instruments' FM8 is also very powerful. Finally, the rackmount Yamaha boxes are very affordable and much more fun to play with than you might expect from a button-box.

John Chowning's FM Theory and Applications is an excellent place to start on FM synthesis. It is out of print, but not too hard to find.

Another option that is outside the scope of analog synths, but may still be useful to the asker is physical modeling synths. Physical Modeling is a set of synthesis strategies that are different from both "analog" subtractive synthesis and FM synthesis. Logic's Sculpture is an excellent software PM synth. Roland's SuperNatural synths seem to be very good, though expensive. And Korg's flagship workstations also include some degree of physical modeling. If you are on a budget, or just want something that is a bit more otherworldly, then Korg's Z1 and Prophecy shouldn't be overlooked. Yamaha's VL series is also worth a look, though substantially harder to program (yet more powerful) than the Korgs.


As always, experiment and use your ear!

In the digital domain, physical modelling of acoustic instruments is often done with delay lines that may have allpass and lowpass filters in them. There may also be nonlinearities in the feedback loop. As for analog, delays can be made with bucket brigade devices. I have seen them recommended for Karplus-Strong type synthesis, but it may be possible to come up with other than plucked string timbres too.

Doing faithful modelling in analog tends to become expensive though, as you may find that you need lots of components. For example, it is often useful to have the attack portion modeled separately from the rest of the note. With a short noise burst followed by a sinusoid or triangle wave you might get close to a flute sound, but that would take an oscillator, a noise source and two envelope generators.

Another useful trick is to link the amplitude of a VCA with the cutoff of a lowpass filter, which is similar to the increase in high frequency content as instruments are played louder.


As for reverse-engineering synth sounds, check out Welsh's Synthesizer Cookbook. The sample PDF (pages 12-15) contains some very useful information in this regard.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.