In this article, we’ll give you an overview of some of the most common types of synthesis available in Ableton Live: subtractive, FM and wavetable synthesis. (To read part 2, click here).
Subtractive synthesis is arguably the most common type. Vintage synthesizers such as the Minimoog, the Roland Juno 60 and the Korg MS20, among countless others, are only a few examples. The popularity of subtractive synthesis is probably due to its straightforward design. In a nutshell, it consists of processing basic waveforms through filters and envelope generators. This allows you to subtract overtones, shape the volume of a sound and change its timbre. In addition, most subtractive synthesizers are equipped with LFOs (low-frequency oscillators) that can modulate certain parameters. Despite the simplicity of subtractive synthesis, a rich variety of sounds can be achieved by simply adjusting a few parameters. It’s an ideal way of creating classic synthesizer sounds and analog sound effects such as bleeps and bloops, among many other uses.
In Ableton Live, many instruments utilize subtractive synthesis to a certain extent. However, the most accurate representation of a subtractive synthesizer in Ableton Live is the Analog instrument device. Although it’s not an emulation of any particular synthesizer, it’s modelled around various classic, analog instruments. It thus contains all the main features of subtractive synthesizers. Analog consists of two oscillators capable of generating basic waveforms, two filters, two amplifiers and two LFOs.
FM (frequency modulation) is another very common type of synthesis. It was popularized in the 80s by digital instruments such as the iconic Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, among other examples. The idea behind FM synthesis is that complex waveforms can be created by modulating a waveform, known as the carrier, with another one called the operator. In other words, it follows an opposite path to subtractive synthesis: instead of manipulating a harmonically rich waveform, FM synthesis starts with a very basic waveform (usually a sine wave) which is modulated by another to create richer sounds. This type of synthesis is a perfect way of emulating 80s pop sounds such as electric keyboards, luminous bells and retrofuturistic sound effects, to name a few.
In Ableton Live, Operator is a great example of FM synthesis. It contains four multi-waveform oscillators that can modulate each other’s frequencies and also includes a filter section, an LFO and global controls, as well as individual envelopes for the oscillators, filter, LFO and pitch.
Wavetable has become very popular as of late with the boom of renowned virtual synthesizers such as Native Instruments’ Massive and Xfer Records’ Serum. In contrast to the other types of synthesis mentioned in this article, wavetable synthesizers use digital samples as the primary source for their oscillators. In short, a wavetable is essentially a collection of single-cycle waveforms. However, what differentiates it from sample-based synthesis is that it allows for the evolution and modulation of a sound. Furthermore, LFOs in modern wavetable synthesizers can practically be assigned to any parameter, which further enhances its potential to create evolving sounds. In addition, wavetable synthesizers usually contain features of other types of synthesis such as subtractive, FM or additive synthesis.
Ableton Live’s native wavetable instrument is called – you guessed it – Wavetable. It combines two wavetable-based oscillators, two analog-modelled filters, and a powerful modulation matrix that offers a wide range of possibilities. Its intuitive design makes it a great tool for both newbie and experienced users.
Explore the synthesis potential your DAW has to offer with its native plug-ins. You’d be surprised at the quality of their virtual instruments that, in many cases, have nothing to envy third-party plug-ins. In another article, we’ll talk about other types of synthesis available in Ableton Live.