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Types of synthesis in Ableton Live – part 2

Following up on our last post about synthesis, in this article we’ll introduce you to some other types of synthesis that you can take advantage of in Ableton Live.


Additive Synthesis

Additive synthesis consists of mixing basic waveforms, usually sine waves, to create more complex waveforms. A paradigmatic example is a drawbar organ which allows you to control the volume of its harmonics or overtones. The basic principle of additive synthesis is that any complex waveform is in reality the sum of multiple sine waves that contain specific frequency and phase information. Moreover, additive synthesis relies on constructive or destructive interference in relation to phase cancellation to shape a sound. Provided with sufficient data, additive synthesis has the potential to accurately recreate the sound of any musical instrument.

In Ableton Live, there isn’t a dedicated additive-based instrument per se. However, you can set up various instruments to work like an additive synthesizer. In fact, any instrument that allows you to combine two or more different sound sources could be considered to employ some degree of additive synthesis. For example, you can set up the Operator instrument device to work like an additive synthesizer by changing its routing architecture in the global controls and having its oscillators work in parallel. 

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Physical Modelling

Physical modelling refers to the simulation of a physical source of sound which is computed using a mathematical model. The idea is to recreate the mechanics of a musical instrument by following the laws of physics, instead of sampling them or producing waveforms. Broadly speaking, most instruments share the following characteristics: an exciter creates a vibration which resonates according to the instrument’s architecture, is then dampened and finally amplified. Physical modelling can be used to simulate all of these parts and recreate the ins and outs of virtually any instrument.

Ableton Live includes a variety of physical modeling instrument devices – Collision, Tension, Electric and Analog – that produce a range of very realistic sounds (mallets, string instruments, electric pianos, vintage synthesizers) but can also be used to invent instruments that wouldn’t exist in the real world.

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Granular Synthesis

Granular synthesis is a type of sample-based synthesis that operates on tiny pieces of sound, around 1 to 100 ms in duration, called grains. These grains can be layered, looped at different speeds and densities, time-stretched, randomly reordered and scattered, among other effects and parameters that can be adjusted. The basic principle of granular synthesis is that any sound is a collection of a large number of primary sounds which can be broken down into tiny pieces. Granular synthesizers usually include features of other types of synthesis as well as digital signal processing effects. It’s a great way of creating otherworldly soundscapes and sonic textures. 

Ableton Live includes a Max for Live granular synthesis device called Granulator II, created by Robert Henke. According to Henke, it “creates a constant stream of short crossfading sections of the source sample, and the pitch, position and volume of each grain can be modulated in many ways to create a great variety of interesting sounds. Granulator II also offers two multimode filters in series to further shape the resulting timbre.”  

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Sample-based synthesis

Sample-based synthesis refers to the recording of a sound into digital memory as opposed to generating a waveform by means of an oscillator. Hence, samples can be digitally processed, manipulated and played back. Sample-based synthesis has come a long way since early samplers such as the Mellotron or the Fairlight CMI in terms of their sampling rate, bit depth and memory space.

Sampler, Simpler and Impulse are three sampler instruments that are shipped with Ableton Live and offer a broad range of audio manipulation techniques. These devices allow you to not only play back samples with ease but also give you a lot of modulation options that can be used to shape your sounds into any form that you want. 

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Essential concepts you must know

If you’re looking to keep learning more about the music industry, there are certain essential concepts you need to know before moving forward with the rest of the article. These concepts are used by Grammy-winning producers, industry professionals, and the best artists in the business. Whether you’re a musician, producer, engineer, or simply a music lover, these 50 tips will help you develop a solid base of knowledge and skills. From understanding the importance of rhythm and melody to improving the art of mixing and mastering or learning how to market yourself. So, if you’re serious about your music career, make sure to go through this list and start building a strong foundation for your future success.

February 3, 2022
By Xavier Paradis
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