Types of Sound Synthesis: Wavetable, FM, & Beyond



Sep 4, 2023

Sound synthesis is a fundamental aspect of music production, offering endless possibilities for creating unique sounds. With various types of synthesis techniques at your disposal, you can explore a world of sonic possibilities.

Whether you're a musician or a producer, understanding different synthesis techniques can enhance your creative arsenal and elevate your music to new heights. By delving into popular types of synthesis, you'll gain valuable insights into their unique characteristics and sonic potentials.

In this article, we will take a deep dive into four prominent types of synthesis: wavetable, FM, subtractive, and granular synthesis. By the end, you'll have a comprehensive understanding of each technique, empowering you to harness their power in your own music productions.

What is sound synthesis?

Sound synthesis is the process of creating audio waveforms or sound signals electronically or digitally. It's a fundamental technique in music production, sound design, and various other fields.

Sound synthesis involves generating sound from scratch or modifying existing sounds to produce new and unique auditory experiences. This process allows musicians, sound designers, and researchers to create a wide range of sounds, from musical instruments to special effects.

Types of sound synthesis

There are various methods and techniques for sound synthesis, including:

Wavetable Synthesis

Wavetable synthesis is a versatile and powerful technique used in many modern synthesisers. It involves the use of pre-recorded or generated wavetables, which are essentially a collection of single-cycle waveforms. Here's how it works:

In wavetable synthesis, a sound is produced by rapidly cycling through different waveforms from the wavetable. This cycling can be controlled manually or modulated dynamically. As the wavetable is traversed, the resulting sound changes in timbre and character, allowing for evolving and expressive tones.

Wavetable synthesis offers several benefits, including:

  1. Versatility: Wavetable synthesis enables a wide range of sounds, from traditional analog-style waveforms to complex digital textures.
  2. Evolving Timbres: By smoothly transitioning between different waveforms, wavetable synthesis can create evolving and dynamic timbres that add movement and interest to a sound.
  3. Modulation Options: Many wavetable synthesisers provide extensive modulation options, allowing users to modulate various parameters to shape and transform the sound.

Notable synthesisers known for their wavetable synthesis capabilities include Xfer Serum, Native Instruments Massive, and Waldorf wavetable synthesisers.

FM Synthesis

FM (Frequency Modulation) synthesis is another popular and powerful technique used in many classic and contemporary synthesisers. Here's an overview of FM synthesis:

In FM synthesis, the frequency of one waveform (the modulator) is used to modulate the frequency of another waveform (the carrier). By manipulating the modulator and carrier waveforms and their respective frequencies, complex and harmonically rich sounds can be generated.

FM synthesis offers unique sonic characteristics, such as:

  1. Rich and Complex Timbres: FM synthesis excels at creating rich and evolving sounds, including metallic tones, bell-like sounds, and intricate harmonics.
  2. Harmonic Modulation: By adjusting the modulation depth and ratio, FM synthesis allows for precise control over the harmonic content of a sound.
  3. Expressive Modulation Capabilities: FM synthesisers often provide extensive modulation options, enabling expressive and dynamic sound shaping.

Notable synthesisers famous for their FM synthesis capabilities include the Yamaha DX7, Arturia DX7 V, and Native Instruments FM8.

Additive Synthesis

Additive synthesis, a powerful sound synthesis method, builds sound from individual harmonics or sine waves. It offers precise control over each harmonic's frequency, amplitude, and phase.

This enables the creation of a wide range of sounds, from simple tones to intricate and harmonically-rich timbres, making it a valuable tool for sound designers and musicians seeking sonic richness and precision.

Additive synthesis is a versatile and nuanced technique in sound synthesis. To grasp its essence, consider these fundamental aspects:

  1. Harmonic Composition: Additive synthesis constructs sound by combining sine wave harmonics. Each harmonic has a unique frequency, amplitude, and phase, contributing to the overall timbre of the sound.
  2. Precise Control: This method allows for granular control over individual harmonics, enabling you to shape and sculpt the sound with unparalleled precision.
  3. Complex Timbres: With additive synthesis, you can create a wide range of timbres, from simple, pure tones to intricate and harmonically-rich textures.
  4. Realistic Instrument Emulation: It's often used to emulate acoustic instruments by accurately replicating the harmonic structure and timbral characteristics of real-world sounds.
  5. Sound Design Versatility: Additive synthesis is a powerful tool for sound designers, enabling the creation of unique and evolving textures, special effects, and experimental sounds.
  6. Modulation and Animation: Like other synthesis techniques, additive synthesis can benefit from modulation, allowing you to change harmonic parameters over time, resulting in evolving and dynamic sonic landscapes.
  7. Resource Intensity: Generating complex sounds using many harmonics can be computationally intensive, making it essential to optimise for efficiency in software implementations.

Subtractive Synthesis

Subtractive synthesis is a traditional and widely-used technique in the realm of sound synthesis. Let's delve deeper into this method.

In subtractive synthesis, the sound creation process begins with a rich and harmonically complex waveform generated by an oscillator. This waveform serves as the foundation for the sound. The next step involves shaping the sound by selectively filtering specific frequencies using various types of filters, such as low-pass filters, high-pass filters, band-pass filters, and more.

Here are some key points to understand about subtractive synthesis:

Filtering and Shaping: Subtractive synthesis revolves around the concept of sculpting sounds by removing or attenuating certain frequencies using filters. By selectively filtering out unwanted frequencies, the desired tonal characteristics of the sound can be emphasised and refined. Filters act as powerful tools for manipulating the frequency content of the sound.

Filter Parameters: Subtractive synthesis offers a range of filter parameters that significantly influence the tone and character of the sound. The most commonly used parameters include:

  • Cutoff Frequency: This parameter determines the frequency point at which the filter begins attenuating the signal. Adjusting the cutoff frequency allows you to control the brightness or darkness of the sound.
  • Resonance: Resonance emphasises frequencies near the cutoff point, creating a peak or boost at that frequency. It adds a distinct character and resonance to the sound.
  • Envelope Controls: Envelopes play a crucial role in shaping the behavior of the filters over time. By modulating the filter cutoff or resonance with an envelope, you can create dynamic changes in the sound's tonal characteristics.

Popular Subtractive synthesisers include Moog Minimoog, Roland Juno synthesisers (such as the Juno-106 and Juno-60), and Arturia Mini V.

Granular Synthesis

Granular synthesis is a unique and fascinating technique that opens up new possibilities for sound manipulation. It involves breaking down an audio sample into tiny fragments known as "grains." These grains are usually just a few milliseconds in duration. By manipulating these grains individually or collectively, granular synthesis allows for intricate sound design and time-stretching effects.

Here are some key aspects to understand about granular synthesis:

Granular Control: Granular synthesis provides precise control over various parameters related to the grains. These parameters include:

  • Grain Duration: Adjusting the duration of the grains determines the length of each individual fragment. Shorter grains create more detailed and percussive sounds, while longer grains yield smoother and sustained tones.
  • Grain Pitch: Granular synthesis allows for altering the pitch of individual grains, resulting in pitch-shifting effects. Manipulating the grain pitch can generate interesting melodies, harmonies, or dissonant textures.
  • Grain Density: Controlling the density of grains determines the number of grains playing simultaneously. Higher density values create dense and complex textures, while lower density values result in more sparse and spacious sounds.
  • Spatial Positioning: Granular synthesis enables the positioning of grains in the stereo field, allowing for the creation of immersive and spatial soundscapes.

Textural Soundscapes: Granular synthesis excels at generating intricate textures, evolving pads, and experimental soundscapes. By manipulating the grains individually or collectively over time, it is possible to create rich and evolving sonic environments. Granular synthesis can produce organic and ethereal sounds that add depth and complexity to music compositions.

Several software synthesisers and plugins offer powerful granular synthesis capabilities. Some notable examples include Ableton Live's Granulator II and GRM Tools.

Learn more in our guide to granular synthesis.

Sample-based Synthesis

Sample-based synthesis is a dynamic approach that breathes life into electronic music and sound design. Unlike other synthesis techniques that generate sound from scratch, sample-based synthesis takes real-world audio recordings, known as samples, and transforms them into musical instruments and soundscapes.

It's popular in genres like IDM (check out our list of the best 40 IDM albums to hear examples)

Here's some of the many reasons to use sample-based synthesis:

  • Pitch and Time Manipulation: The magic of sample-based synthesis lies in its ability to manipulate pitch and time. You can play a sample at different pitches to create melodies, chords, and basslines while adjusting playback speed for time-stretching effects or dramatic tempo changes.
  • Realistic Instrumentation: Sample-based synthesis excels at replicating acoustic instruments' nuances and character. It's commonly used to emulate pianos, strings, brass, and more, providing a realistic and expressive palette for musicians and composers.
  • Sound Design and Beyond: Beyond traditional instruments, sample-based synthesis is a potent tool for sound designers. It allows for the creation of atmospheric textures, vocal chops, and experimental soundscapes by manipulating and layering samples.
  • Endless Creative Exploration: Sample libraries offer a vast selection of sounds, from classical instruments to everyday sounds and abstract textures. This diversity fuels creativity, enabling artists to craft unique sonic experiences.

Sample-based synthesis serves as a bridge between the real world and the electronic realm, offering musicians and sound designers a rich tapestry of sounds to weave into their compositions. Its adaptability and versatility make it an indispensable tool in modern music production and sound exploration.


By gaining an understanding of different synthesis techniques, you open the doors to a world of expanded creative possibilities in music production. Each approach—wavetable, FM, subtractive, and granular synthesis—brings its own distinct sonic characteristics and expressive potential to the table. Whether you're seeking lush textures, dynamic modulation, sculpted tones, or experimental soundscapes, exploring these synthesis techniques empowers you to shape your music with precision and originality. Embrace the vast sonic landscape that awaits and let your creativity soar as you harness the unique power of wavetable, FM, subtractive, and granular synthesis in your musical journey.

Three main reasons to sign up for our newsletter