Types of Sound Synthesis: A High-Level Overview

The world of sound synthesis is vast and intriguing, providing sound designers and musicians with a variety of tools to craft unique tones and timbres. As music technology has evolved, numerous methods of synthesis have emerged, each bringing its own distinctive character to the world of electronic music. In this article, we’ll delve into some of the most prevalent types of synthesis and their distinctive characteristics.

Subtractive Synthesis

Subtractive synthesis is one of the earliest and most recognized methods. Its basic principle revolves around shaping sound by removing (or subtracting) frequencies.

Starting with a rich harmonic sound, typically generated by oscillators producing waveforms like sawtooth or square waves, filters are then applied to carve out desired frequencies.


Classic analog synthesizers, such as the Moog Minimoog and the Roland Juno series, utilize subtractive synthesis. These instruments are known for their warm pads, sharp leads, and resonant basses.

Additive Synthesis

While subtractive synthesis is about removing harmonics, additive synthesis is about building sound by layering individual harmonics on top of each other.

Each harmonic or overtone (which can be thought of as single sine waves at different frequencies) is combined to create a complex waveform. By controlling the amplitude and frequency of each harmonic, a myriad of sounds can be achieved.


The Hammond organ uses a form of additive synthesis, with drawbars representing individual harmonics. More modern implementations can be seen in synthesizers like Image-Line’s Harmor.

Wavetable Synthesis

Wavetable synthesis provides dynamic sound evolution by moving through a series of waveforms or “wavetables”.

A wavetable is a collection of different waveforms. As you progress through a wavetable, the sound morphs from one waveform to the next. This method can result in evolving timbres that change over time.


Waldorf Microwave XT
Image by deepsonic(Flickr), Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 2.0) license

The PPG Wave and Waldorf’s Microwave are classic examples of wavetable synthesizers. More recently, software synthesizers like Xfer Records’ Serum have popularized wavetable synthesis among electronic music producers.

FM Synthesis (Frequency Modulation)

FM synthesis is a method that uses one waveform to modulate the frequency of another, producing complex harmonic content.

In FM synthesis, there are carriers (the primary sound source) and modulators (which modulate the frequency of the carriers). By adjusting the frequency and intensity of the modulation, a wide array of timbres can be produced, from bell-like tones to growling basses.


Yamaha’s DX7 is the quintessential FM synthesizer, known for its crystalline pads, punchy basses, and metallic leads. The realm of software also has FM8 by Native Instruments, which provides a modern take on this synthesis method.

Granular Synthesis

Granular synthesis operates by dissecting sound into tiny snippets or “grains”, and then processing and rearranging them.

These grains, which can be mere milliseconds in length, are played back at varying speeds, pitches, and directions. This results in sounds that can range from atmospheric textures to rhythmic patterns.


The MicroGranny by Bastl Instruments is a hardware example that focuses on granular techniques. Software like Max/MSP or Granulator II for Ableton Live represents the more expansive possibilities of granular synthesis.

Physical Modeling Synthesis

Physical modeling simulates the sound production of real-world instruments by modeling their physical properties.

This synthesis type doesn’t rely on samples or traditional oscillators. Instead, it mimics the behavior of instruments, like the vibration of strings or the resonance of a drum skin, using complex algorithms.


Yamaha’s VL1 was an early pioneer in physical modeling synthesis. Applied Acoustics Systems’ “Tassman” and “Chromaphone” are software instruments that showcase the capabilities of physical modeling. Modartt Pianoteq is another famous example of physical modeling synthesis.


The types of synthesis mentioned here represent just the tip of the iceberg. With technological advances, it’s likely that even more innovative synthesis techniques will emerge. By understanding the basic principles behind these synthesis methods, musicians and sound designers can better harness their potential and continue to push the boundaries of sonic exploration.

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