Easy Synth Programming – Amp Decay-Sustain
All’s well that ends well – but not so fast! We all know the star athlete back in high school, right? That jock had his peak but did he suddenly just die off into fat middle-aged oblivion? No he didn’t! He instead faded a bit and then hung out in a middle management position while his midsection remained at a healthy girth. Synths are like that lonesome jock: they have a decay and a sustain. Before you program another fat sound let me set your record right.
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JUST MY IMAGINATION
You might be making sounds as we speak. You could be in your DAW with your favorite VST open and you’re twiddling and twisting and sliding but nothing is coming out as you would like. You hear a sound in your head and it might as well be the horizon because you sure aren’t getting any closer.
Maybe you want to get a sound that evolves in an interesting way. It’s also possible that you want to make a realistic sounding bass but all you get is a corny and plain thud. It’s very discouraging to try to make a sound but then fail to realize it.
You see, being able to design a sound that you have in your head is a function of a few factors. Those include having a theoretical understanding of what every parameter does, taking the time to explore these controls, imprinting the sound on your brain, and finally putting it all together to get what you’re trying to accomplish.
A huge problem you can be running into is lack of fluency with the Decay and Sustain portions of an ADSR envelope. Like I mentioned in other parts of this Easy Synth Programming series, there are envelopes and there are destinations to which those envelopes can be assigned. For now, we’re sticking to the amplitude assignment.
The amp envelope, as it’s known, is what shapes the overall volume contour of our sounds. By default, the amp section of a synth usually has its own dedicated envelope assigned to it. This is perfectly good but you should know that there are other synths available which allow you to assign either a different envelope, modify the envelope which is assigned, or even assign other modulators such as a LFO to control the volume of your sound.
The Sustain portion of the ADSR is what determines what happens while you’re holding down a key or continuously generating a MIDI signal (or even control voltage for you modular freaks). This is the setting which can take you all the way from a side stick percussion sound to a singing soprano in a Roman Catholic cathedral.
The other phase of the ADSR envelope we’ll be discussing today is the Decay phase. I’m going to tell you exactly what it is and what might cause this phase to not work at all. Remember, synths are not always intuitive. I got your back though so don’t worry.
There are a number of different reasons why you might not be using your Decay and Sustain settings to their maximum potential. One is that you never put any time into creating your own sounds. Naturally, if you don’t practice you will never learn.
Another reason is that you have never studied the manual or otherwise found good guidance online or in any books. I hope that I can change that for you. Congratulations for making headway on this step.
YANK YOUR CHAIN
A very common reason that many beginning synthesists don’t master their Decay and Sustain envelope settings is because they get involved with effects too soon. People, especially guys and ladies doing mixing tutorials, will tell you that you need a compressor to make your sound more snappy. They’ll tell you to add reverb to make the sound extend out longer.
It’s not really wrong that they’re saying that, keep in mind. It’s just that you need dedicated guidance for synths, and by extension samplers or other digital instruments, to get a real grasp on this. Similar to the meaning of life, you’ve got to look inside your synths for the answers.
The last most common mistake I see newbies making is looking to the wrong parts of the synth to create the sounds they intend to make. Instead of lowering the Sustain level on the amp envelope, they might try filter automation or even volume automation inside their DAW. They might use a transient designer to create some weird attack effects or who knows what else.
There’s got to be a better way. Thankfully, there is and the Decay and Sustain phases of your amp envelope are the secret to your success. Let’s look briefly at the details of both phases in turn.
TOOLS OF MASS IMPLEMENTATION
Given that you’re probably starting out, let me first explain how we can accomplish setting our amp envelope decay and sustain in Primer. After that, I’ll start getting into how it’s done inside of Massive.
If you are eager to explore other synths such as Massive then please be sure to check me out on Patreon. That’s where I dive deep every week using synths other than Primer to make actual music using what we’ve learned in the public content.
That being said, open up primer and have a look over toward the right hand side. Check out the four faders under the heading that says ‘AMP ENVELOPE’. You’ll also see that underneath each slider is a letter. All in all there are four letters which spell ‘F-U..’ lol jk. They spell A-D-S-R. By now, I hope you’ve checked out the other parts of this Easy Synth Programming series.
I’m assuming you have checked out those other parts. In that case, you already know that the A and the R stand for Attack and R stands for Release. The primary thrust of this lesson, though, is to get you rocking and rolling with the D and the S. Before any more details, we first need to explain a critical point.
ONE OF THESE S NOT LIKE D OTHER
The three letters, or stages, in an ADSR envelope, namely: AD and R all use one set of values whereas the S uses a different value entirely. This is a point that even trips up experienced instructors. Make sure you know which set of values are utilized by which part of the entire envelope.
AD and R stages all use time as their base. Each one of these stages is set to values measured in milliseconds. That’s why you’ll hear people talking about ‘a short decay’ or a long release. Naturally, that also applies to the attack setting. Check out those other parts for more detail.
In contrast, the S portion of the ADSR envelope refers to it’s ‘sustain level’. Level is something measured in amplitude, or dB, not in time. More often than not, an Attack phase will rise up to a predetermined point which is not user-adjustable. What you can, more than likely, adjust is the Sustain level. So why would you want to do this?
The reasons are legion: if you want a sound that functions more like an on-off switch then you should have your sustain a certain way. Indeed, if you want a pluck sound then your sustain will need to be in a totally opposite direction. That’s just the start!
Let’s say, for instance, that you have your sustain value all the way up. Well, guess what – you won’t even be able to use your Decay setting. The reason for this is because your sound needs to decay to a destination set by the Sustain level. Think about it: if your sound is always on 10 then it never really decays. However, there is an exception.
If you have your Sustain level all the way up, you will encounter a sort of Decay phase but, instead, it’ll be the Release phase. That leads me to my main point which is that the Sustain level is all about what’s going on while you hold a key down. Let me explain.
I GOT THAT BOOM BOOM POW
Let’s say you’re playing drums on your keyboard. What would happen if, every time you tapped a key, your snare drum fizzled out? That would suck right? The sustain portion of an ADSR envelope is what helps you to avoid such miseries. The details about how ‘one-shot’ play through (what is used in most drum samplers) works in an amp envelope is beyond the scope of this article but it’s still worth mentioning.
Think of it like an electric guitar: you’re wailing away in front of an audience of 30,000 screaming freaks. You play your tap arpeggio ascending all the way to the 24th fret and then bend it till your bridge is slapping you in the face. How does it sound? Does it just kind of squeak out like a mouse begging for a back rub?
Of course it doesn’t! I mean, I hope not! No – that sound should ring around the stadium like a choir of nude legal virgins begging for ice cream. This virginal phenomenon is called Sustain and the amp envelope’s S phase is there to make your wish a reality. Let’s look at another example, real quick.
Now you’re an awesome bassist playing a dope Fender Jazz bass in a Motown group. Ah, heck you’re James Jamerson. Now, you know your strings are older than your expired driver’s license but you don’t care – they still sustain a little, don’t they? Well, by golly they sure do but not much!
THE WHOLE ORCHESTRA
It’s for this reason that you have a Sustain level setting that’s not quite Yngwie Malmsteen but not quite a muted xylophone. A nice electric bass will have a pluck quality to it but then also maintain some Sustain before you let off your finger. Exactly like with a synth, the longer you keep your finger on the note, the longer it’ll continue to play.
My patrons will get to explore some of Massive’s advanced Sustain level features which will allow you to change the shape of the Sustain level. Most synths just remain at a consistent level indefinitely. While that’s not a natural thing to occur, it works pretty well when you’re going for a deliberately synthesized sound; such as a pad. Are there any other kinds of sounds we can get by adjusting the sustain level?
The main other sound that comes to my mind is the good old pluck sound. deadmau5 is known for his plucks and I’m sure he gives no ask me no more questions. While you can’t expect him to explain it – hey look at his ‘masterclass’ – I can give you the secret sauce right here, right now.
You’ve probably guessed it but the secret to an awesome pluck sound is not only the Sustain level but also the Decay time. 80’s shred rock doesn’t make much use of a Decay character in their sounds except for those shimmering Roland Jazz Chorus sounds they use for intros and cheesy ballads. Just like those over-produced arrangement which are using clean guitars, you’ll need to mimic that sound on your synth.
Every time you use the Sustain level at a setting other than 100% maximum or minimum, you are introducing subtlety into your sound. A pluck is not really like that. You want it to decay as totally as possible. Anything less will detract from the percussive effect.
The exception to that will be if you want a sound that’s somewhere between a hard pluck and a sustaining sound. That sounds obvious but I think many producers reach for compression or some other insert effect, like a transient designer, to achieve this. If you set your Sustain level properly and also maintain awareness of where your Decay time is set then you will get closer to the sound you hear in your head without all the extra VST creep from which we all suffer.
Speaking of masterclass – sorry but I will never capitalize their name – they have one with a well-known DJ. They’re running ads on YouTube and the star is demonstrating a high pass filter on a moderate pluck sound which exactly the type about which I’m talking. Hopefully, you’ve seen it.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING
I don’t really need to tell you how to move sliders around. That’s the first thing anyone ever does when they’re new to synthesis. For sure, they’re not pulling up patches and complaining that they don’t fit in their latest track. Sadly, this might be the furthest many ever get in their sound design journey. Thankfully, this isn’t you.
Since you’re reading this, I’m confident that you know how to twiddle knobs and slide sliders around. If you’re at least three years old then you are probably an expert at these basic mechanics. The skill I’m trying to impart unto you is that of thinking!
That’s right. They say that thinking is the hardest job to do. Many people believe that the hardest work is construction, being a parent, or maybe driving a ride share. No doubt – those are difficult tasks. Nevertheless, with some considered thinking, even those dirty jobs could be made more efficient by use of the old noodle.
DID YOU HEAR THAT?
The point I’m making is that you need to envision the sound you want to create. You also need to have a firm grasp on your tools. That includes the technical comprehension of what each and every control does. Articles like these will help you reach that destination. The other part of the puzzle is ear training.
You’ve got to not only know what each parameter does but also how it sounds. Some people try to get by with one or the other. That might be OK for them but not for you! I encourage you to marry your book knowledge with ear recollection and familiarity.
Take time, after you’ve studied the manual, to move the faders and knobs around but in a deliberate way. Do not try to design patches or produce an entire track. Just dedicate about 20 minutes to each section or even individual parameter. The more you do this, the more your brain will associate what you hear in your dreams with what’s possible on the synths user interface.
That brings us to the original point: use your brain. Use it in multiple phases. Use it to study the manual, use it to immerse yourself with hands on and ears on training. Use it to perform active listening and transcription to your favorite music. Then, once all those parts are in place, you will finally be able to use it to imagine the coolest sound and make it with what seems like minimal effort.
I’m really sorry but I ran out of time on how to do this in Massive. Like I’ve already mentioned, my Patrons will have access to that training. We are doing some great stuff over there so make sure to sign up for $3/mo.
I’ve shown you that the Decay and Sustain portions of an ADSR envelope work together. You have also seen that in order to be successful at making what you hear then you’ll need to break the process down. Lastly, I’ve also given you some technical information on each of the phases in isolation.
Make sure you actually apply these steps to your own sound-making escapades. The tools an ADSR give you are in many different instruments: from samplers, to synths, and even in digital pianos and plugins. You’ll never not need to know this stuff so long as you’re making music.
Try to apply some of these concepts to mixing as well. Separate out transients by increasing the Attack in one sound and reducing it in another. Then, after one sound has Decayed a little, you can have your main sound fade forward. See, there’s no limit!
I want to send a huge thank you to my fans. You mean the world to me! I’ve been working on this Hexspa thing night and day almost seven days a week! If you think you have it hard at your job, believe me it’s probably right up there with doing creative work like this. Not that I’m complaining!
The program I’m using to teach these lessons is called Syntorial. This is, by far, the best synthesizer training available. Better yet, it has a free demo which includes 22 (yes, that’s a lot) lessons to help you on your way. I have been through the entire program and these Easy Synth Programming materials I’m producing are all about reinforcing what I’ve learned.
Plus, everyone always accused me of being a Syntorial affiliate before I was. Well, now I am and if this has helped you then you can download your copy of Syntorial here. Should you decide to purchase it, and really everyone should, then I’ll get a small portion of the cost – all at no extra charge to you. Win win!
If you haven’t, check me out on Patreon. That’s where I deliver weekly Ninja Trainings which are extensions of what I publish on YouTube. For this week, amp envelope decay and sustain, I make an eight-bar loop which goes way beyond what you’ll see in the public video.
Over there, I”m using Native Instruments Massive. It’s a great synth and I hope to make some videos on it in the future. If you’re ever had trouble wrapping your head around this three-oscillator wavetable synthesizer then these Ninja Training videos are not something you can miss. But I get you might not be a synth junky.
In that case, you can also support me via direct donation on PayPal, join the Hexie Dose Newsletter, or even subscribe to my YouTube channel. Two-out-of-three of those things don’t cost you a cent but help ensure I’ll be able to continue making world-class content for all you music makers out there.
Did I mention that I make music myself? I have an official music playlist on YouTube that you can check out here. Of course, teaching something means I should know it myself. Please check out my music because every play counts. Who knows – you might even like it! 🙂
See you next week or over on Patreon!