Easy Synth Programming – Attack and Release

Easy Synth Programming – Attack and Release

Attack and release sounds like some kind of hunting game.  While I’m in full support of ethical activities, today we’re discussing synths.  If you’re new, start with part one and also get a copy of Syntorial for free here.

Let the Games Begin

If you’ve been following along, by now you know how a synth generates sound and a basic way to shape it.  What you might not know is that an oscillator does a few things and does them well.  What it’s not good for is detailed sculpting of the synth’s volume parameters.  That is the job of the amp envelope.


You’ve probably heard of the term “ADSR”.  It stands for: Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release.  While you might be new to synths and thinking, “What is that?” and “Doesn’t sound powerful, bro,” you can do a lot with those four options (aka parameters).  Think about it: during the day you wake up, eventually your morning spirit dies a little, you get through the day, then you slowly drift back to sleep like it never even happened.  Let’s dive into waking up and going to bed next.


So there you are: laying in bed with lots of stuff to do.  Do you get up fast or slow?  See, a synth is just like you except, where you might be autonomous, the synth needs specific instructions.  The amp envelope itself is subtractive.  While the oscillator is over there kicking out waveforms and the filter is busy shaving off frequencies, the amp envelope’s home is actually zero.  Think of it like a toll booth operator: it’ll either slowly let your sound through or just wave you past, but it never gives your car extra energy.  Let’s take a closer look.

Are You Sleeping?

So the amp, in it’s natural state, is a negative butt.  It cuts your sound off completely.  However, it can be reasonable too.  Like I mentioned, if you set the attack setting very low (in milliseconds), it’ll let your sound pop right up so fast that it might even make a click or pop in your audio output.  You can also increase the TIME (I emphasize time because that’s what we’re adjusting) to be longer so it’s more like a four banger putzing up to full speed.  That’s your attack setting.  What about the release?

Let me Go!

The release setting is almost the opposite of the attack.  Leaving out the details, it’s the setting that determines what happens after you release the key.  So, you push the key down, a sound comes up (attack) but what happens when your finger gets tired and it’s time to let go?  What do you expect?  Do you expect the sound to continue forever?  Wouldn’t that be annoying?  It would probably be a PITA to mix as well.  No, the synth has to STFU eventually.  How long that is, exactly, is determined by how many milliseconds you set for your release.  See, I told you it’s like the reverse of the attack setting.  (BONUS NERD FACT: Sometimes the curves of the attack and release are different.  With the attack, often you have a linear response whereas with the release, it’s more like a concave fade – opposite of what most DAWs default as their clip fades).


Ok, guys (and my 4.6% female audience) now you should understand the attack and release portions of an ADSR envelope.  My patrons this week (ty guise), will be receiving additional training on this topic in the form of a loop where I make a bass, lead, and pad patch in order to demonstrate these concepts.  I really appreciate your readership.  In case you haven’t noticed, I do very little advertising on this site.  However, that doesn’t mean I like to work for free!  You can throw me a few coins on PayPal, sponsor me on Patreon, subscribe to my YouTube channel, sign up for my free Hexie Dose Newsletter, or just leave a comment to tell me whether or not this has helped you.

Thank you all!  See you next week!


Leave a Comment