Choosing Waveforms

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So many waveforms, so little time

Open up any virtual (or hardware) synthesizer and I’ll bet you can find a Sine wave, Square Wave, and Saw Wave of some variation. It’s likely you’ll have some others too, depending on which synth you choose. These waveforms are the foundation of all of your sounds. They form the base of your sound, and no matter what kind of effects you throw on, they’ll shape your sound in a way that no other waveform can.


Starting strong

If you were to start painting, you might pick a certain color to be the base. That color would define the entire rest of the painting, and the other colors would have to match it somehow. You could add lots of other colors and shading, but you can’t turn blue into red after you start.

When you start choosing your sounds, you may start with a saw wave since it’s the default for a lot of synths. Then you might add lots of effects, and use filters and envelopes to shape your sound. No matter how much stuff you add though, you’ll never turn that saw wave into a sine wave. There will always be a slight buzz sound unless you bring the filter down so low that practically nothing is coming through.

Basically, if you want a sine kind of sound, you have to start with a sine wave. Same goes for a square wave, saw wave, triangle, etc.Sure you can always go back and change the waveform (assuming you still have the midi track, and didn’t convert to audio already) but you really should have an idea of what kind of sound you want most of the time when you start designing your sounds.


First and second steps!

The two most important things to think about when designing sounds is what waveform you want to use, and what kind of sound you’ll be making. Will this be a bass, lead, or pad sound? Will it be a short, staccato sound? Or more long and drawn out chords? That matters, because once you start adding in effects, certain octaves will sound better than others. So if you want a bassline, but your sound comes across better in the higher octaves, then it won’t be a very effective bass.

Let’s say you do want to make a bassline. If you start with a sine wave, and don’t add anything else to it, the really low notes (sometimes called sub bass) might sound good when solo’d, but once you add in more chords and a lead sound, it’ll likely fade into the background. By layering a saw wave on top of the bass, you’ll get some nice mids or highs that will help it cut through the mix so you can actually hear the bass.

That’s just one example of why you need to think about what kind of sound you want, as well as which waveform you want and might sound good! It doesn’t matter what genre of music you’re making, or how long you’ve been producing, or anything at all. You should always think about this stuff before you dive into your synth.




Beginner – Start a new song, and this time plan out a few major parts. Maybe start with a bass, lead, and pad/chords sounds. Decide which waveform you want to use for each and stick to that plan. After you get a simple loop going, listen closely to each part. Do the waveforms you picked seem to be working well together? Would you choose a different one next time? Why?

Advanced – Start putting real thought into each sound you make, and be sure to think about where each element will sit in your mix, which element will be the focal point at each section of your song, and what kind of effects you want to put on your base waveform. It’s ok to experiment and see what sounds good, but don’t make that the norm. Try to gain a better understanding of what you like and what works, so that you can plan all of this out before you write a single note.

Question: What is your favorite waveform to use in most of your sounds? What do you like about it? When do you think a saw wave would be better to use than a sine wave? What about the other way around?