Let's Just Chat about Oscillators

Updated: Nov 23

Hello, good day to each and every one of you!

Today we will be talking about a new series of videos I decided to begin this year about the basics of synthesis. Where else shall we start but with our favorite part of a synthesizer, the oscillators! What I lovingly call the heart and soul of the synthesizer.

What's the function of an oscillator?

When it comes to synthesizers the first thing we all want to hear is obviously the sounds we can all make from them, however, understanding where they come from and how they work is the most important. No matter what machine you choose to play, or build yourself the first thing we must understand is what the function of an oscillator is.

The first function of an oscillator is to produce a tone. A simple oscillating tone which can be heard without any filtering or envelope. Which in honesty is not the most exciting thing to hear in the world unless you are really into hearing tones from a audiogram. Clearly we are not in the business of just listening to an audiogram for hours at a time. Thus, we'll just leave it as such, the function of an oscillator is to produce electronic tones which can be amplified and used in a musical form.

How many waveforms can an oscillator make?

No lie, an oscillator literally has one job, and at this point anything extracurricular is just an added benefit. However, we need to understand that all oscillators must have without a doubt the following sounds in its bank: Sine wave, Triangle wave, Saw wave and Square (Pulse) wave. Your oscillator must have these tones. The thing is with the grand world of

Are there any variations?

The short answer is yes, there are variations tones which an oscillator can make. A lot for example, inside my first synthesizer I purchased were tones which were designated as "Digi" or "Voc" as well as others like "Ring" and "Bell." Whilst these do sound in concept really cool tones to explore, and they are, in heart what is really happening is the manufacture has made a blended tone which they have tacked a name on to. If something sounds 'voice' like then the oscillator tone is titled as a 'Voc' for sake of concept.

It's not necessarily important for an oscillator to have these extra tones amongst them, however, as a consumer it all depends on what your goal is overall and do you see these as an added benefit.

How is pitch determined?

Pitch is finely determined typically from a few places on a synthesizer, typically in a section called 'pitch' which will set your keyboard to a set range on the piano scale. Otherwise in modular-land there is typically a dial called Frequency which can be turned from a low end to a high end. A really solid oscillator should be able to hit high-pass, mid, and lowpass ranges. Then there is the really low-end tones or sub-oscillator territories which are beneficial when we think about how those frequencies used along with mid to high tones blend together.

When we think of pitch we have to sonically think of it as how fast a sound is traveling through the air. The higher the frequency the faster the oscillator is pushing a tone shape. The lower and slower the one interval of a wave shape is moving in the air. With this concept in mind we can apply it as a guitar string. Thinner guitar strings move faster than thicker guitar strings, thus thinner strings produce a higher pitched tone, and a lower tone is heard from a thicker guitar string. Let us put this concept to our oscillator now.

What is wave-folding?

We can think of music, or sound as a spectrum. I know, I know, drop enough acid and you too can get to this level of thinking. However, it is not too far off the mark when really thinking about it. Though I am not the fellow who have come with this idea and concept, it is quite easily the best way for me to describe what the function of wave-folding, a West Coast synthesis concept.

In its heart, wave-folding is like sending a tone, anything would do like a sine wave or any of the other ones, into a prism much like light into one. The fracture of light goes into the prism, splits based on the facet cuts and then produces a spectrum of colours from it. We can think about the same thing when we think of wave-folding. We can have a module or a synthesizer with this capability which bends the original signal as many times as the artist wishes and then the output is hearing a new spectrum of sound from the original tone.

All in all, oscillators are the heart engine to any synthesizer and electronic instrument. From Theremin's to Buchla's, Moog's, and your very own Eurorack modular synthesizer. Check out the video above for more in depth information, as well as sonic examples of each tone and other fun things oscillators alone can do with just a little help.

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