A Basic Guide to Analogue Synthesis, using the Roland Juno 60 as a working example.


First of all, what is Analogue Synthesis? Well, its making sound from pure electronic wave forms, as opposed to Digital or 'sample based' synthesis. One way of seeing it is that an analogue synths makes sounds up from scratch, while a sample based synth or sampler has to go and steal sounds from somewhere first.

Analogue synths have been around in one way or another since the 60s, but in the mid 80s, most manufacturers stopped making them. They moved over to sample based synthesis, which many, especially in the techno scene, regard as a inferior because a) it sounds digital, unnatural and cold and b) what's the point of having a sampler you can not sample with?

Therefore, analogue synths are still hugely sort after by the underground electronic music scene and their second-hand price has gone up a lot in recent years. Classics, like the Roland TB-303, TR-909, Jupiter-8 and TR-808, have all tripled in value.

If you've ever heard an acid house track, then you've heard the TB-303 squelching away and the TR-909 drum machine providing the bom t bom t bom t bom t beat. The TR-808 drum machine can be heard on countless Hip-Hop, Electro and Detroit techno tracks, shaking the ground with it's massive bass drum sound.

Programming the Roland Juno-60

The Juno-60 is a relatively simple synth to program. It is six voice polyphonic and was made in 1982, just before the MIDI standard came out, so it does not have MIDI.

Do not worry if the following explanation of the various parts on the Juno-60 seem difficult to take in. You can learn to program it in a few hours, as all this really involves is playing with the sliders and buttons, until you get something you like :)

Let us start with the DCO or Digitally Controlled Oscillator. This makes the sound which the rest of the synth then modifies later. There are 3 basic wave forms it can generate, Pulse, Sawtooth or Square, each of which can be turned on of off by pressing a button. The level of the square wave can also be faded in and out with a slider. The pulse wave can have it's width altered with the PWM (Pulse Wave Modulation) slider.

The oscillator can be modulated (changed in real-time) by the LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator), which I will cover later, and there is a slider to vary the amount of pitch shift (vibrato). The DCO also has a Noise generator, whose level can be faded in and out with a slider.

Next is the HPF (High Pass Filter), which, as the name suggests, filters out the low frequencies (bass), while leaving the high frequencies (treble) untouched. Its level is adjusted by a four position slider.

Now we come to the VCF (Voltage Controlled Filter), which is where the beauty of analogue synthesis really starts to show. This is a Low Pass Filter. The FREQ slider alters the filters cut-off frequency. When at the top the filter is 'open' and will not alter the sound. When you fade it down, it gradually takes out the top end. The RES slider adjusts the amount of resonance in the sound. This can make it sound 'squelchy' or 'watery'.

The ENV slider controls how much the Envelope (see below) modulates the cut-off frequency, while the LFO slider controls the amount of LFO (see below) modulation on same. With the right combination of the FREQ, RES, ENV and LFO sliders, you can create some stunning effects.

Next is the ENV or Envelope, which controls how the sound it shaped over time. The A (Attack) slider controls how fast the sound fades in, the D (Decay) slider controls how much the sound goes down after fading in, the S (Sustain) slider controls how long the sound carries on and the R (Release) slider controls how quickly the sound fades out after you take your hand off the keys. This is also called a ASDR envelope generator, and is the most common type on analogue synths.

Now we have the LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator), which, rather than making sound, generates a waveform which modulates other parts of the synth. The RATE slider adjusts how fast this modulation is.

Last but not least is the CHORUS effect, which can be turned on or off. This is very useful when creating string sounds.

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Dave Allison

Text and HTML by Dave Allison. Last updated 8/12/2007