Explaining ADSR Envelopes: Tweaking to sound right

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This tutorial will be explaining ADSR envelopes and their usefulness in music production. So you were viewing or reading a music production tutorial and the tutor kept mentioning envelope and you were wondering what has envelope got to do with music making? Don’t worry, it has got nothing to do with postal mail. Envelopes are the sound shaping controls that can be found on synthesizers and samplers, whether on software or a hardware. They can also be found on keyboard pianos.

Envelopes help to shape the groove of a synthesized sound. To do this, they alter the character of the particular sound playing from the synthesizer in terms of texture and time. For instance, envelopes are good for making sounds not to overlap when being played as a result of a sound tail or resonance bleeding into the next note. They can also be used in taming of a clicky, pumpy, or spiky transient/beginning of a sound.  In advanced use, they can be used as LFO filter to automate the filters of a synthesized sound to produce a creative effect.

Conventionally, there are usually four of these controls on most synths either in form of knobs or sliders, and they are often arranged in this order; Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release (ADSR). To remember this easily you can memorize the acronym- ADSR.

Explaining ADSR Envelope section Lennar digital sylenth
Explaining ADSR Envelope section Lennar digital sylenth

Attack

Attack is how close to the beginning a note of a given synth or sample sound is played. The closer to the beginning the attack is set, the punchier the sound is. A longer attack time gives a softer and subtler transient. Something like fading in the starting point. So, in summary, Attack can be used to emphasize or soften the transient of sounds.

Decay

Decay is the time it takes to go from attack to the sustained volume. It is how deep in time a given sound actually goes on for. For example, a synthesized piano sound originally with a short decay time cannot sound longer no matter how long it is pressed and held in place. The sound dies as soon as it reaches the end of its decay time. With the decay knob or slider, this can be adjusted to suit the particular song you are making.

Sustain

Sustain is a control can be used to stretch a sound’s length a bit further, but not much farther than it can actually go. How deep a sound is, is how long it can be sustained. All sustain does is to hold the note at its highest volume for a set amount of time.

Release

Lastly, release is used to adjust the resonance of a sound. This means how long the sound takes to slowly fade out after the key or string must have been released.

In case you are not working with a synthesizer but a sampled WAV audio, most DAWs come with inbuilt envelope editors in which you can just drop your sample and tweak to taste. A very good example is FL Studio’s default sampler on the channel rack as seen in the attached image.

Default FL Studio Sampler ADSR envelopes
Default FL Studio Sampler ADSR envelopes

Now you have a good understanding of ADSR envelopes, next time you are making music take your time to adjust those little faders and knobs. They just might help you nail that particular perfect sound or vibe you are hearing in your head. You can also check out Best VST plugins collection to acquire for pro sounding mix.

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