Envelope generator

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The amplitude over time of an ADSR envelope. Only the positive half of the signal is shown.

Sound synthesis techniques often employ an envelope generator, contour generator or transient generator that controls some parameters of a signal or control voltage at any point in its duration. When it controls a VCA these together form an envelope shaper or loudness contour.[1][2]


ADSR envelope generators can be used for various functions. The most important use is to give timbre to a sound. Timbre is what makes one instrument sound distinct from another, even when playing the same note and at the same volume.


Most often the envelope generator is an ADSR (Attack Decay Sustain Release), which may be applied to overall amplitude, frequency, or filter. It is usually triggered by a gate signal from the keyboard.[3]

The contour of an ADSR envelope is specified using four parameters:

Attack time
The time taken for initial run-up of level from nil to peak, beginning when the key is first pressed.
Decay time
The time taken for the subsequent run down from the attack level to the designated sustain level.
Sustain level
The level during the main sequence of the sound's duration, until the key is released.
Release time
The time taken for the level to decay from the sustain level to zero after the key is released.

A common variation of the ADSR on some synthesizers, such as the Korg MS-20, was ADSHR (attack, decay, sustain, hold, release). By adding a "hold" parameter, the system allowed notes to be held at the sustain level for a fixed length of time before decaying. The General Instrument AY-3-8910 IC included a hold time parameter only; the sustain level was not programmable. Another common variation in the same vein is the AHDSR (attack, hold, decay, sustain, release) envelope, in which the "hold" parameter controls how long the envelope stays at full volume before entering the decay phase.

Certain synthesizers also allow for a delay parameter before the attack. Modern synthesizers like the DSI Prophet 8 have DADSR (delay, attack, decay, sustain, release) envelopes. The delay setting determines the length of silence between hitting a note and the attack.


For shorter envelopes at higher pitch, as happens in acoustic instruments, a master CV is taken from the same voltage as used for VCO pitch.[4]


This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia:Synthesizer (view authors).

  1. ^ Synthesizers for musicians by R A Penfold, PC Publishing, 1989, ISBN 1-870775-01-5, p.21
  2. ^ Beginning Synthesizer by Helen Casabona, David Frederick, Tom Darter, Alfred Publishing Company Inc, 1986, ISBN 0882843532
  3. ^ Synthesizers.com Q109 Envelope Generator
  4. ^ Description of the Serge Extended ADSR Envelope Generator

Further reading

  • The Complete Guide to Synthesizers by Devarahi, Prentice Hall, 1982, ISBN 0-13-160630-1, pages 74–91

External links



Readily available analogue IC and discrete component based

CEM IC based