Oscillator sync is a feature in some synthesizers with two or more oscillators. One oscillator will restart the period of another oscillator, so that they will have the same base frequency. This produces a particular type of sound, rich with harmonics, harsh but musical. The oscillator that resets the other oscillator(s) is called the master, and an oscillator that is reset by another oscillator is called a slave. The timbre can be altered on the slave oscillator by varying its input frequency. There are two common forms of oscillator sync which appear on synthesizers: hard sync and soft sync. Soft sync is a term used for a variety of mechanisms.
In a hard sync setup, the slave oscillator is forced to reset to some level and phase (for example, zero) with every cycle of the master regardless of position or direction of the slave waveform, which often generates asymmetrical shapes.
The master oscillator's pitch is generated by user input (typically the synthesizer's keyboard). The slave oscillator's pitch may be tuned, or detuned from this frequency, or may remain constant. Every time the master oscillator's cycle repeats, the slave is re-triggered, regardless of its position. If the slave is tuned to a lower frequency than the master it will be forced to repeat before it completes an entire cycle, and if it is tuned to a higher frequency it will be forced to repeat partway through a second or third cycle. This technique ensures that the oscillators are technically playing at the same frequency, but the irregular cycle of the slave oscillator often causes unnatural timbres and the impression of harmony.
This effect may be achieved by measuring the zero axis crossings of the master oscillator and re-triggering the slave oscillator after every other crossing.
This form of oscillator sync is more common than soft sync, but is prone to generating aliasing in naive digital implementations.
There are several other kinds of sync which may also be called soft sync. In some usage, soft sync means a sync intended to nudge and lock the slave oscillator into the same or an integer or fractional multiple of the master oscillator frequency when they both have similar phases.
See also Phase locked loop
- Reversing sync
- This form of oscillator sync is less common. This form is very similar to Hard sync, with one small difference. In Reversing Soft sync, rather than resetting to zero, the wave is inverted; that is, its direction is reversed. Reversing Soft sync is more associated with analog triangle core oscillators than analog sawtooth core oscillators.
- Threshold or Weak sync
- Several kinds of Soft sync use comparison thresholds. Soft sync may refer to any of these, depending on the synthesizer or manufacturer in question:
- Hard sync which is disabled when the frequency or amplitude of the slave crosses a user-defined threshold.
- Hard sync which is disabled when the frequency of the slave extends too high above or too far below the frequency of the master.
- Hard sync which is disabled when the frequency of the slave is lower than the frequency of the master.
- Phase advance sync
- The phase of the slave is advanced by some amount when the master oscillator level crosses some threshold. Used for audio synthesis, this may give an audible effect similar to soft sync.
- Reset inhibit sync
- When the master oscillator crosses some threshold, the normal reset of the slave is disabled: it will stick at its final level, positive or negative. When the master crosses back over some threshold, the slave is reset.
- Overlap sync
- In this method, the current wave completes but a new waveform is generated at the sync pulse. The tail of the old wave and the new wave are output summed if they overlap.
Aspects of digital implementation
Naive approaches to sync in digital oscillators will result in aliasing. Methods such as additive synthesis, BLIT (Band limited Impulse Train) or BLEP (band-limited step) must be adopted to avoid aliasing.
In a digital oscillator, best practice is that the slave will not be reset to the identical phase each, but to a phase advanced by an equivalent time to the phase of the master at the reset. This prevents jitter in the slave frequency and provides truer synchronization.
For digital oscillators, Reversing sync may less frequently generate aliasing. This effect may be naively implemented by measuring the zero axis crossings of the master oscillator and reversing the slope of the slave oscillator after every other crossing.
For digital implementation, note that none of the Threshold or Weak sync methods actually synthesize the waveform in a way different from Hard sync (rather, they selectively deactivate it).
Overlap sync is primarily a digital technique with simple implementation, such as used in formant wave-function synthesis (fonction d'onde formantique or FOF). An analog implementation could be a highly damped sine oscillator excited by the reset pulse.
- Digisound Guide to Synthesis by Charles Blakey, section 4.8