Wavetable synthesis

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Wavetable synthesis is a sound synthesis technique that employs arbitrary periodic waveforms in the production of musical tones or notes. The technique was developed by Wolfgang Palm of PPG in the late 1970s [1] and published in 1979,[2] and has since been used as the primary synthesis method in synthesizers built by PPG and Waldorf Music and as an auxiliary synthesis method by Ensoniq and Access. It is currently used in software-based synthesizers for PCs and tablets, including apps offered by PPG and Waldorf, among others.

It was also independently developed by Michael Mcnabb in a similar time frame, and used in his classic work, "Dreamsong" (1978).[3][4]


Wavetable synthesis is fundamentally based on periodic reproduction of an arbitrary, single-cycle waveform.[5] In wavetable synthesis, some method is employed to vary or modulate the selected waveform in the wavetable. The position in the wavetable selects the single cycle waveform. Digital Interpolation between adjacent waveforms allows for dynamic and smooth changes of the timbre of the tone produced. Sweeping the wavetable in either direction can be controlled in a number of ways, for example, by use of an LFO, envelope, pressure or velocity.

Many wavetables used in PPG and Ensoniq synthesizers can simulate the methods used by analog synthesizers, such as Pulse Width Modulation by utilising a number of square waves of different duty cycles. In this way, when the wavetable is swept, the duty cycle of the pulse wave will appear to change over time. As the early Ensoniq wavetable synthesizers had non resonant filters (the PPG Wave synthesizers used analogue Curtis resonant filters), some wavetables contained highly resonant waveforms to overcome this limitation of the filters.

Confusion with sample-based synthesis (S&S) and Digital Wave Synthesis[edit]

In 1992, with the introduction of the Creative Labs Sound Blaster 16 the term "wavetable" started to be (incorrectly) applied as a marketing term to their sound card. However, these sound cards did not employ any form of wavetable synthesis, but rather PCM samples and 3 Op FM Synthesis. S&S (Sample and Synthesis) and Digital Wave Synthesis was the main method of sound synthesis utilised by digital synthesizers starting in the mid 80's with synthesizers such as Sequential Circuits Prophet VS, Korg DW6000/8000 (DW standing for Digital Wave), Roland D50 and Korg M1 through to current synthesizers.

User wavetables[edit]

The creation of new wavetables was previously a difficult process unless supported by specialized editing facilities and (near) real-time playback of edited wavetables on the synthesizer. Such editors often required the use of extra hardware devices like the PPG Waveterm or were only present in expensive models like the Waldorf WAVE. More commonly, pre-computed wavetables could be added via memory cards or sent to the synthesizer via MIDI. Today, wavetables can be created more easily by software and auditioned directly on a computer. Since all waveforms used in wavetable synthesis are periodic, the time-domain and frequency-domain representation are exact equivalents of each other and both can be used simultaneously to define waveforms and wavetables.

Practical use[edit]

During playback, the sound produced can be harmonically changed by moving to another point in the wavetable, usually under the control of an envelope generator or low frequency oscillator but frequently by any number of modulators (matrix modulation). Doing this modifies the harmonic content of the output wave in real time, producing sounds that can imitate acoustic instruments or be totally abstract, which is where this method of sound creation excels. The technique is especially useful for evolving synth pads, where the sound changes slowly over time.

It is often necessary to 'audition' each position in a wavetable and to scan through it, forwards and backwards, in order to make good use of it, though selecting random wavetables, start positions, end positions and directions of scan can also produce satisfyingly musical results. It is worth noting that most wavetable synthesizers also employ other synthesis methods to further shape the output waveform, such as subtractive synthesis (filters), phase modulation, frequency modulation and AM (ring) modulation.


  1. ^ Palm 2009.
  2. ^ Andresen 1979.
  3. ^ Smith III, Julius O. "Viewpoints on the History of Digital Synthesis: Taxonomy of Digital Synthesis Techniques". Stanford University, Stanford, CA. Retrieved February 24, 2015. 
  4. ^ McNabb, Michael. "Dreamsong: The Composition" (PDF). Computer Music Journal. 5 (4). Retrieved February 24, 2015. 
  5. ^ Bristow-Johnson 1996.


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