You all know them, the basic waveforms that you can find in almost every modern software and hardware synth. These waveforms have been around for decades and are known for some very famous and sometimes a little less famous leads and basslines. But have you ever just sit and listened to some popular tracks to see if you can hear what waveform it is? Well up until today I did NOT, so I decided it would be cool to share with you my experiment in dissecting tracks down to the basic waveforms.
For the sake of this article I will go over the four most used waveforms around which are: sine, triangle, square and saw. I will try to list both old and new tracks and I will include a embedded Youtube video to show you the sound that I mean. I found this to be more difficult than I expected it to be, but nonetheless it did made me pay more attention to sound design related things such as "which waveform might have been used for this lead?" or "what waveform was the core element of that bass patch?". Let's get going...
To start, I want to say that technically every track would fall in the sine wave category, since every sound you hear is a combination of sine waves. You can use multiple sine waves to create a saw or a square wave, but for this category I will classify only pure sine waves or something close to it. Now sine waves are the most basic waveform you can pick in a synthesizer and they are used in almost every electronic track to create a sub bass layer. Other than that sine waves are not really used that often since they sound quite empty and simply I guess. However I did found a great example of a track that uses sine waves for the melody, it's a track I used to listen to when I grew up called "Resurrection" by the Russian artist PPK. The lead can be heard from 0:28 and onward throughout the track and is a perfect example of a sine wave lead.
Getting in the mood already? I have one more recent example that also uses a sine wave for the main lead, the track is called "Be Mine" by Lane 8. I mean the stabby lead that kicks in around 0:35 and can be heard multiple times throughout the track. I do doubt myself if this might not be a triangle wave instead of a sine wave so if I'm wrong then please correct me. I think it's a sine spread over two or more octaves which creates the higher overtones.
Finally we have a track by Selena Paris called "Just About Enough" which is not a track I would like to listen to, but it still is a good example of a sine wave lead synth. The synth can be heard for the first time around 0:22 and it is a totally different lead from the more stabby examples earlier.
Triangle waves are very similar to sine waves, and since the difference is so small you can easily think a triangle wave is a sine wave or the other way around. A triangle wave has a couple of odd harmonics that a sine wave doesn't has, and therefore it sounds a bit grittier than a plain sine. The first track I want to use as an example is by a Dutch group from back in my youth called "2 Unlimited" with their track "Faces".The triangle lead kicks in around 0:15 and can be heard multiple times throughout the track.
I have one more triangle wave example which is an even older one, it's a track by Emerson, Lake & Palmer called "Lucky Man". I managed to find an old live version in the Royal Albert Hall that shows you Keith Emerson playing a triangle wave solo on the end of the track. You can hear the lead very good from 3:30 in the video below.
Square and pulse waves
I like to classify these two waveforms in the same part of the article, why? Because a pulse wave is technically an asymmetrical square wave. The first example is again one that I grew up listening to, I mean this track really has been played through my 1st generation iPod a lot! This time it's not a lead, but it's the main bass sound in the track "Flatbeat" by Mr. Oizo and I must say: I still love this track! Not only the bass is created with a square wave, but if you listen to the sound the little yellow character makes you notice that is also a square wave.
The next one is a great example of a square wave lead synth in a track from the 90's that most of you probably already know, and if you don't know this one then you are either really young or you have been living in Antarctica for your entire life. The track is by the artist French Affair with the title "My Heart Goes Boom", I'm talking about the square wave lead that can be heard right from the start of the track.
In the following more recent example by Tantrum Desire we can hear a square wave lead synth right from the start of his remix of Laidback Luke's "Timebomb". The track sounds amazing and shows another way of using a square lead synth, this time it is a pretty uptempo Drum & Bass track!
And that leads me to the final waveform: the saw wave. This is probably the most widely used waveform in modern electronic music, from detuned supersaws to phasing Drum & Bass reese basslines, it has it all. So this last category is the most easiest to find the tracks for and you all probably know what a saw wave sounds like, but I still want to show you some examples. The first track is a great example on how to take the most basic saw wave bass sounds and make it work in a perfect way, it's called "Satisfaction" by Benni Banassi. The bass comes in around 0:18 as a highpassed bass sound and then comes in a little later when the track drops. This kind of bass requires a lot of sidechain compression to the main kickdrum, which creates that pumping sound. The main lead that kicks in around 1:01 is also created by using saw waves.
The next example is an oldschool one called "Feel So Good" by Lisa Santiago. This example features a more acid-like bass sound throughout the entire track and even though it's really simple it actually suits the track fairly well. This type of bass sound can be achieved by running a saw wave through a lowpass filter with a very high resonance setting and then you attach an envelope to the filter cutoff to make the movement. Later in the track they also add an LFO to the filter cutoff to create even more movement on the bass sound.
The next example uses a simple saw wave lead sound for the main melody, but it also uses a saw wave for the bass patch. The track itself is very poorly mastered but considering the age it does have that 90's sound to it. The track is called "Luv You More" by Roller Girl and I think that this was one of those 'one day flies', has anybody ever heard a different track from Roller Girl?
I actually know this track from the very famous remix by Dutch Happy Hardcore and early Gabber music producer DJ Paul Elstak. The funny thing is that I'm from the town where Paul is coming from and so I've known his music for such a long time.
Finally I want to give one more example of a popular way to use saw waves to create sounds, it's in the track "Summit" by Skrillex and Ellie Goulding. The saw wave lead can be heard throughout the entire track and really gives the track it's melodic feeling, it also shows how a simple saw wave can still result in a great track!
So now you know the difference between the basic waveforms that you can find in most modern synthesizers and you know how they have been used in the history of electronic music. I had great fun to dissect these tracks and just generally listening to all this music that I used to know when I was younger. Let me know in the comments below "what track you would like to add to this list of tracks that use one of the basic waveforms?"
I have been making music for over 10 years, have had releases on several different record labels and I have a love for everything that involves using my creativity. I spend my days as a musician, graphic designer and wannabe photographer who likes to roam the streets of his hometown, especially during the night. Maybe I'm nocturnal, who knows? One thing I know for sure, I do whatever I want to do.
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