Of the more intuitive examples of timbre: the human voice, which to a large extent varies by physiology, resulting in a kind of uniqueness. Similarly, an identical note played on piano versus a cello can epitomize timbre whereby the material and playing method of the instruments can be heard to be distinct. The dictionary has timbre as:

The character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity.

This got me thinking, whether or not we are limited to material/physically distinct instruments when discussing timbre. Specifically, I wonder if the technicalities still hold up when the discussion goes digital.

The other day, I was listening to a vintage synth, and of course the style (chord progression, beat and tone) all contributed to the feel, but I couldn't help but wonder if the synth itself didn't add to it. A quick thought experiment where we play a retro song on a new synth couldn't quite convince me. Even though it's all digital, my hunch is that there actually is something going on to enable a distinction in terms of timbre, maybe taking the form of: gauge of wire, heavier components, etc. But I suppose this is stretching the term.


Strictly speaking, for synths, and electric instruments in general, is there a timbre dimension to talk about? Why / why not?

  • Every sound we hear will have its own timbre, made up basically from ADSR - attack, decay, sustain and release. All these can be controlled with a synth, to whatever degree one desires. So, yes, even the same sound - say a simple sine wave - can be manipulated in many different ways, all of which will have an effect on its timbre. Far more on a synth-driven sound (analogue or digital) than that of, say, a guitar or piano.
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 29, 2021 at 9:41
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    @Tim timbre is largely independent from the ADSR envelope; it's determined by the harmonic content of the signal. An oboe is an oboe regardless of articulation.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 29, 2021 at 9:56
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    @phoog I disagree about envelope not being a part of a timbre. If you drive an oboe sample through an ADSR envelope with a very snappy attack, no sustain and a short steady decay like a banjo, you can justifiably call it a different timbre. Or if you blow the oboe so hard that it cracks, and call it a new articulation forte fortissimo explosivo, it's perfectly justifiable to call it a different timbre. Commented Sep 29, 2021 at 14:02
  • If you mean to compare a "vintage synth" to a "new" emulation of that instrument, one thing that can be lost is the element of uncertainty and variance in the electronics and components. Wendy Carlos Williams talks about her Moogs drifting in pitch, and "tuning" them by whacking them with a hammer. Commented Sep 29, 2021 at 15:01
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    You might find Ableton's Learning Synths tutorial interesting. Commented Sep 29, 2021 at 17:44

3 Answers 3


Certainly, electronic instruments have timbre. Every audible sound does!

The aspects of timbre that are measurable and quantifiable can be measured and quantified for all sounds. One of the most common ways of looking at timbre quantifiably is by doing a Fourier analysis, creating a chart of energy at different frequencies and how that changes over time. This can be related to a representation of sounds as the sum of a collection of sine waves, each of which might itself change in pitch and amplitude. Considering the frequencies and amplitudes(volumes) of these sine waves, and the way they change, is often seen as the most obvious way to understand a sound's timbre.

This can also be related to the way the ear works - it can be seen as a kind of 'spectrum analyser'.

my hunch is that there actually is something going on to enable a distinction in terms of timbre, maybe taking the form of: gauge of wire, heavier components, etc.

It's possible. There is an entire breed of human being who spends their lives obsessing about how these kinds of things effect timbre, and how audible these effects are. Remember that many synths - especially vintage ones - are not all digital. When most people think of 'vintage synths' they would think of an old analogue synth like a Minimoog or EMS VCS3, and in these kinds of synths, the precise components used may may be responsible for some of the character of the sound.

However, the internal designs of these synths are often very different too, so we don't only hear the small differences that might come from (e.g.) different gauges of wire, but the dramatic differences that result from different models of synthesizer using completely different circuits for the oscillators, filters, and so on. Filters are often seen as especially important to the sound of an analogue synth.

But I suppose this is stretching the term

Not at all!

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    Many modern synths are not digital! And we don’t even have to consider re-issues. The Prophet Rev. 2 of Sequential Circuits is not a re-issue, and neither are the Korg Minilogue, Prologue, and Monologue. Plus there are the Arturia synths. All are new and all are analog. And all have their own sound qualities, mainly due to circuit design. On the digital side, different algorithms sound differently, and then there’s the analog output stages that put a final, admittedly subtle, stamp on the sound. Commented Sep 29, 2021 at 10:01
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    @ToddWilcox of course - and then there are digital synths that by now are seen as 'vintage' (such as the DX7), and analogue synths that have digital aspects to the signal path (like the DCOs on my old favourite, the Juno-106). But I got the impression from the OP ("I was listening to a vintage synth... Even though it's all digital") that the poster might be under the misconception that all synths are digital, so I wanted to simply state that that isn't the case. Commented Sep 29, 2021 at 10:14
  • It's also very telling that, in the days when it wasn't taken for granted that a synthesizer could play multiple instruments simultaneously (eg. multiple MIDI channels with different instrument settings), the term for devices with that capability was "multitimbral".
    – ssokolow
    Commented Sep 30, 2021 at 21:59

Is it accurate to say synths have timbre?


an identical note played on piano versus a cello can epitomize timbre whereby the material and playing method of the instruments can be heard to be distinct.

We do not hear the material or the playing method of an instrument directly. We hear vibrations in the air that are set in motion by the instrument. But those vibrations can be recorded, for example on a wax cylinder, a vinyl disk, or an electromagnetic tape, or as a stream of digital data. When we use that recording and an electromagnetic speaker to reproduce the vibrations in the air, we hear those sounds without the presence of any materials or playing methods, yet we can still identify a cello or a piano.

A synthesizer, whether digital or analogue, generates the signal needed to drive a speaker so as to create a particular sound. The very core of sound synthesis is to manipulate timbre, whether to mimic well known timbres, such as those of a cello or piano, or to create novel ones.

The basic theory underlying this is that of harmonics. A vibrating string or column of air has several modes of vibration, each an integer multiple of some fundamental frequency. The relative strength of these modes of vibration determines the timbre; for example, the clarinet lacks even-numbered harmonics, giving it its unique timbre.

While a natural tone may be analyzed into its harmonic components, that is, viewed as the result of adding a series of sine waves, so may an artificial sound be synthesized by combining a series of sine waves. This principle underlies the technology of the tonewheel organ, perhaps the best known of these being the Hammond organ.

More generally, this is called additive synthesis. There is also subtractive synthesis, which takes an acoustically rich signal and processes it, for example through various filters, to arrive at a more complex sound than would be practical with additive synthesis.

Sound synthesis, especially in its earliest incarnations, was not particularly faithful to the sounds it was seeking to recreate, typically because it employed a limited number of harmonics or a limited degree of signal processing. As the technology improved, so did the fidelity, but the distinctive sounds of the earlier "limited" efforts came to be valued in their own right, particularly as they came to be associated with various styles or periods of music. Thus, the Moog synthesizer is particularly reminiscent of the music of the late 60s and 70s, while digital frequency modulation synthesis is perhaps the most significant defining element of the 1980s sound.

my hunch is that there actually is something going on to enable a distinction in terms of timbre, maybe taking the form of: gauge of wire, heavier components, etc.

As I hope I explained above, it is the technique of the synthesis itself that defines the timbre, not the components of the synthesizer (though the characteristics of the speaker will be significant, of course, because its frequency response will dictate the vibrations it creates in the air, but also because it might be a Leslie speaker, designed to create vibrato).

Strictly speaking, for synths, and electric instruments in general, is there a timbre dimension to talk about? Why / why not?

I'll answer that with a couple of quotes from Wikipedia. First, the lead sentence from the article on subtractive synthesis:

Subtractive synthesis is a method of sound synthesis in which partials of an audio signal (often one rich in harmonics) are attenuated by a filter to alter the timbre of the sound.

Finally, the lead sentence from the article on additive synthesis:

Additive synthesis is a sound synthesis technique that creates timbre by adding sine waves together.

  • 1
    The circuit designs matter also, in addition to the synthesis technique. Different makes and models of analog subtractive synthesizers sound different. Filter design is famously important for influencing the character of a subtractive synth, but oscillator design is also an important factor Commented Sep 29, 2021 at 23:20
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    @ToddWilcox absolutely; by "technique" I meant to invoke the logic and implementation more generally, not simply the choice of additive, subtractive, or FM synthesis. I'll try to think of a way to make that clearer.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 30, 2021 at 6:57
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    And of course, the perceived timbre also depends on the acoustics of the environment. The same synthesiser is going to produce a different sound -- or at any rate, you're going to hear a different sound -- in a cathedral from what you hear in your living room. Commented Sep 30, 2021 at 13:18

I assumed the OP's question could be reworded as "what timbre will I get if my score calls for a synthesizer?" Pianos and human voices are predictable; organs (pipe / tonewheel / subtractive / clonewheel) are less so; and with a synthesizer, the sky's the limit.

There have been efforts in the past to come up with a "standard" voice definition format, but they have come to naught due to the breadth of the category of synthesizer, as mentioned above, with analog/subtractive, additive, FM, Wave-table, ROMpler, and physical modeling coming to mind without much effort.

This may also explain why so little "serious" composition is written for synthesizer as an instrument unto itself. It's easier for Berlioz to voice a bassoon higher than a flute, than to tell a synthesist (via notation, at least) what solo sound is intended to blend with the violas and 2nd violins.

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