Synthesis and Sound Design

Course Description:

In this course students develop advanced skills using synthesizers and samplers.  Students study the elements of sound and how they apply to simple and complex waveforms, envelopes, LFOs, filters, and keyboard architecture.  Theory and practice with sampling and subtractive synthesis using software and hardware sound sources.


Course Objectives

Upon successful completion of the course, the student should be able to:


Utilize sound design in various media


  •       Define sound design


  •       Define Synthesis


•       Expand creativity through extended technique including field recordings and synthesis


•       Explain the applications of sound design in various media


Explain the components of modular subtractive synthesis using the Pure Data program


•       Create customized preset sounds using subtractive and wave-table synthesis on a hardware synthesizer


•       Describe the harmonic variation in basic simple waveforms


•       Discuss functions and advantages of different hardware and software synthesizers


Execute the principles and techniques associated with samplers including file management, recording, editing samples, programs, multi-timbral setups and playback


•       Import and map samples in a software sampler


•       Create a sample set that can be used with a media production


Discuss advanced MIDI theory, current uses of system exclusive message formats, and device documentation


•       Differentiate the categories in the addenda to the MIDI specification


  •       Use MIDI implementation charts to understand the compatibility of MIDI devices



Course Length: 11 weeks


Credit Value: 4.0


Prerequisites: MIDI Systems 


Please note: You must have earned a passing grade in the prerequisite class. If you are registered for this class but do not have a passing grade in the prerequisite course, it is your responsibility to contact the department chair or academic advisor to make the necessary changes to your schedule during the schedule adjustment period at the start of the quarter.


Text: The required text used in this class is Sound Design by David Sonnenschein.

Suggested: Compete Guide to Film Scoring by Richard Davis


Other Resources: Various handouts provided by the instructor


Attendance Policy:








Quarter Credit Hour Definition:


A quarter credit hour is an amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement that is an institutionally established equivalency that reasonably approximates not less than:

(1)   One hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work each week for 10-12 weeks, or the equivalent amount of work over a different amount of time; or

(2)   At least an equivalent amount of work as required in paragraph (1) of this definition for other academic activities as established by the institution including laboratory work, internships, practical, studio work, and other academic work leading to the award of credit hours.



Standards for Grading









96 - 100



78 - 80


91 - 95



74 - 77





71 - 73


88 - 90



66 - 70


84 - 87



61 - 65


81 - 83



=< 60





The final grade will be based on the following scheduled activities, assignments, quizzes, homework, exams, projects:

Activities (Weekly Participation, Field Trips, etc.)


Late Assignments:


Late assignments will only be accepted with the prior consent of the instructor.   The instructor will only permit the makeup of work due to a legitimate absence.


Academic Integrity: 


College guidelines for academic integrity are strictly enforced.  Copying materials or otherwise using the words, thoughts, audio/video/graphics files of others is plagiarism, which could result in various penalties ranging from project failure to administrative action. 


Academic Support/Learning Disabilities: 


Academic Support (tutoring) is provided to any student in need of tutoring.  Students who feel they are able to assist with tutoring this course should also contact their instructor and/or the Student Services Office.




Instructor reserves the right to modify this, as necessary to accommodate student’s specific needs, shortcomings, and advantages.


Week 1: Introduction to course and syllabus. Lab policies and procedures. Introduction to synethesis: What is synthesis? Overview of the different kinds of synthesis. 


Lab: Project 1 assigned


Week 2: Subtractive and Additive Synthesis. Analog and digital subtractive and additive synthesis is explored. Students will create their own sounds using subtractive and additive synthesis in Pure Data. 


Lab: Project 1


Week 3: FM Synthesis. FM Synthesis is explored. Students will create their own sounds using FM synthesis in Pure Data.


Lab: Project 1


Week 4: Modulation: Students will explore modulation techniques such as LFO, VCO, Filter Mod, AM, FM, and panning modulation using Pure Data. Students will create and play with several different types of modulators.


Lab: Project 1 Due

        Project 2 Assigned


Week 5: Midterm


Lab: Project 2 


Week 6: Sampling is explored as well as S&S (sampling and synthesis) synthesizers. Students will create and play with samples.


Lab: Project 2


Week 7: Granular synthesis and Glitch is explored. Students will use Pure Data to create glitch tracks.


Lab: Project 2 Due

        Project 3 Assigned


Week 8: Wavetable Synthesis is explored. Students will use software to create and play with Wavetable synths.


Lab: Project 3


Week 9: Synth controllers are explored.


Lab: Project 3


Week 10: Performance of synthesis is explored using MIDI controllers and software such as Pure Data and any other softsynths on hand.

Final Exam


Lab: Project 3 


Week 11:

Lab: Project 3 Due




 Assignment 1: Design individual sound events/objects/gestures to go with 5 images. Make 2 versions for each image. Images will be provided that you can choose from, or you can use an image of your own choice.  This could be an event like a sigh, water drip, gun shot, train pass-by, a punch; or a non-realistic punctuation effect. Source sound must come from exclusively synthesis. Imagine the intent of the sound and use equalization, layering and other manipulation to achieve imagined effect. Each will usually be 5 to 30 seconds long.

DUE DATE: Week 4


Assignment 2: Character Study: Students will choose an animated character or object (or both) that they will create a design for through “ground-up” synthesis using Pure Data. Only original samples and field recordings will be allowed (no canned SFX) and field recordings must be manipulated via Pure Data. 

DUE DATE: Week 7


Assignment 3: Sound Collage or Mosaic

For this project, you will create an audio collage of approximately 3 minutes in length using all of the sounds that we've used so far plus any that you wish to custom record. You will first produce a "sound map" that will serve as your plan for the project (if the plan changes while you're creating the piece, make those changes to the sound map). The goal here is to create a work of "pure sound" without reference to an external narrative.

Among the things you should consider are:

  • The balance between the overall design and the integrity of the source sounds (a piece that is all design and whose sources sounds are not identifiable is a pure mosaic; a piece with no clear design and very clearly identifiable sounds is a pure collage). Your piece should fall somewhere in the middle.
  • Consider the variety vs. unity of your sound sources. Too much variety and the piece won't cohere; too much unity and the piece gets boring. Even with a single object, you can create sounds that have sufficient variety by striking, rubbing, etc. In practice you might want to use a handful of sounds from objects that are related but not exactly the same.
  • Having a clear sound property plan—changes in pitch, loudness, timbre, and articulation over time that help to delineate the structure.
  • Having a clear event-type plan—movements from mostly ambient events to event-driven, etc. over time that help to delineate the structure.
  • Be aware of types of changes—static (no change), smooth (continuous change, linear or some other curve), sudden (changes that are, well, sudden)

You will be graded on:

  • Duration of approx. 3 minutes.
  • The sound map should include:
  • An approximate timeline
  • The "Form" (assign letters to different sections, use the same letter with a "prime" mark to denote similar sections—for instance A and A')
  • Source sounds (the actual source if you can discern it, or what kind of sound it is similar to)
  • Sound properties (timbre, pitch, and loudness)
  • Event types (ambient, event-oriented, or beat-oriented)
  • Sound Map including:
  • Basic Structure (A-B-A')
  • Sound Property Trajectories (timbre/articluation, pitch, loudness)
  • Source Sounds
  • Event Types (ambient, event-driven, beat-oriented)
  • Creating a piece in accordance with the sound map:
  • a basic overall structure
  • a variety of changes in sound properties (timbre/articulation, pitch, loudness)
  • a variety of event types (ambient, event-driven, beat-oriented)

DUE DATE: Week 11