Envelope generators—ADSR Part 1

After discussing the exponential decay of the one-pole filter in a recent article, I couldn’t help but think about envelope generators. Besides, it would be handy to have one to test out some of these other components I’ve been writing about.

The staple of analog synthesizers is the ADSR envelope generator. Sure, when creating an envelope computationally, we don’t have the limitations of hardware, so we could make envelopes of unlimited complexity. But the abundance of “virtual analog” plug-ins attest to the fact that the simple ADSR is a very effective design—and mandatory if we’re simulating most vintage gear. And it’s more manageable to explain how to make an ADSR, and let you take it from there if you wish.

States and gates

Envelope generators are defined by their states. Typically, an envelope generator of a synthesizer at rest is in an idle state, outputting zero level. When you press a key, it raises a gate to the “on” state, triggering the envelope generator into its initial attack state. The output of the envelope generator begins to rise at an attack rate determined by a user control. As long as the key remains down, keeping the gate “on”, the envelope rises until it reaches its maximum output. At that time, it switches to the decay state, and moves towards the user-defined sustain level (set anywhere from zero to maximum output) at the rate set by another user control. Upon reaching the sustain level, the envelope generator switches to the sustain state, and remains there as long as the key is held. Once the key is released and the gate changes to “off”, the envelope generator switches to the release state, and begins moving towards zero at the rate set by a fourth user control.

State Action
Idle do nothing (output remains at zero)
Attack continue increasing output at attack rate; if max is reached, change state to Decay
Decay continue reducing output at decay rate; if sustain level reached, change state to Sustain
Sustain do nothing (output remains at the sustain level)
Release continue reducing output at release rate; if zero is reached, change state to Idle

Note that the Idle and Sustain states have no exit rules. Moves out of these states are driven by a gate signal—driven by a synthesizer key press and release, typically, though the gate can be from a low frequency oscillator or step sequencer, for instance. Here are the additional state rules, driven by the gate transitions:

Gate transition Action
from “off” to “on” set state to Attack
from “on” to “off” if state is not Idle, then set state to Release


Some envelope generators—more often of the software variety than hardware—have attack, decay, and release segments that rise or fall in a straight line. But hardware envelope generators use exponential segments, typically. The exponential moves come from the charging and discharging of capacitors with current limited by resistors—one-pole filters, basically. Besides being easy to design with simple transistors, resistors, and capacitors, the exponential segments work especially well for amplitude envelopes, since we hear on a log scale (the exponential control against the log response makes the volume changes sound linear with respect to loudness).

Let’s take a look at how this works in our one-pole filter. You can view a one-pole filter as simply feeding back a percentage of the previous output, with the percentage value controlling the rate of the resulting exponential curve.

A simple AR envelope generator

To get the leanest view of how an envelope generator works, let’s start with the simplest. Synthesizers generate gate signals, typically, when a key is pressed—the gate starts at 0v with no keys down, jumps to 1v when a key is pressed, and back to 0v when the key is released. If we use that as the control signal to our VCA, we’d have an organ-like instant on and off—not very flexible.

But if we route that into a one-pole filter—a resistor feeding a capacitor to ground—the processed gate would ramp up and down with an exponentially-shaped curve, at a rate depending on the resistor and capacity values multiplied together. (Since it’s more difficult and costly to make variable capacitors, we use a fixed capacitor and a variable resistor.) Here’s a circuit simulation of this basic AR (Attack-Release) envelope generator:

one-pole ckt
one-pole ckt step

This generator is just as simple in software—a gate that toggles from 0 to 1, fed into a one-pole filter, which is a delay and a multiplier taking the place of a capacitor and resistor. Here’s an iterative simulation done in a spreadsheet, using a feedback value calculated to be equivalent to the capacitor and resistor values shown in the circuit:

AR calc

Next: ADSR

But the AR isn’t a very flexible envelope generator—it’s a simple shape, and a single control value sets both attack and decay times. It would be useful for flute-type sounds, but not for guitar, for instance. For guitar, we’d like a fast attack, a slow decay, and a quick release. For that kind of complexity, we need a more elaborate circuit, with transistors to switch in difference resistances and target levels for capacitor charging.

Next up, we’ll delve into the specifics of an ADSR envelope generator in software.

This entry was posted in Envelope Generators, IIR Filters, Synthesizers. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Envelope generators—ADSR Part 1

  1. Hello,

    there are at lot of ADSR circuits developed by synthesizer manufacturer in the 60s, 70s and later. Moreover hobbyists designed ADSR-generators. Apparently a standard for ADSR-signals doesn’t exist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *