Recently I got a Roland Alpha Juno-2. It’s an analog synth that has a couple of uncommon features: pulse width modulation on both the pulse/square and the sawtooth waveform, and a 7-stage contour generator, which adds a huge range of sonic possibilities.

Anyway, the AJ-2’s pretty good for lush polyphonic pads and strings. But instead of writing a review of this nearly 30 year old synth, I thought I’d give you guys a quick rundown of how to make strings, which you can translate to other subtractive synths. For this, I’m skipping the unique features of the AJs, although it’s best if the synth you’re using has pulse width modulation (PWM).

  1. Set a first oscillator to pulse, give it a pitch of 8’.
  2. Add slow movement by applying some PWM. You might need to use a LFO to do this; route LFO (triangle wave) as source and the oscillator’s pulse width as destination.
  3. Set a second oscillator to sawtooth and an octave higher than the first. Detune the pitch a few cent steps to render unison and fatten the sound.
  4. Mix the two oscillators so that the second is slightly lower.
  5. Add a subtle amount of vibrato (pitch modulation) using a LFO (triangle wave or sample and hold) to modulate the pitch of both oscillators.
  6. Bring in some white noise, though most of it should be muted by the LPF (see below), it can give the sound a little shimmer.
  7. Add a sub-oscillator set an octave down from the first oscillator.
  8. Set the low-pass filter to about halfway (aim for a mellow tone) and add a bit of resonance.
  9. Optionally, you can tweak the filter envelope for timbral variation.
  10. Adjust the amplification envelope to a slow attack and a medium release time. Bring up sustain so that the sound doesn’t lose volume over time.
  11. As far as effects go, try chorus, a little delay and/or a hell of a lot of reverb.

There you go – a thick, lush, synth string. Nothing like real orchestral strings, but yet a sound with its own characteristic, that’s just as valid as any other instrument.