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In electronic music waveshaping is a type of distortion synthesis in which complex spectra are produced from simple tones by altering the shape of the waveforms. [1]

Electronic music is music that employs electronic musical instruments, digital instruments and circuitry-based music technology. In general, a distinction can be made between sound produced using electromechanical means, and that produced using electronics only. Electromechanical instruments include mechanical elements, such as strings, hammers, and so on, and electric elements, such as magnetic pickups, power amplifiers and loudspeakers. Examples of electromechanical sound producing devices include the telharmonium, Hammond organ, and the electric guitar, which are typically made loud enough for performers and audiences to hear with an instrument amplifier and speaker cabinet. Pure electronic instruments do not have vibrating strings, hammers, or other sound-producing mechanisms. Devices such as the theremin, synthesizer, and computer can produce electronic sounds.

Distortion synthesis is a group of sound synthesis techniques which modify existing sounds to produce more complex sounds, usually by using non-linear circuits or mathematics.

Spectrum Continuous range of values, such as wavelengths in physics

A spectrum is a condition that is not limited to a specific set of values but can vary, without steps, across a continuum. The word was first used scientifically in optics to describe the rainbow of colors in visible light after passing through a prism. As scientific understanding of light advanced, it came to apply to the entire electromagnetic spectrum.



Waveshapers are used mainly by electronic musicians to achieve an extra-abrasive sound. This effect is most used to enhance the sound of a music synthesizer by altering the waveform or vowel. Rock musicians may also use a waveshaper for heavy distortion of a guitar or bass. Some synthesizers or virtual software instruments have built-in waveshapers. The effect can make instruments sound noisy or overdriven.

Synthesizer Electronic instrument capable of producing a wide range of sounds

A synthesizer or synthesiser is an electronic musical instrument that generates audio signals that may be converted to sound. Synthesizers may imitate traditional musical instruments such as piano, flute, vocals, or natural sounds such as ocean waves; or generate novel electronic timbres. They are often played with a musical keyboard, but they can be controlled via a variety of other devices, including music sequencers, instrument controllers, fingerboards, guitar synthesizers, wind controllers, and electronic drums. Synthesizers without built-in controllers are often called sound modules, and are controlled via USB, MIDI or CV/gate using a controller device, often a MIDI keyboard or other controller.

Distortion (music) form of audio signal processing giving "fuzzy" sound

Distortion and overdrive are forms of audio signal processing used to alter the sound of amplified electric musical instruments, usually by increasing their gain, producing a "fuzzy", "growling", or "gritty" tone. Distortion is most commonly used with the electric guitar, but may also be used with other electric instruments such as bass guitar, electric piano, and Hammond organ. Guitarists playing electric blues originally obtained an overdriven sound by turning up their vacuum tube-powered guitar amplifiers to high volumes, which caused the signal to distort. While overdriven tube amps are still used to obtain overdrive in the 2010s, especially in genres like blues and rockabilly, a number of other ways to produce distortion have been developed since the 1960s, such as distortion effect pedals. The growling tone of distorted electric guitar is a key part of many genres, including blues and many rock music genres, notably hard rock, punk rock, hardcore punk, acid rock, and heavy metal music.

In digital modeling of analog audio equipment such as tube amplifiers, waveshaping is used to introduce a static, or memoryless, nonlinearity to approximate the transfer characteristic of a vacuum tube or diode limiter. [2]

Vacuum tube Device that controls electric current between electrodes in an evacuated container

In electronics, a vacuum tube, an electron tube, or valve or, colloquially, a tube, is a device that controls electric current flow in a high vacuum between electrodes to which an electric potential difference has been applied.

Diode abstract electronic component with two terminals that allows current to flow in one direction

A diode is a two-terminal electronic component that conducts current primarily in one direction ; it has low resistance in one direction, and high resistance in the other. A diode vacuum tube or thermionic diode is a vacuum tube with two electrodes, a heated cathode and a plate, in which electrons can flow in only one direction, from cathode to plate. A semiconductor diode, the most commonly used type today, is a crystalline piece of semiconductor material with a p–n junction connected to two electrical terminals. Semiconductor diodes were the first semiconductor electronic devices. The discovery of asymmetric electrical conduction across the contact between a crystalline mineral and a metal was made by German physicist Ferdinand Braun in 1874. Today, most diodes are made of silicon, but other materials such as gallium arsenide and germanium are used.

How it works

A waveshaper is an audio effect that changes an audio signal by mapping an input signal to the output signal by applying a fixed or variable mathematical function, called the shaping function or transfer function, to the input signal (the term shaping function is preferred to avoid confusion with the transfer function from systems theory). [3] The function can be any function at all.

Audio signal processing is a subfield of signal processing that is concerned with the electronic manipulation of audio signals. Audio signals are electronic representations of sound waves—longitudinal waves which travel through air, consisting of compressions and rarefactions. The energy contained in audio signals is typically measured in decibels. As audio signals may be represented in either digital or analog format, processing may occur in either domain. Analog processors operate directly on the electrical signal, while digital processors operate mathematically on its digital representation.

In engineering, a transfer function of an electronic or control system component is a mathematical function which theoretically models the device's output for each possible input. In its simplest form, this function is a two-dimensional graph of an independent scalar input versus the dependent scalar output, called a transfer curve or characteristic curve. Transfer functions for components are used to design and analyze systems assembled from components, particularly using the block diagram technique, in electronics and control theory.

Mathematically, the operation is defined by the waveshaper equation

where f is the shaping function, x(t) is the input function, and a(t) is the index function, which in general may vary as a function of time. [4] This parameter a is often used as a constant gain factor called the distortion index. [5] In practice, the input to the waveshaper, x, is considered on [-1,1] for digitally sampled signals, and f will be designed such that y is also on [-1,1] to prevent unwanted clipping in software.

Commonly used shaping functions

Sin, arctan, polynomial functions, or piecewise functions (such as the hard clipping function) are commonly used as waveshaping transfer functions. It is also possible to use table-driven functions, consisting of discrete points with some degree of interpolation or linear segments.


A polynomial is a function of the form

Polynomial functions are convenient as shaping functions because, when given a single sinusoid as input, a polynomial of degree N will only introduce up to the Nth harmonic of the sinusoid. To prove this, consider a sinusoid used as input to the general polynomial.

Next, use the inverse Euler's formula to obtain complex sinusoids.

Eulers formula Expression of the complex exponential in terms of sine and cosine

Euler's formula, named after Leonhard Euler, is a mathematical formula in complex analysis that establishes the fundamental relationship between the trigonometric functions and the complex exponential function. Euler's formula states that for any real number x:

Finally, use the binomial formula to transform back to trigonometric form and find coefficients for each harmonic.

From the above equation, several observations can be made about the effect of a polynomial shaping function on a single sinusoid:

Problems associated with waveshapers

The sound produced by digital waveshapers tends to be harsh and unattractive, because of problems with aliasing. Waveshaping is a non-linear operation, so it's hard to generalize about the effect of a waveshaping function on an input signal. The mathematics of non-linear operations on audio signals is difficult, and not well understood. The effect will be amplitude-dependent, among other things. But generally, waveshapers—particularly those with sharp corners (e.g., some derivatives are discontinuous) -- tend to introduce large numbers of high frequency harmonics. If these introduced harmonics exceed the nyquist limit, then they will be heard as harsh inharmonic content with a distinctly metallic sound in the output signal. Oversampling can somewhat but not completely alleviate this problem, depending on how fast the introduced harmonics fall off.

With relatively simple, and relatively smooth waveshaping functions (sin(a*x), atan(a*x), polynomial functions, for example), this procedure may reduce aliased content in the harmonic signal to the point that it is musically acceptable. But waveshaping functions other than polynomial waveshaping functions will introduce an infinite number of harmonics into the signal, some which may audibly alias even at the supersampled frequency.


  1. Charles Dodge and Thomas A. Jersey (1997). Computer Music: Synthesis, Composition, and Performance, "Glossary", p.438. ISBN   0-02-864682-7.
  2. Yeh, David T. and Pakarinen, Jyri (2009). "A Review of Digital Techniques for Modeling Vacuum-Tube Guitar Amplifiers", Computer Music Journal, 33:2, pp. 89-90
  3. http://www.music.mcgill.ca/~gary/courses/2012/307/week12/node2.html
  4. Le Brun, Marc (1979). "Digital Waveshaping Synthesis", Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, 27:4, p. 250
  5. http://www.music.mcgill.ca/~gary/courses/2012/307/week12/node4.html

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