The weird and wonderful world of physical modelling synthesis
In essence Physical Modelling Synthesis is attempting to replicate the laws of physics that govern sound production, in a synthesizer.
If you imagine the chain of events that striking a drumhead would create, first we have the initial “excitation” of the mallet or drumstick hitting the vellum, then the vellum vibrates resulting in a resonant tone that rings out through the body of the drum. The stiffness of the vellum is a variable that creates a difference in the initial tone, while the material density of the body affects the resonant nature of the sound. String instruments actually work in a very similar way, a guitarist would excite the string with a plectrum, the string would vibrate – creating a frequency, further resonating through the body of the guitar.
Yamaha was the first hardware manufacturer to develop commercial physical modelling synthesizers, The Yamaha VL1, which seems very appropriate as they had been creating acoustic instruments for almost a decade at the time.
The term Physical Modelling Synthesis actually covers a broad spectrum of techniques from Karplus-Strong, Waveguide and Formant synthesis, however we’re starting to see synthesis platforms which incorporate a large portion of these, often into an easy-to-digest layout.
What sounds are more often associated with Physical Modelling Synthesis?
There are a variety of plugins that excel in Physical Modelling Synthesis capabilities, however UVI Falcon is my choice, due to its vast capabilities outside of the realm of the Pluck oscillators – such as the vast effects and MIDI/articulation capabilities.
If you’re going for an Electric Guitar sound, it has various overdrives built in, as well as amp simulation effects. If you’re going for more traditional instruments, from Pianos to eastern string instruments, there are a variety of different excitation samples to choose from. You can even load up your own!
Physical Modelling Synthesis is also not limited to creating the more traditional stuff, it’s great for creating weird experimental soundscapes and pads. Using something like Mutable Instruments Rings, a Eurorack Physical Modelling oscillator, you have the ability to process your excitation before sending it to the input. In combination with reverbs and granular effects, this creates some great ambient textures and soundscapes.
For a walkthrough on some techniques for creating traditional instruments in UVI Falcon and some more experimental stuff in VCV rack, check out my video here: