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Let’s Play #9 – Articulation Via Triggering

Whether your synth is velocity-sensitive or not, there are characteristics of the sound that can be controlled by your touch. I’m talking about the way the synth triggers its envelope generators based on notes that are played detached, or connected smoothly (called legato) when playing a monophonic patch.
by Jerry Kovarsky

I’m talking about the way the synth triggers its envelope generators based on notes that are played detached, or connected smoothly (called legato) when playing a monophonic patch.

A synth that always triggers a new envelope shape for its filter/amp no matter how you play is described as having multiple triggering. A synth that will not re-trigger the envelopes when connected notes are played is said to have single triggering. This means that to re-trigger the envelopes you must lift your fingers from the keys and play a new note get the envelope shape to have an effect on your sound.

Putting this into historical context, the Minimoog is famously a single trigger instrument. If you do not play detached notes you will not re-trigger the envelopes. This can be a good thing – it allows you to play lines that have a strong attack but then phrase naturally through subsequent notes as you choose. By way of comparison, the Arp Odyssey was always multiple trigger: every note played triggered the envelopes. This was also a good thing; you could play crisply articulated phrases quickly, as it would be difficult to impossible to always lift your fingers from each note in a fast phrase.

Modern recreations of classic instruments will usually adhere to the original design, and a quick perusal of my soft synth collection shows the Korg Polysix is always multiple trigger, as are the digital recreations of a Jupiter8 and CS80 from a well-respected French manufacturer. Both of those and other emulations are always single trigger.

Modern Synths

Modern hardware synthesizers, be they romplers, virtual analog or true analog, and soft-synths approach this issue in a different fashion. They will often have a parameter to allow you to choose single or multi triggering when a sound is set to monophonic and/or unison. It is most frequently called legato, or mono legato. When turned on it will change the envelope triggering from multiple to single. The Modal line of synths handle this via the Glide parameter: when it is set to 0 sounds will multi-trigger their envelopes, when set to either negative or positive values they will do legato-style triggering based on whether you connect notes or not.

Let's Use It!

To get focused on how triggering affects your phrasing, try using a lead sound that has a softened attack, with your synth set to multiple triggering. Here’s the sound I am using on the ARGON8:

Try playing this riff:

Notice how each note has a soft attack, no matter how you phrase the notes. Try playing each note detached, then try playing them as smoothly connected as possible. There should be no difference.

Now turn on the mono legato (Modal, Glide set to anything other than 0), or legato function on your synth. Play the phrase again with every note detached. It will sound the same as before. Except for the triplet turn in the second bar; I don’t doubt that you will have a hard time cleanly articulating those notes, especially at a faster tempo.

Now let’s try varying our phrasing to connects some groups of notes, and play others detached. The dot above a notes means play it short (called staccato), the curved line means connect all those notes (called legato). Try the following examples as suggestions; you can make up more of your own as well:

Each staccato, or detached note will fully articulate the envelope shape, and the rest of the legato phrase will slur, or blend the    tone more, enabling you to accent desired notes in the phrase. The longer you play legato phrases, or hold sustained notes, you may find your sound getting weaker, or unclear. This can happen when the filter envelope has a low sustain level, so your sound is settling into a darker tonality, and won’t brighten up again until you play a new, detached note to retrigger the envelope. No worries, just try raising the filter sustain level a little bit until your longer legato phrases sound the way you want.


A trill is a rapid alternation between two pitches. Practicing trills using different groupings of fingers is a long-honored way of developing your finger strength and independence. Beyond just working on your finger strength, trills played using a legato-triggered envelope are a great performance technique. The technique involves holding a sustained note and then trilling to/from another tone. For this example I’m changing the filter envelope to a fast attack and very short decay, with enough sustain level that my sound won’t fade out too soon.

Now try this simple example to get started (bars 1-2):

You hold the E with your thumb and play the G above it with your 2nd finger. Notice that when you let go of the G the E will re-sound without you having the trigger it – this is the mono legato at work, and will sound like you played the example in bar 3. 

In this example I increased the Glide amount, to create a bit more “swoop” between the notes: 

Here’s how it would sound if we were using multiple triggering:

I’ve notated these for easy reading, but be sure to double, and even triple the timing resolution to play these properly.

From this simple beginning you can work on alternating between different notes: in these examples I’m (mostly) using the Em pentatonic mode:

Next up, try trilling using a sustained note and lower tones like such:

Getting Hammered

Moving onward, try sustaining a note and varying the notes you trill with – this moves us into a simulation of what guitarists call “hammer-ons”, done by alternating between an open string and other notes tapped with a finger, or pulled with the fingertip, with no extra picking involved. You can see the similarity with our mono legato technique, with the picking represents the re-triggering of the string/envelope. Here are a few simple riffs to get you started:

Make Your Own!

Now that you understand these concepts you can make up your own riffs and exercises. Be sure to do them in various keys, and at various tempos and rhythms. Learning to master your touch and your synth’s triggering modes will add real variety to your playing. Happy practicing!

Jerry Kovarsky

Jerry Kovarsky is highly respected  in the music industry. For more than 30 years, he worked as brand manager, product manager, marketing director, product developer, and product demonstrator for Korg, Ensoniq, and Casio. An accomplished keyboardist, synthesist, and author of Keyboard for Dummies, Jerry passionately advocates for making music with keyboards. After studying at the University of Miami and graduating from William Peterson College with a BA in Jazz Studies, an opportunity to demonstrate early portable keyboards sidetracked his professional aspirations. More recently, Jerry writes about technology and keyboard musicianship for numerous outlets. He likes living at the intersection of technology and art and has returned to his musical roots, performing, recording, and teaching on the island of Maui, Hawaii.

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