Home Resources What Is An Oscillator? Exploring The Heartbeat Of Synthesizers

What Is An Oscillator? Exploring The Heartbeat Of Synthesizers

by Stuart Charles Black
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Stuart Charles here, HomeStudioBasics.com helping YOU make sound decisions, so…

Synthesizers are ubiquitous in modern music production, but many people who use them often don’t delve into the intricacies of how they work or the complex components that make them tick.

Instead, they interact with these powerful instruments primarily as tools for sound creation and manipulation.

Beneath the surface, synthesizers comprise complex components, including VCOs, filters, and digital processors, working in harmony to produce desired sounds.

This hidden complexity enables the mesmerizing sounds users interact with.

Interestingly enough, synthesizers share a common thread with oscillators, a fundamental electronic component.

Oscillators serve as the heartbeat of synthesizers, generating the continuous waveforms that shape the basis for sound creation.

What Is An Oscillator?

What Is A Synthesizer?

An oscillator is a device or circuit that generates a periodic, repetitive waveform, typically an electrical signal, without the need for an external input.

These waveforms can manifest as a sinusoidal (sine wave), square wave, triangular wave, or sawtooth wave.

Oscillators are fundamental components in electronics and are used in a wide range of applications, including signal generation, timing, and frequency reference.

Key characteristics and types of oscillators:


Oscillators produce a continuous oscillating output with a specific frequency or repetition rate.

The frequency can be fixed or adjustable based on the oscillator’s design.


Oscillators can generate different types of waveforms depending on their circuitry and intended application.

For example, a sine wave oscillator produces a smooth, sinusoidal waveform, while a square wave oscillator generates a waveform that alternates between two voltage levels (high and low) at a fixed frequency.


Oscillators typically employ positive feedback to sustain oscillations.

Positive feedback means that a portion of the output is fed back to the input with the correct phase and amplitude to reinforce the oscillation.


Oscillators consist of various electronic components, including active components like transistors, operational amplifiers (op-amps), and passive components like resistors, capacitors, and inductors.

Common types of oscillators include:

LC Oscillators

These use inductors (L) and capacitors (C) in their circuitry and are commonly found in radio frequency (RF) applications.

Crystal Oscillators

Crystal oscillators rely on the mechanical vibrations of a quartz crystal to maintain a precise and stable frequency.

They are commonly used in digital electronics and communication systems.

Relaxation Oscillators

These oscillators generate square or triangular waveforms and are often used in applications like timers and pulse generators.

Phase-Locked Loops (PLLs)

PLLs are feedback control systems that can generate output signals with precise frequency and phase relationships with respect to an input reference signal.

They are used in applications such as frequency synthesis and clock generation.

Voltage-Controlled Oscillators (VCOs)

What Is A Synthesizer?

VCOs are oscillators whose frequency can be controlled by an external voltage or current.

They are commonly used in frequency modulation (FM) and voltage-controlled frequency synthesizers like the Korg Volca Keys.

Low-Frequency Oscillators (LFOs)

While oscillators generate audio-frequency waveforms, LFOs produce slower waveforms, typically below the audible range.

LFOs are indispensable in synthesis for modulating various parameters like pitch, filter cutoff, and amplitude, adding dynamic movement and character to sounds.

They’re the secret sauce behind effects like vibrato, tremolo, and evolving textures, making them a vital component in the palette of any synthesizer enthusiast.

LFOs are the artists’ brushes, infusing life and expression into the canvas of sound crafted by oscillators.

How Does An Oscillator Work?

What Is A Synthesizer?

Now that we know what an oscillator is, how does it actually function within a synthesizer?

The fundamental principle behind an oscillator’s operation is positive feedback, which reinforces and sustains the oscillation of the waveform.

Here’s a simplified explanation of how an oscillator works:

Feedback Loop

An oscillator circuit contains a feedback loop.

This loop involves a component or mechanism that takes a portion of the output signal and feeds it back to the input with the appropriate phase and amplitude to reinforce the original signal.


Within the oscillator circuit, there is an amplification stage.

This stage boosts the amplitude of the signal to compensate for any losses in the feedback loop and to ensure that the output signal maintains its amplitude.

Phase Shift

The feedback loop also includes a phase-shifting component or mechanism.

This phase shift is critical because it ensures that the feedback signal is in the correct phase to reinforce the original signal and initiate the oscillation.

Frequency Control

Oscillators often include a mechanism for controlling the frequency of the generated waveform.

This could involve the use of resistors, capacitors, or other components that determine the rate at which the feedback loop operates, and consequently, the frequency of the output signal.

Waveform Shaping

Depending on the oscillator’s design and intended application, additional components, such as filters or waveshaping circuits, may be employed to modify the raw waveform generated by the feedback loop.

This shaping helps produce specific types of waveforms like sine, square, triangle, or sawtooth waves.


The final output of the oscillator is the continuous waveform with the desired frequency and shape.

This waveform can then be used as a reference signal, a source of sound in audio synthesis, or for various other purposes in electronics.

The key to sustaining oscillation lies in the balance of positive feedback and amplification with just the right amount of phase shift.

If the feedback is too strong, the oscillator can become unstable and produce an uncontrollable signal.

If it’s too weak, the oscillation dies out.

Oscillator circuits are designed to maintain this delicate balance, allowing them to generate stable, continuous waveforms with well-defined frequencies.

Different types of oscillators, such as LC oscillators, crystal oscillators, and relaxation oscillators, achieve this fundamental oscillation principle using various circuit configurations and components.

The choice of oscillator type depends on factors like frequency stability, waveform requirements, and application-specific needs.

Closing Thoughts

Korg Volca Keys Review

In the world of affordable and fun-to-use synthesizers, the Korg Volca Keys stands out as an excellent choice.

Its compact design, intuitive interface, and versatile sound-shaping capabilities make it an ideal instrument for both beginners and seasoned musicians alike.

With its three voltage-controlled oscillators (VCOs) offering sawtooth, square, and triangle waveforms, along with creative modulation options, the Volca Keys provides a wide sonic palette for exploration and experimentation.

Whether you’re looking to craft classic analog synth sounds or embark on sonic adventures that will absolutely blow your mind, the Volca Keys has you covered.

Its portability and affordability make it a fantastic addition to any music setup, offering endless hours of creative enjoyment.

So, for those seeking an affordable synth that delivers on both sonic versatility and sheer fun, the Korg Volca Keys is definitely worth considering.

It’s a gateway to the world of synthesizers and electronic music production that won’t break the bank.

But be forewarned, it’s incredibly addicting.

Here’s me noodling for almost 20 minutes, just scratching the surface of what this little beast is capable of:

Learn More:


Well, that’s about it for today folks! I hope you’ve enjoyed this What Is An Oscillator? Discussion and came away with some valuable insight.

Are you looking to purchase a synth for your own projects? I would love to hear from you. Until next time..

Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Let me know in the comments below or contact me!! I would love to hear from you…

Until then, all the best and God bless…





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