Legato and portamento are common parameters that come with almost every synthesizer. In layman's terms, these are articulation functions that replicate different styles of playing instruments.

Both legato and portamento are Italian words, where legato means to tie together and portamento means carrying. As expected, these two articulations sound different from each other.

In the case of legato, there isn't any new attack on the sound when playing a note to note. This translates to smooth, connected phrases with no silence between notes. So in the context of synthesizers legato doesn't usually re-trigger the envelopes.

On the other hand, portamento is a glide between notes. You can also think of portamento as an automatic pitch bend whereby its rate is set by the glide control knob.

How legato mode works​

When the legato mode is enabled on a synthesizer. The envelopes are not re-triggered if notes are held down together. There will be a smooth attack on the sound which is easily recognized by someone with trained ears.

Staccato playing on most synthesizers doesn't usually result in a legato effect. If you want to have a legato effect you have to make sure the notes are not detached.

Legato and Portamento_01 (Xfer Serum Legato Mode).png

Music notes that overlap each other will have the legato sound when it's enabled. What's also essential to remember is that legato tends to work in a monophonic mode for most synthesizers.

How portamento mode works​

When the portamento mode is engaged this allows the synth to regularly slide in pitch with each new note. Portamento mode on some synthesizers is labeled as either:
  • Always
  • Mono glide
  • Polyphonic glide
  • etc, etc.

The reason notes always glide in portamento mode is because the envelopes will be re-triggered. Basically, this is the opposite of legato mode where the sound has no distinguishable attack.

In addition, the higher the glide time the longer it takes for the synth to slide in pitch when a note is held down. However, bear in mind the glide time is sometimes labeled as "portamento time" on other synthesizers.

Legato and Portamento_02 (Xfer Serum Always Mode).png

Some synthesizers are capable of polyphonic portamento where notes are held in a chord slide to different pitches at different rates. It's just worth knowing about polyphonic portamento and familiarizing yourself with it. Although not every synthesizer provides such functionality.

Common uses of legato and portamento​

Mono legato mode is frequently used on synth basslines and synth leads. Especially in solo sections of a song. But it's not limited to only that. You can be experimental and use mono legato when making FX synth patches.

Portamento mode is also useful for some synth basses and synth leads. Then you have polyphonic portamento which you can use on synth chords and synth pads. But only if your synth has polyphonic portamento.
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