A guide though the key concepts of a synthesizer and their practical applications.
Synthesizers are in my opinion one of the most fascinating musical innovations ever conceived, a glorious bi-product of technological innovation crossing paths with creative individuals who want to push the envelope (excuse the pun) of conventional music standards.
For those who’ve not devoted a serious amount of time into researching, analysing and tinkering with a synth or those who perhaps have roots in more tradition musical instruments, these quirky instruments can come across as quite confusing and intimidating, since their terminology tends to conjure up ideas of laboratory test equipment…..mention to word “oscillator” to anyone in my household and they look at me like I’m trying to work out how to time travel.
Well, in this series of articles I’m going to cover all of the key building blocks that make up traditional synthesizer architecture, explain their intricacies, terminologies and how to implement them to create sound.
But before I do that, I think it’s important to point out that a synthesizer by its very nature does not need to conform to any musical standard, it’s very common for most people to use synths for a whole multitude of musical applications. Whilst I personally use a collection of synthesizers to create music, I usually spend much of my time creating textures and ambiences to simply relax and almost meditate to. Synths are a great outlet to explore new ideas and remember the end goal doesn’t have to be music.
So let’s begin.
What is a synthesizer?
As with any detailed explanation, it’s always good to start with the very basics. What is a synthesizer you ask? The term synthesise means to create something from a group of elements, a “classic” synthesizer is a collection of circuits (elements) that can be interacted with to form musical phrases and tones. Since there’s no real physical, acoustic processes happening inside the circuitry of these machines they instead “synthesise” tones, hence the name synthesizer.
How one interacts with this collection of circuits ultimately defines the final tone that’s created and understanding how to implement them is vital to getting the most out of your machine, even though experimentation is always rewarded, it’s still good to understand the basics.
The standard signal path of most subtractive synthesizers consists of an oscillator, fed into a filter, then into an amplifier. This tried and tested signal flow is common amongst almost every single synth on the market and was standardised with the arrival of the MiniMoog Model D.
Whilst most synths specifications vary a great deal, you can be almost guaranteed to see the aforementioned signal flow everywhere you look from VST’s to large modular behemoths, there’s no escaping the subtractive signal flow.
Synths have come in and out of fashion over the years, with their initial arrival to the mass market in the late 50’s they found a home in the flourishing experimental music scene, who’s roots were mainly based in Music Concrete (a process of manipulating tape loops to make unusual musical ideas, where no idea is taboo) who brought these brand new technological innovations into their world with open arms.
Much of the early music created with earlier forms of synthesizers was incredibly experimental noise, drones and effects; it wasn’t until Herb Deutsch convinced Bob Moog to slap a keyboard onto a modular system did people start to realise the potential of these brand new instruments.
In the 60’s the synth exploded onto the popular music scene finding their way onto records from the Beetles, The Who, Emerson Lake and Palmer and Yes, just to name a few, who used synths to bring brand new sounds to the tried and tested rock and roll format.
And the 80’s…well, the 80’s was ruled by synthesis. In fact there was a whole a new array of genres defined by their application in music…ever heard of synth-pop? New Wave? House? Much of the popular music from that era includes a synth of some form, this period is where the availability of discreet technology and digital control became possible and more affordable than ever.
The late 80’s is where the analogue synth died and the reign of the DX7 and digital synths began. It’s widely rumoured that the Yamaha DX7 featured on Top of The Pops more than any other act….
The 90’s was an interesting period for music as a whole, all of the mish-mash of hair metal and punk became grunge, pop music started to become even more “cliché” and the electronic music scene diversified into fragmented sub genres, with the birth of techno, acid house, atmospheric, industrial etc. all coming in that decade.
In the 90’s, much of the expensive music equipment from the late 80’s lost favour with the producers of the time, thus making it more affordable for people to invest in great sounding machines for a mere fraction of the price they initially demanded, this is where many producers got their first taste of an 808, 303, 606, 909, SH-101 etc. and people started to use the machines beyond their intended boundaries.
Gone were the days of music equipment being inaccessible for the masses.
Come 2000, the synth market was in a bit of a dark place. The demand for workstations that did EVERYTHING (kinda badly) was at an all time high and the idea of a company releasing an analogue synth was simply laughable….if it didn’t do bells, guitar, piano, drums, a bad synth pad, wash your balls and greet you with a delicious hot meal when you came home, people didn’t want to know.
Sure in the early 2000’s there were some really great advances in digital technology, which meant there was some seriously advanced digital synths the utilized VA (virtual analogue) technology, to recreate the feel and quality of an analogue synth, whilst retaining the flexibility of digital.
Come the mid 2000’s we entered what I like to call the modern synthesizer renaissance, where affordable analogue synthesizers entered the market. Around this time the new Moog brought out the Voyager into the market cementing the higher-end of new analogue synths available at the time, but this was the start of something really special…..
It really all began with a small drop in the ocean from a well known little synth company called Korg.
In my eyes, Korg should be considered as the company that re-ignited the industries taste for analogue synths, the synth that started this modern craze was the very affordable and rather humble Monotron, a battery powered single oscillator analogue synth that mean for the first time ever, you could have the raw sounds quality of analogue for less than fifty quid.
The Monotron sold incredibly well and was made into three different models, all with their own unique interface and feature set, these eventually gave birth to the Monotribe and Volca range.
Whilst all this was happening, a lovely chap called Dave Smith set up a company called Dave Smith Instruments; this company released another semi-affordable analogue synth called the Prophet ’08 which was based upon the highly successful and groundbreaking Prophet 5 originally released under Dave’s previous companies name sequential circuits in the 1980’s.
Off of the back of the Prophet 08’s wild success, DSI released another milestone in the modern synthesizer landscape, the Mopho a glorious yellow monosynth with their signature Curtis filter, deep modulation capabilities, a superb sequencer with a voice architecture derived from the Proiphet 08…. Most importantly, it was affordable.
New analogue synths we’re accessible for everyone, and people wanted more – step in Arturia.
When a prolific software company starts developing an analogue synth, to me that conjures up all kinds of nightmarish ideas, but what they did was nothing short of spectacular. The Minibrute. A two oscillator analogue synth, inspired by the iconic Roland SH-101 which packed in a staggering array of unique features, sounds bloody marvellous and was most importantly cheap.
It was also around this time that modular synthesizers started to have a real resurgence. Dieter Doepfer formalized a small sized modular format called Eurorack, which used the standards derived from Bob Moogs modular systems released between the 1950’s – 1970’s.
This new modular format meant that along with run-of-the-mill analogue synths being affordable, you could for a slightly higher premium build a custom modular instrument to suit your needs. This format has exploded into popularity with literally thousands of modules on offer.
Couple all of these affordable options with the advances in computer audio recording, MIDI sequencing and the such: we now find ourselves in a time where it has never been easier and cheaper (mostly) to make great sounding music.
Thanks for the history lesson, but hold up…and oscillator? Subtractive?
Well now you know the very rough history of the synthesizer we can get into some of the nitty-gritty and discuss the constituent parts that make up these marvellous machines. But, that’s for next time.