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What is a Synthesizer - A Beginner's Guide

What is a Synthesizer

Using acoustic instruments to make music is no longer the norm. Music producers can now use electronic instruments to make a variety of sounds. Modern music production uses synthesizers. The synthesizer is a popular electronic instrument in modern music production. A synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument that creates and manipulates sound using modules and components. This beginner’s guide will explain synthesizers, their history, types, and use. This guide will help you understand synthesizers if you’re a musician, producer, or electronic music fan.

What is a synthesizer?

A synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument that creates and manipulates audio signals using oscillators, filters, amplifiers, and envelopes. It allows musicians and producers to create multiple sounds by adjusting and combining these components. 

Unlike traditional acoustic instruments that vibrate air molecules, synthesizers generate sound through electronic circuits and programming. This makes them highly versatile and capable of producing sounds impossible with traditional instruments. Synthesizers can be controlled by playing a keyboard, using sequencers, or even by using computer software. They are widely used in pop, rock, electronic, and experimental music.

A brief history of the Synthesizer

The synthesizer has a long history that begins in the early 20th century. Pioneers and innovators from various fields started experimenting with electronic sound production. The Theremin was among the first devices with electronic components. Theremin was created in 1919 by Russian physicist Leon Theremin. The first musical instrument that could be played without touching another person was the theremin, which produced sound using radio frequency oscillators.

American engineer Harry Olson and his team at RCA created the first electronic music synthesizer, the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, in the 1950s. The large machine used vacuum tubes and magnetic tape to produce and modify sounds.

Robert Moog created the Moog synthesizer, the first synthesizer to be sold commercially, in the 1960s. It was a modular synthesizer that produced and shaped sounds using oscillators and filters with voltage control. The Moog synthesizer became widely used in the music industry very quickly. Later, it was employed by musicians like The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Stevie Wonder.

Synthesizers became more accessible in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to the Roland SH-1000 and Yamaha CS-80. Electronic music genres like synth-pop, new wave, and techno in the 1980s were all very synth-heavy.

The power of synthsis  and the versatility were boosted in the 1980s because to digital technology. Digital synthesizers like the Yamaha DX7 and the Roland D-50 were able to create intricate and realistic sounds by combining frequency modulation and sample-based synthesis.

Synthesizers are still a vital component of contemporary music production and are always changing. A variety of genres employ them, and they have become an essential aspect of popular music culture.

How does Synthesizer Produce Sound?

Synthesizers produce sound by generating and manipulating electronic signals. The process starts with the oscillator, which creates a basic sound wave with a specific pitch. The pitch can be adjusted by changing the frequency of the oscillator. Sound is shaped by the oscillator’s sine, sawtooth, or square waveform.

Next, the signal passes through a filter, which shapes the sound by attenuating or amplifying specific frequencies. This allows the musician to adjust the timbre of the sound, creating a more complex and exciting sound. Filters can be set to low pass, high pass, bandpass, or notch, each affecting the sound differently.

Following filtering, the signal goes through an amplifier to gain power and add an envelope to control the sound’s loudness. Attack, decay, sustain, and release are the four steps that make up the envelope. The beginning, ending, and duration of the sound are all governed by these phases.

The output, which might be a speaker, mixer, or recording device, receives the signal last. With a keyboard or another input device, the musician may manipulate the synthesizer’s pitch, timbre, loudness, and other sound properties in real-time.

The 4 Basic Building Blocks of Synthesizers

The four basic building blocks of synthesizers are:

  • Oscillators
  • Filters
  • Amplifiers
  • Envelopes.

Each of these components plays a crucial role in the creation and manipulation of sound.

Oscillators

  
 

Oscillators are the fundamental building blocks of synthesizers that generate the basic sound wave with a specific pitch. The waveform produced by the oscillator determines the character of the sound. There are several types of waveforms. The most common waveforms are sine, square, sawtooth, and triangle.

  1. Sine Wave: A sine wave is a smooth and pure waveform that resembles a single frequency with no harmonics or overtones. It produces a soft and mellow sound, often used for creating pad sounds or sub-bass tones.
  2. Square Wave: A square wave is a waveform that alternates abruptly between two levels. It has rich harmonic content and produces a solid and edgy sound, often used for creating basslines, leads, and percussion sounds.
  3. Sawtooth Wave: A sawtooth wave is a waveform that resembles the teeth of a saw. It has rich harmonic content with a gradual rise and a sharp fall in the waveform. It produces a bright and aggressive sound, often used for creating leads, basslines, and sound effects.
  4. Triangle Wave: A triangle wave is a waveform that resembles a triangle. It has rich harmonic content with a gradual rise and falls in the waveform. It produces a warm and mellow sound, often used for creating pads, basslines, and percussion sounds.

By selecting the type of waveform and adjusting the frequency, musicians can create a vast range of sounds with different tonal characteristics. These waveforms can be modified using filters, envelopes, and other processing techniques to create complex and unique sounds.

Filter

 

Filters are an essential component in synthesizers that shape the sound by amplifying or attenuating specific frequencies. There are two primary types of filters commonly used in synthesizers: Low Pass Filters (LPFs) and High Pass Filters (HPFs).

Low Pass Filters (LPFs)

LPFs allow low frequencies to pass through while reducing high frequencies, creating a warmer and smoother sound. They are in use when we need to create warm and smooth sounds, such as bass and pad sounds in electronic music.

High Pass Filters (HPFs)

HPFs attenuate low frequencies while allowing high frequencies to pass through, resulting in a brighter and sharper sound. We use them to remove unwanted low-frequency noise from a sound or to create thin and sharp sounds, such as the snare drum sound in electronic music.

In addition to LPFs and HPFs, filters in synthesizers are influenced by three critical parameters: Cutoff frequency, slope, and resonance.

  • Cutoff frequency: the cutoff frequency determines the point at which the filter starts attenuating frequencies. Adjusting the cutoff frequency allows musicians to emphasize or reduce specific frequencies in the sound. For example, lowering the cutoff frequency of an LPF will allow more low-frequency content to pass through, resulting in a more mellow sound.
  • Slope: the slope of a filter determines how quickly it attenuates frequencies above or below the cutoff frequency. A steeper slope creates a more drastic change in the sound, while a gentler slope is more subtle. Synthesizers commonly use slopes of 12dB/octave, 24dB/octave, and even steeper slopes.
  • Resonance: resonance is a parameter that emphasizes frequencies near the cutoff frequency of a filter. It creates a peak in the frequency response of the filter, which can add a unique character to the sound. Increasing the resonance on an LPF, for example, will create a more pronounced and resonant sound as the cutoff frequency is lowered.
Together, these three parameters provide a wide range of possibilities for shaping the sound in a synthesizer. Musicians can use them to create a diverse range of sounds, from subtle filtering to dramatic sound shaping and modulation. Understanding filters and their parameters is crucial to designing and producing high-quality sound in synthesizers.
 

Amplifiers

 

Amplifiers are a component in synthesizers that increase the strength of the signal and add an envelope to shape the volume of the sound. The envelope typically consists of four stages: attack, decay, sustain, and release. 

  • attack stage determines how quickly the sound reaches its peak volume. 
  • decay stage determines how quickly the sound fades to the sustain level. 
  • sustain stage determines the level of volume the sound maintains as long as the musician holds down the key. 
  • release stage determines how quickly the sound fades away once the musician releases the key. 

By adjusting these stages, musicians can create a wide range of volume and duration effects, allowing for greater control over the sound.

ADSR Envelopes

 

Envelopes are an essential part of synthesizers, used to shape the sound over time. They allow musicians to control the volume, pitch, or other parameters of the sound dynamically and expressively.

Envelopes have four stages – attack, decay, sustain, and release – determining how the sound evolves.

Attack:

The attack stage controls how quickly the sound reaches its maximum level. For example, a fast attack will result in an abrupt onset, while a slow attack will create a gradual build-up.

Decay:

The decay stage controls how quickly the sound fades away from its maximum level after reaching it. For example, a short decay will result in a staccato sound, while a long decay will create a more sustained sound.

Sustain:

The sustain stage determines the level at which the sound is held once it has reached its maximum level. This stage allows the musician to sustain the sound longer or hold it at a certain level for a desired effect.

Release:

Finally, the release stage controls how quickly the sound fades away after the musician releases the key or stops playing. A fast release will result in an abrupt end, while a slow release will create a more gradual decay.

By manipulating these four envelope stages, musicians can create various expressive and dynamic sounds. Envelopes can be used on any sound component, including oscillators, filters, and amplifiers, allowing for a high degree of control over the sound.

Modulation

 

In synthesis, modulation is a method for changing one or more sound properties with a control signal. Internally or externally, such as using an LFO (Low-Frequency Oscillator) or an envelope generator, this control signal can be produced.

Amplitude Modulation (AM), Frequency Modulation (FM), and Pulse-Width Modulation are the three types of modulation that are most frequently utilized in synthesizers (PWM).

  • Amplitude Modulation: (AM) involves using one signal (the modulator) to modulate the amplitude of another signal (the carrier), resulting in a change in the carrier signal’s volume or loudness. This can produce rich, harmonic tones.
  • Frequency modulation: (FM) is the process of utilizing one signal (the modulator) to vary the carrier signal’s frequency, which results in a more complex and diverse sound as the carrier signal frequency is always changing.
  • Pulse-Width Modulation: (PWM) modifies the width of the pulse wave generated by an oscillator using a signal, which alters the timbre of the sound. Depending on how the music is modulated, it either gets brighter or darker.
You can apply modulation to any sound parameter, such as frequency, amplitude, phase, and filter cutoff. Modulation allows you to create complex, evolving sounds or add movement and interest to a static sound.

What is a Modular Synthesizer?

what is sythesizer

Using a modular synthesizer can actually be quite challenging. It can take a lot of practice to get the hang of it, so you need to know what you’re doing. Additionally, they can be quite pricey due to their modular design. In order to fully explore their special and creative potential, they are typically used by professional musicians, sound designers, and fans of electronic music.

Modular synthesizers give you complete control over your sound, which is their best feature. You can create an absurd number of different sounds because you get to choose which modules to use and how to connect them. The possibilities are endless, ranging from extremely experimental and avant-garde textures to vintage analog synth sounds!

But, let’s be real these synthesizers can be a bit tricky to operate. It takes some real practice and know-how to get the hang of it. And, they can be pretty pricey because of their modular design. So, usually only the pros, sound designers, and electronic music fans who are willing to put in the time and money can really unlock their full creative potential. But, hey, who said music was supposed to be easy, right?

Buying Your first Synthesizer

If you are ready to take the plunge and buy your first synthesizer, there’s never been a better time! With so many great options at different prices, you will indeed find a synthesizer that suits your needs and budget. So don’t hesitate – to start exploring the world of synthesis today and unlock your creative potential. Whether you are a seasoned musician or a complete beginner, a synthesizer can be a powerful tool for shaping the sound and creating music that reflects your unique vision. So take the first step and start your synthesizer journey now.

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