Synthesizers #

I’ve already talked about FM, additive, subtractive, etc. in Sound Sources. Here I want to go into how they fit into a song, the idea of pads, leads, bass. As well as how a lot of famous sounds have been done and what some of the most famous synths are. I’d also like to cover some of why some newer synths are exciting, like the Hydrasynth, Continumm, Norand Mono, Subharmonicon, Polygogo,

Back on the Sound Sources page you learned about the core elements of synthesis - different kinds of oscillators. Then, in the effects pages you got a good dose of filters and what makes them tick. Most synthesizers are really just a nice oscillator, filter, some envelope generators, and a couple LFO’s shoved into box - but if you get into synths enough, you’ll learn there’s some truly iconic sounds and rich history and cultural context that influences how we use and how we hear different synths and their most iconic sounds.

The many roles a synth can play #

Synthesizers can be used for nostalgic, rapid arpeggios reminiscent of vintage video game consoles, lush pads played with complex chords to evoke the feeling of the 1980’s, or be used with complex modulations and aggressive wave-mangling to get the sounds of a huge variety of EDM flavors.

Additionally, synths can be played in many ways. There’s just as many well known, iconic synth sequences that have been programmed in (Such as the Roland 303 on Daft Punk’s DaFunk) and loop as there are amazing lines passionately played into a keyboard (Such as Van Halen’s Jump) and with the explosion in Eurorack, who knows how many songs are using generative techniques. Of course, now we can use a guitar to control a synth, among other more exotic interfaces.

Basically, synthesizer’s can server any purpose and sound like anything and be played any way. That makes them really difficult to talk about.

If you’re interest in the history of synthesis in depth, you should check out BEST

If you want the very, very short version

  • Almost all early synths were monophonic - you can only play one note at a time
  • There’s “West Coast” and “East Coast” synthesis
    • “West Coast” = Additive synthesis, complex waves, wave folders, lowpass gates, the “weird stuff”.
    • “East Coast” = Subtractive synthesis, you’re classic waveshape on a basic oscillator + Filter combo.
  • There are some very notable synths (Wikipedia) that have been cloned into oblivion now

A small taste of synth history #


Yes, I might have skipped your favorite

1970 - The Moog & Minimoog #

Moog modular


1976 - The Yamaha CS-80 #

The CS-80 is a polyphonic powerhouse synth with every feature and then some. Ribbon control. Velocity sensitive keys with aftertouch.

1978 - The Korg MS-20 #

The MS-20 is notable today mostly for it’s filters, mostly it’s aggressive and dirty high pass filter.

1978 - EDP Wasp #

Notable songs:

The Wasp was a commercial success for the relatively small, British, Electronic Dream Plant but is mostly an obscure footnote as a full synth but it’s rather famous among synth-heads for it’s incredibly over the top CMOS filter, as mentioned previously on the BUTTON filters page.

1978 - Prophet 5 #

Notable songs:

1979 - The Fairlight CMI #

Notable songs:

1980 - Oberheim OB-Xa #

Notable songs:

1980 - Roland 808 #

Notable songs:

We already talked about the 808 - LINK

1981 - The Roland TB-303 #

Notable songs:

The (in?)famous 303 was a massive commercial flop, but is notable for

1981 - The Roland Jupiter-8 #

Notable songs:

1982 - The Roland Juno-60 #

Notable songs:

The Design of the Roland Juno oscillators (Stargirl Flowers’ Blog)

1983 - The Yahmaha DX-7 #

FM is a pain in the ass, but some pro preset-builders made it shine.

1986 - Korg Electribe #

Maybe not the first, but the first popular groovebox.

1995- Doepfer & Eurorack #

1997 - Access Virus #

2011 - Teenage Engineering Op-1 #

The OP-1 is a battery powered groovebox-ish thing that’s still sort of in class of it’s own. It’s portable, plastic-y, and packed to the brim with weird ideas. You can sequence on it, but it’s really meant to be played by recording live into tracks and building up layers. It’s a mildly difficult workflow, but inspires some neat results.

2014 - Xfer’s Serum #

Wavetable synthesis

2015 - Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators #

2018 - VCV Rack #

Modular in software. Not quite as good as the real deal

Present day #

The story of the synth is far from over. Behringer is rapidly making cheap clones of many of the vintage synthesizers mentioned… for better or wose. Vacuum tubes, bucket brigade delays, and germanium are coming back into vouge.

Groove boxes are getting more diverse and more focused. Boxes like the Digitakt offer sample based workflows while more focused boxes like the Model:Cycles are offering a hands-on approach to drums crafted with FM - a previously pretty difficult technique. Similarly, there’s more and more cheap assemble-it-yourself groove box combos like can be built with a system of Pocket Operators and Volcas.

Meanwhile, YouTube has become full of “Synthfluencers” reviewing and selling gear, driving a massive synth economy more focused on the new and shiny than making good music.

Fortunately, there has been real innovation in recent years. There has been a huge push for expressivity in controllers, with polyphonic aftertouch (changing the pressure on each finger, per key/button after the fact) becoming more and more common. Some synths are pushing into microtonal (more than the traditional 12-notes per octave) and poly-rhythm territories - pushing the boundaries of what’s accessible.

Finally, we’ve been seeing a push for DIY programmable boxes, where users can write the code directly. Along with this there’s becoming a larger and larger pool of code for musicians-turned-developers to pull from every year. Most notably is the open source code from Mutable Instruments and the many, many scripts for the Norns.

So You Want to Get Into Modular #

10 Important Questions for Modular Synth Beginners (mylarmelodies, YouTube)

Modular - Eurorack, 3U, & AE , semi-modular, VCV, etc.

  • Price! (Case, PSU, cables)
  • Groovebox? Performance? What do you want to do with it?
  • Do you need polyphony?
  • Would a semimodular be better?

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