Synthesizer: the world’s most versatile musical instrument
The synthesizer represents an unprecedented leap in the history of music. Until its appearance, the medium was dominated by the acoustic capabilities of wood and strings. However, the limitations of traditional instruments disappeared completely with the advent of the synthesizer.
The importance of this tech-savvy keyed friend stems from the inherent versatility that makes it the perfect and indispensable tool for recording studios. And although taming it requires deep study and a passion for music, it's well worth every second invested in it.
That is why we will investigate this instrument in detail, so that you can get to know it better, here at culturasonora.
Table of contents
- What is a synthesizer?
- How does a synthesizer work?
- Parts of a synthesizer
- Synthesizer types
- Analog vs. digital synthesizer
- What is the best synthesizer?
- Difference between monophonic and polyphonic synthesizer
- Digital synthesizer and workstation
- Modular synthesizer
- The best synthesizers in the world
- Midi keyboard?
What is a synthesizer?
It's a fully electronic musical instrument that produces musical sounds through the generation and electrical synthesis of electrical, electromagnetic and electromechanical frequencies or sound waves. However, those using the latter type of frequencies are the least popular at present.
It consists of a piano-like keyboard, but can generate virtually any sound and imitate other instruments such as a violin, organ, drums or any other instrument. There are also infinite sounds for synthesizer keyboards that can be downloaded or created by the musician himself.
How does a synthesizer work?
A synthesizer keyboard works in a similar way to other electric instruments. Pressing a key generates an electrical signal that is converted into acoustic waves. These in turn are transmitted through loudspeakers integrated in the instrument itself and in this way the sound is produced.
Four components are necessary for this process to be possible. We refer to the oscillator, the filter, the amplifier and the modulator.
It's an electronic component that has the capacity to transform the electrical signal or wave, generally from direct current to alternating current. This variation is presented as voluntary signal movements that are called sinusoidal, triangular, square, saw, pulse and noise.
Likewise, these sound waves or frequencies can be presented as a free oscillation, which do not have a pre-established time of duration. They can remain oscillating indefinitely until damping is provided. This damping can be given by generating electronic frictions that can be other electrical waves to create disturbance.
One of the oscillations you are sure to recognize is that forced by the sound effect known as delay. This is usually combined with self-sustained oscillations and is expressed as a sound constant that remains in time in a circular loop-like fashion.
Digital oscillations are generally believed to be free of noise. But this is not true because every electronic component creates different levels of noise. That is why in recording studios there is always a constant search for processors with low noise technology or components.
You can recognize the oscillator(s) because they have the VCO or DCO nomenclature. These are abbreviations of the English terms for Voltage Controlled Oscillator o Digital Controlled Oscillator . There are also other types of sound waves that are of artificial origin.
It uses the acronym VCF and is a tool that allows you to reduce the incidence of disturbances in the sound waves. This filter usually has several levels of control, but is generally used in high, medium or low level. However, the range is much wider and the controls for configuration are usually presented as rotary potentiometers of the limited, infinite turn and fader type. But they can also be found as an alphanumeric keypad and as a touchscreen slider.
These last two options are the ones that allow greater precision and diversification in the filter levels. They are also the most used by professional musicians both in recording studios and for live sessions.
An amplifier or VCA, as its name suggests, is the tool that allows you to control the degree of amplification that the sound will have. With it we can reduce or widen the spectrum of frequencies or electrical waves, to finally shape and customize our musical tracks.
The function of this tool is to create modulations in the signals and drive them to the parameters we decide. It will depend on whether the instrument has a wide or low range of these parameters.
Generally, synthesizers have two or more modulators that will target some other parameter or tool. This can be to the “VCF” filter or the “VCA” amplifier. But at the intermediate level onwards, they can also be driven to the “ENV” wrapper tool which has the “ADSR” variables.
These are variables contained within the “ENV” envelope tool that indicate four phases of the sound waves:
- Attack: every sound body starts with this property. This is the time it takes for the sound to go from zero to its highest point.
- Decay: is the second property and phase that sound goes through. Refers to the time it takes for the sound wave to pass from its highest point to the low point where it meets the sustain.
- Body (sustain): is the period of stability experienced by the frequency before the start of the culmination period.
- Culmination (release): the final phase in the sound frequencies that begins after the sustain ends.
Each of these phases of sound has other sub-stages or forms in which they are expressed. For example, the attack can be impulsive or soft and in academic music it's known by the expressions crescendo, aumentando and rinforzando. Although the latter can also be part of the sustain and release.
Other stages of sound that also have expressions in academic music are for example the decay as decrescendo and diminuendo. On the other hand, sustain can be sostenuto, among others. Also, it's important to note that they are all related to a time factor. Because they have a determined duration and are guided by their characterization or form.
Each of these phases are sonic nuances that can be manipulated at the whim of the instrument's controller. However, this can only be achieved efficiently through both technical and theoretical study of the performance, characteristics and properties of sound.
Parts of a synthesizer
These instruments have a great variety of parts and these vary according to the level for which they were designed: beginners, intermediate or advanced. They also depend on the configuration or design offered by the manufacturers. However, they all share the same principle and their basic components are:
- Keyboard: a feature inherited from traditional pianos with black and white keys. The only variant is the quantity, as while some may have 37, like the Moog Grand Mother synthesizer, others may have 49, like the Roland JD-XA; 61, like the Yamaha Montage 6; or 88 like the Yamaha XF 8, Nord Stage 3 and Roland Fantom X8.
- Potentiometers: these come in the form of a knob with 360º rotation, infinite rotation and as a fader.
- Buttons: they are distributed throughout the front panel of the instrument and can be soft, hard or pad-shaped.
- Lever: this is an option that not everyone has but is widely used by the manufacturer Roland.
- LED display: traditionally designed synthesizers do not have a display, but it's very common on Yamaha synthesizers.
- Slider pad: common only in high-end models, and the most lush of these is Jordan Rudess' Korg Oasys synth, which spans an entire 120 cm line on the front panel.
- Motion sensor: to date only Roland uses this device in its Fantom ranges and creates variations in dynamics, vibrations, tremolo and volume in sounds.
- Connectivity panel: located at the rear and almost all current models have them. These are: USB, MIDI, 1/4 Jack, 3.5 mm Jack. Only the premium ranges have Bluetooth connectivity.
Great options on the market:
Much is said about these instruments and the following classification is usually used. However, as we talk about each type, we will try to clarify some widespread and popular misconseptions among users.
This is a synthesizer that uses analog circuitry to generate sound. What does this mean? Lacking a Central Processing Unit, popularly known as “CPU”.
An analog or analogue synthesizer is a synthesizer that controls the signal by means of components called potentiometers, either rotary knobs or faders. On the other hand, the function of establishing the settings is carried out by the musician who adjusts the signal controls to vary the sound waves.
Keep in mind three important facts:
- In any synthesizer, sound is equal to electric waves.
- Although it's an analog synthesizer, it still works with digital signals.
- Every synthesizer involves the control of voltage levels, and discrete/quantifiable levels in analog do exist, although these cannot be observed through an LED display. You might have noticed that the knobs have a number on them, right?
A device is considered digital because it has the ability to accurately quantify discrete voltage levels. This is achieved because it has a built-in Central Processing Unit, or CPU for short.
The digital synthesizer reflects the readings through an LED display, interpreting them in alphanumeric form. In addition, a professional model has the option of reflecting these readings through graphs or wave diagrams, so that the musician can recognize and interpret sine, longitudinal and transverse wave types, among others.
However, both analog and digital perform readings of discrete or non-discrete voltages, although they reflect it in different ways. Recall that voltage control is achieved with an electronic component called a voltage oscillator “VCO”. By simply placing a high-performance one, the analog synthesizer can make settings as discrete as a digital one.
The fundamental difference lies in the accuracy for the determination and control of these voltages. With a digital synthesizer, the musician already has an alphanumeric panel and not a knob or fader. This is why it presents a considerable advantage when it comes to precision in the configuration of these frequencies or voltage levels.
Virtual Synthesizer (VST)
A virtual synthesizer is a software that is installed on your computer, either laptop or desktop. They have all the functions of a common one, but the big difference is that their controls and components are not physical but virtual. Therefore, they emulate the original functions although with a great lack of realism.
The most popular are Native Instruments virtual instruments although there are many others, such as:
- Arturia V Collection 6.
- Spectrasonics Omnisphere.
- Tyrell N6.
- U he Zebra.
- Synth 1
They also exist in the form of apps that can be downloaded for Android and iOS, such as Phase84 and DAW Stageligth. The AniMoog virtual synthesizer is now available for iPad.
Analog vs. digital synthesizer
This is the same question that is asked when it comes to effect processor pedals and sound amplifiers. Some say analog is better, while others prefer digital.
Advantages and disadvantages
- In the analog synthesizer the configuration is purely by knobs and fader, which implies a low precision margin. For this reason, the musician needs to have a high level musical ear to always achieve the same sonorous nuances.
- Analog is just as expensive to maintain as digital, except when the digital processor requires maintenance or replacement.
- Sometimes, the memory on the digital is erased or damaged. Restoring it requires a considerable investment and in several cases, even the equipment is completely lost, forcing the musician to buy a new one. But this is not the case with the analog, which doesn't have a CPU-type memory.
- The great advantage of the digital synthesizer is that the configuration is more precise, has many possibilities and can be saved as a preset. Whereas this cannot be done with the analog synthesizer because it doesn't have a CPU type processor.
- As far as the sound is concerned, both are equally good, each one is different and beautiful in itself, so we believe that it's up to the musician to choose which of the two they prefer.
Difference between monophonic and polyphonic synthesizer
The difference between them is quite simple. The monophonic only has the capacity to produce one sound at a time. The polyphonic, on the other hand, can generate several sounds simultaneously.
For example, with a Yamaha Motif XF8, which has eight octaves of keys, you can do four divisions. In one we have the sequences, in another the wind instruments, for the third we set up digi pianos and in the fourth, percussions. Thus we have an orchestra with only one instrument. Our preference? The polyphonic, undoubtedly.
Digital synthesizer and workstation
The line that divides these devices is very thin, so thin that the two terms are now used interchangeably. Until a decade ago, however, they differed in that the workstation had all-in-one capability, while the digital synthesizer did not. But it's almost pointless to differentiate between the two now, because they are almost one and the same.
It's possible to find brands such as Yamaha that claim to have left the manufacture of workstatiosn to return to digital synthesizers. But, the truth is, when we look at the features of their new products, they are exactly a workstation. An example of this is Montage 6, which is described as a synthesizer, but has all the features of a workstation.
These are somewhat strange devices, and their use is very limited. Basically, it's a synthesizer of which the modules are unconnected to each other, because the manufacturer doesn't perform the installation. Instead, it's the musician who makes the links between them in order to achieve their own sounds.
The best synthesizers in the world
There are a huge number of brands and manufacturers, although some are focused on a specific model. Despite this great variety, there are companies that stand out not only for their tradition, but also for the quality of their products. Some of them are:
It's a Japanese company, and one of the world's most popular manufacturers of digital pianos and synthesizers. Its best representatives are: Korg Minilogue XD, Korg microKORG, Korg Prologue 8 and Korg Volca Bass.
It's an American company that represents the tradition and standard in synthesizers. Its legendary models are: Moog One – 16, Moog Grandmother, and the Moog Theremini.
This Japanese company manufactures synthesizers/workstations of the highest quality. An example of this is the Phantom series.
Yamaha's tradition and excellence has led it to create excellent series such as XP, XF, Genos and Montage.
This Swedish company is perhaps the most emblematic in terms of synthesizer technology. The EX series is the most recent and most coveted in the world.
Beginners can and have confused a MIDI controller with a synthesizer. But the latter will never be a MIDI controller, because they require an external sound processor to make music, such as Cubase or the legendary Pro Tools. Synthesizers, on the other hand, have their own sound library.
As we have seen, this musical instrument is undoubtedly the most versatile of all. Its performance hinges on the amount of technology incorporated and the more advanced it is, the more sound possibilities you will have.
We also recommend you check out our articles on DJ mixers, electronic drums and the best plugs for gigs. If you need a DJ controller you can check out the Pioneer DDJ 400 or the Ableton Push. If you need an affordable audio interface, the Behringer U-Phoria UM2 is ideal.