Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Welcome to Synthesis Made Simple

There’s a story from the 80’s that you are probably familiar with if you’ve been interested in synths for a while. Legend has it that back in the early 80’s after Yamaha’s infamous DX-7 had been out for a couple years, the company would, as you might expect, receive malfunctioning DX-7’s in need of repair. As more came in, the technicians noticed something strange. Even though FM offered an entirely new palette of sounds over the previously dominant analog synthesis, almost all of the DX-7’s that came in had the factory presets intact. No one had bothered to make their own sounds.

Given the rather cryptic interface and programming method of the DX, this isn’t all that surprising, but I am still shocked these days how many musicians I meet who rarely do more than tweak presets on even relatively simple analog-style synths. To me, this is like having an Italian sports car and never driving it over 30 MPH. Don’t get me wrong - there is nothing wrong with using the occasional preset. The right sound for the song is the right sound for the song, regardless of where it came from. As with anything unfamiliar, though, all the new jargon and theory can seem very intimidating and probably scares a lot of people off when it really shouldn't.

So over the next couple weeks, I’m going to attempt to explain the basics in a way that is simple and easily understandable. As I am on tour at the moment, I won’t be able to answer questions directly, but I know we have a lot of well-versed readers here, so if you have questions, speak up in the comments, and any of you more seasoned readers feel free to jump in and provide some answers.  I've never done anything like this before, so while I will attempt to be thorough, I'll probably miss a thing or two here and there, so don't be afraid to speak up. This isn't aimed at teaching you everything about synth programming. It's just meant to help people who haven't tried making their own sounds  get a basic understanding of the concepts in an easier to understand format than the sometimes cryptic manuals some synths come with.

We’ll get started tomorrow, but for now I’ll leave you with this thought. Once you understand the basics of synthesis, you’ll understand how to make your own sounds on just about any synthesizer out there. Well… any synth but the DX-7.


Kieron said...

That's a great idea!

I've just bought a book on analogue programming simply to help get my head around the basics. I'm using a KORG RADIAS-EXB card in my M3 and it's certainly powerful but it's making good use of oscillator sync, the modulation sources and destinations that really perplexes me.

I think part of the reason people are put off is because, to a great degree, the preset sounds have an expression and life to them that only comes from understanding how to alter the sound based on multiple inputs.

I know you're busy - but if you could include the odd audio file so we can ensure that we're following your lead correctly - that would really help.

Yevgen said...

Considering the multitude of synths available on the market, and including the number of VST that have been developed and offered to the musicians, it really seems to come down to having enough time to develop and work something of "your own". Being a sound junky, I find myself using built in presets for hours and not even getting to the point where I feel I need to produce something of my own. There are just too many libraries and refills available to the user with all imaginable sound producing capabilities. However, this fact by no means justifies the true exploratory quest that can ensue due to one's curiosity and venturing into the world of synthesis. But again, for many musicians, it is just hard to image what new and unique they can produce besides what had already been given in the form or customary presets.

line of control said...

i think Yevgen hit the nail on the head. I have literally gigs of preset sound libraries and samples. just to scroll through them once would take weeks. if i need a cool string sound why would i create my own when i already have 600 of them? all of them better programmed than what i could do myself. especially when you add filters and effects. it is usually very different from what you started with.

admittedly, i will sometimes go through hundreds of sounds and NONE will fit with what i have in my head...and that's where you come in...

Anonymous said...

I have just the opposite reaction... When synths have so many knobs and sliders and buttons just begging to be played with, why waste even one minute listening to presets?

Also, I have a big problem with the notion that certain preset sounds are "better programmed" than what you could do yourself, given at least a basic understanding of the basics of synthesis. This isn't like disciplines such as painting, writing, or programming, where the difference between a beginner and a pro is obvious. There are no "good" sounds and "bad" sounds when it comes to a given synthesizer... only the "right" or "wrong" sound for your particular song.

So the next time you sit down in front of a synth, try reaching for a knob instead of the preset switch. :)

mangadrive said...

Presets work for quick builds. I write my tracks fast as possible. If I don't have a good idea or frame running within 5 mins, its not happening. All my music is fast-paced dance stuff so that gives you an idea of my attention span to start with. Coming back when you are doing the final mix and lining things up is a MUCH different part of the process. I've already listened to the concept 20 times and decided it was worth the time to go to the next step so the process becomes more microscopic. Trying to dial the right setting on the spot with the kick drum running, full perc line, leads, a bassline to die for and *SOMETHING* needs to be there? Its going to be a preset every time until I can decide later what I want to do with all the moving parts.

Joey said...

I'm of the no preset usage purist asshole type... synths have knobs for a reason, and they are called synthesizers because you synthesize your own sound. Like tom said, there isn;t anything wrong with preset usage, but I like having sounds that nobody else has. They may have a similar sawtooth waveform lowpass filtered pad, but it wont be MY sawtooth waveform lowpass filtered pad.

Michael Arthur Holloway said...

Interesting discussion. I like presets, and I like programming my own patches from scratch. I think some people are just focused on the desire to craft songs and if that's the main goal, they don't mind bypassing an education in synth programming. It is, I feel, easier than the initial jargon makes it seem, but nonetheless that first entry into audio physics can be daunting. I had to read the chapters on waveforms over and over before I really understood what the hell it meant, rather than just accepting "okay, that's a square wav...that's a sine..."

Which is maybe a good point to make for starting your discussion, Tom: most books don't give a thorough explanation of what a waveform graph is showing; it took me forever to realize that the horizontal line through the middle is "normal air pressure" and what the wave lines really represent is deviation from that, either increased air pressure or decreased air pressure, measured over time.

I know that's basic. But it's amazing how many times I had looked at a wave graph and said "it's a waveform of such type..." but never really knew what the graph showed.

Derek said...

Kieron - What is the name of the book you purchased?

Funny you should single out the DX7 Tom, that was the first synth I ever bought, and I still don't know how to program it! I have tons of presets I downloaded, and I've played around with the operators in different configurations, but never really understood how it all worked.

I've got tons of soft synths (NI's Komplete among others), but even then, I usually just tweak the presets. I've tried to learn, but never found a good, definitive source of information that was easy to wrap my head around. I just bought a Nord Lead mk1 and a Novation Bass Station, so I think it's time I actually learned the basics properly so I can start programing my own stuff. I look forward to your features.

If any of your readers have suggestions for some good books or resources, please share!

Kieron said...


it was "Analog Synthesizers: Understanding, Performing, Buying from the Legacy of Moog to Software Synthesis" Mark Jenkins; Paperback; £17.65 which I got from Amazon. It's pretty good!

I can't agree with the guys above. I agree with Richard Barbieri (keyboards, Japan) that synths should come with no presets. I love Depeche Mode and I like the fact that they always (nearly) created a new sound for every song - that's dedication. I was always disappointed that when I finally worked through a Korg M1's presets it was like listening to each track of OMD's "sugar tax" album.

I think the "we'll just use presets and not learn to program" will do for synths what that attitude has done for video games; most people pop a cartridge in and haven't a clue what's happening. In the "home computer" days you could (if you wanted) learn how and why things worked.

Nothing wrong with presets - some are brilliant. However - we should cherish and nurture the knowledge behind creating new sounds (it isn't that hard after all).



Joe Trapanese said...

An interesting post I wrote a while back on analog synths and composers-

Joel said...

One thing I find very frustrating is how many synths don't even come with an "Init" patch.

Techmaster said...

One thing that is helpful, is to understand what is truly going on. To know how and why a synth makes the sounds it makes, helps you quickly get to the sounds you want in the future. You hear something in your head, you know patch 87 sounds close to what you want, so you go to that, and you know your sound had detuned oscillators, hmm that square should be a saw, there should be an ADSR on the filter's cutoff. Presets become a shortcut, like a macro that gets you 95% of the way there. But, you should take everything from a synth, and do everything you can to make it your own. You don't want people to hear something you did, and go "oh wow he's using a Juno." Unless you're using something with a LOT of character, like a 303. You're not going to make a 303 sound like anything but a 303. :) If you truly want to learn analog synthesis, I highly recommend getting into modular synthesizers. I've got 6U filled up with eurorack modules, and it is so fun to mess around with, especially for bass lines. My buddy is always getting to borrow his friend's Moog Voyager, and we love playing with it, but that Moog is hardwired and can't do 1/1,000,000th of what my modular can do. Of course Moog's strongest point is their oscillators, which are warmer than any other oscillator on the market.