Synth Buyer's Guide - Choosing the best in hardware & software


Synthesizers, or synths for short, have been a huge part of popular music for over fifty years. Simply turn on the radio or browse streaming music and it won't take long to hear songs showcasing programmed synths of all different types. Their presence has taken R&B, soul, and hip-hop in new directions, guided the creation of electronic dance music (EDM) and other exciting new musical genres, and shaped the artistic visions of musicians around the world. With today's selection of hardware and software synthesizers at your fingertips, the possibilities for generating new and exciting sounds are truly endless. But if you're new to the wild world of synths there are probably questions you'd like answered. What exactly is a synthesizer? What is all of this confusing terminology surrounding them and how does it apply to each different type? What should I use if I'm looking for a live performance instrument or a studio tool? This new Buyer's Guide from AMS will answer these questions and help you get started with the basics when it comes to all things synth.

Analog Synths

The earliest beginnings of the synthesizer can be traced way back to the late 19th century, when electrical engineers first discovered that basic single-note sounds could be generated from self-vibrating electromagnetic circuits. The invention of the vacuum tube made it easier to control and guide these electric currents, ushering in a new era for electronics. The decades that followed were full of experimentation, working to harness these electrical signals and sound they generated. When the earliest true synths were first developed in the 1960s, they looked like large and bulky pieces of electrical equipment, containing a number of separate sound generating modules that were connected by a series of patch bays and cables resembling an early telephone switchboard. These devices, called Modular Synthesizers, allowed you to connect different sound modules together and control each segment of audio and the filters and effects that modified them. It wasn't until the 1970s that the Moog "Minimoog" eliminated the need for a patch system by incorporating a keyboard module into a fully standalone analog synth, making it more portable and easier to use. Throughout the last 40 years, even with the advances into digital technology, analog devices continue to be used for their unique, authentic, and unmistakable sounds. Simply play with the integrated keyboard and a series of rotary knobs and toggle switches allow you to program and make adjustments. Here is a list of common terms that are associated with these synthesizers that will be help you understand the building blocks behind their use:

  • Oscillator – A repetitive system or vibration. In the case of an electronic synth, this is the basis of sound creation. An electronic signal is triggered and repeats.
  • Frequency – A measurable unit of sound that determines pitch, from low to high. Frequency is measured in hertz (Hz) and the normal audible range for humans is between 20-20,000 hz.
  • Additive Synthesis – Taking a single oscillator and combining additional oscillators of the same type. This changes the characteristic of the sound and was the earliest iteration of synthesis. This is often used with sinewaves, a pure type of sound signal that you'll recognize if you've undergone a hearing test.
  • Subtractive Synthesis – The process of removing elements of a complex, harmonic-rich oscillator to adjust the sonic characteristics of its tone. With subtractive synthesis, you can create swells, echo, sweeps, repetitive rhythmic patterns, and mixtures with other oscillators.
  • Envelope – A customizable "roadmap" that determines characteristics of a sound from the moment the sound is triggered until it is disengaged. A very common example is an ADSR Envelope, which controls the attack time, decay time, sustain level, and release time of an oscillator.
  • High-Pass Filter (HPF) – An adjustable control that lets high frequencies "pass through", eliminating a certain level of low frequency.
  • Low-Pass Filter (LPF) – An adjustable control that lets low frequencies "pass through", eliminating a certain level of high frequency.
  • Band-Pass Filer (BPF) – An adjustable control that narrows the frequency range to a small band and lets it "pass through", eliminating a certain level of all the remaining outside frequencies.
  • Monophonic – One tone at a time. The earliest analog synths were monophonic.
  • Polyphonic – Multiple voices, able to harmonize and create chords like a piano or other keyboard instrument. As the technology evolved, synths have been able to increase the number of polyphonic voices that could be stacked.
  • Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO) – An adjustable control that incorporates an ultra-low frequency pitch into a monophonic tone. The audible tone and the low frequency tone alternate, and since the LFO is practically inaudible, it creates a sort of rhythmic pulse as the two goes back and forth. The speed (velocity) and frequency of the LFO can be adjusted for a variety of patterns.

Analog synths are usually a bit more spendy, but their character is second to none. Since each model is constructed differently, the resulting tones they generate are very unique and have a personality of their own. They are the perfect live instrument to add to DJ sets, electronic music groups, and pop music genre acts. These terms and tips are just a start, and should be the perfect springboard into exploring the vast potential these machines have to offer.

Analog Emulation

Beginning in the late 1970s and into the early 80s, digital technology had spread into the musical world, finding its way into keyboards and instrument effect units. The earliest digital synthesizers were more or less a type of computer that used DSP (Digital Signal Processing) to recall sound and apply effects from internal memory after the keys of the keyboard were pressed. Incredibly expensive at first, the evolution of technology has led to increased capabilities, more features, consistent pitch accuracy, and a more affordable price over the course of decades of development. Today, modern "Analog Emulation" synthesizers have the power to capture the essence of a vintage analog synth at a much more affordable price. Many of these models boast a vast number of sounds in their internal memory and can be used as a stage instrument for piano, organ, electronic keyboard, and a number of synth types. Analog Emulation synths come in all shapes and sizes, some more limited to replicating specific vintage analog models while others are fully-loaded 88-key powerhouses that pack dozens of instruments into one amazing unit! On stage or in studio, more tonal possibilities and technology-friendly compatibility with computers and software are major breakthroughs for Analog Emulation synths.

Software Synths

Today's newest software gives you all of functionality of Analog Emulation hardware synthesizers while working conveniently with your laptop or desktop computer. Supporting both Windows and Mac operating systems, today's biggest names in programming software have packed sounds from every family of music into their newest bundles. You can pull up thousands of these pre-programmed sounds or build your very own from scratch. These "softsynths" serve as both the foundation for live performances and as valuable studio tools for producing exciting new music.

How does this software work?

Softsynth programs are often designed to look and function just like an actual hardware synthesizer module. When you open up the program, you'll see oscillators and effects displayed in an interface that looks like a modular, rackmount, or integrated keyboard unit. You'll see similar controls like the Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO) and High, Low, and Bandpass Filters. So how do you capture your sonic creations? When you're using a computer or device in a recording space, it all starts with a specific type of software called a digital audio workstation (DAW). A DAW is a full-fledged studio platform, allowing you to record, mix (setting the volume levels), and edit numerous tracks of vocals and instruments. Popular DAWs include Pro Tools by Avid, Studio One by PreSonus, and Cubase by Steinberg. Softsynth programs connect to these DAWs as "plug-ins," allowing you to use its specific programming capability and record as a digital instrument straight to your DAW. Some softsynth software, such as Ableton Live and Propellerheads Reason, contain their own internal DAW – giving you the ability to program sound and record other elements all-in-one!

So, which software is right for you?

It all depends on what you want to accomplish. If you're drawn towards crafting traditional musical arrangements using winds, strings, percussion, and voice (think band, orchestra, small ensembles, film, and media composition) or would like to add those specific sounds to your existing music, a piece of software like Native Instruments Komplete will provide you with thousands of authentic orchestral, instrumental, and vocal sounds that have been digitally sampled at the highest quality. For those who want to experiment, programs like Propellerheads Reason along with the Massive and Reaktor programs from Native Instruments Komplete often start you with a single, simple oscillator in the style of a synth and allow you to expand from there, programming a sound to your liking using the same parameters that are available on hardware synths. Ableton Live is one of the most popular tools for DJs and producers of electronic music, allowing you to record, build sounds, edit, and construct personalized remixes. Start simply, and as you become more comfortable with one platform, you'll find yourself adding other software programs to your collection and combining their power together!

Softsynths pack gigabytes of samples, presets, patches, and audio for your use. These programs give you control over everything, which means you can customize every single element of every sound. Make a bassline rumble at just the right frequency. Have a lead sweep up to the highest frequencies at a steady pace. Use your keyboard and mouse to edit or connect seamlessly with hardware keyboard controllers and touchpads to give you the same hands-on feel at the synth.