Intro To Synthesizers | A Beginner’s Guide

Prologue

When I was growing up and learning how to use DAW’s and keyboards, synthesizer was a word that meant preset to me. It was a plugin that I could pull up that made these electronic keyboard sounds. I took these sounds for granted. It never bothered me, or occurred to me to think that someone had to sit down with a synthesizer and make these presets. Fast forward to today as I have just begun my love affair with synths, and now I’m seeing these amazing instruments in a whole new light.

However, there is an understandable intimidation as you first approach a synth wether it be a soft synth (software based synth on a computer) or a hardware synth (physical synth sitting right in front of you). These things have buttons, switches, knobs, wheels, you name it! And like most people, I began by twisting, pushing, and sliding things at random just to see what would happen! But with a brief introduction to synthesizers, you can equip yourself with all the knowledge to need to make real meaningful choices as you move about your synthesizer. So, let’s get started!

Chapter 1 | VCO’s

Let’s start with Voltage-Controlled Oscillators (VCO). All sound on a synthesizer begins here. This is where you choose the initial character of your sound that you’re going to be shaping. They generally come in the from of 3 waveforms to choose from – Saw Wave (or sawtooth), Square Wave, and Triangle Wave.

Saw Wave 

Square waves are incredibly popular. They have a nice bold sound, but they can also be tamed, and you can just do a lot with them. You can create string or brass like sounds with them, and they’re great for leads.

Square Wave

Square waves are a lot of fun. You can create vintage video game like sounds with them.

Triangle Wave

Triangles waves don’t have a lot of high end harmonics; so, it’s a really relaxed sort of sound. A Triangle Wave is less aggressive and has an elegant dullness to it. This is a good change for woodwind like sound, and bass tones as well.

Mixing Waves Together | The Mixer Section

Once you’ve selected your starting VCO or waveform, depending on what synth you have, you can usually use another one to help craft and manipulate the sound. Most synths then offer a mixer section to precisely dial in how loud or soft you’d like each VCO to be.

Chapter 2 | Cutoff

The cutoff knob is where the magic starts to happen on a synth. This takes all of the high frequency information of your tone and rolls it off. So, start playing the synth and then roll that knob to the left and right, and you’ll hear frequencies disappear and reappear. You can also set it to a minimum value and grab the EG INT (Envelope Generator Intensity) knob and set that to a maximum value, and then we can play with it in the EG section coming up soon. The cutoff knob always reminds me of DJ’s as they create those sweeps in the music that makes the crowd go wild. Play the the cutoff knob, and you’ll see what I mean.

Chapter 3 | ADSR

This is where the magic REALLY starts to take shape. ADSR stands for Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release. This is where you can start sonically shaping exactly what you want your instrument to sound like. Let’s look at what each knob does.

Attack – How soon do I hear the sound when I press the key

Decay – How soon does the sound drop to the maximum sustain level after pressing the key

Sustain – How loud is the sound while I’m holding the key

Release – How quickly does the sound go away after I release the key

This is where you can begin to mimic real instruments if you want. If you want your synth to have a niente attack like a clarinet and crescendo to a nice loud volume, you can turn up the attack so the sound sweeps in, and then set your sustain nice and loud. If you want the sound to appear right away without delay, you can turn attack all the way down so that your hear it as soon as you strike the note. Perhaps you want the sound to stick around for a moment after you release the keys. Then try turning up the release. This is where you are going to have a ton of fun deciding exactly how you want to shape your sound.

Chapter 4 | EG

Now that you have ADSR down, you can put to work! Envelope Generators are how we use ADSR. You’ll find that synths generally have an amp envelope generator (AMP EG) or simply Envelope Generator (EG). Let’s look at AMP EG first.

AMP EG

What we are deciding here is what we want to happen with the sheer volume of our waveforms. How will they be amplified? Do we want the volume to be at its max as soon as we hit the key? Then let’s drop the attack to zero and crank the sustain. Do we want the sound to swell in and crescendo when we hit the key? Basically, everything we talked about with ADSR is going to relate to the amplified volume under the AMP EG section.

EG

This section here is truly magical. Remember when we talked about setting the cutoff to a minimum value and setting the EG INT knob to a maximum value? This is where you reap the benefit of that work. Now you can put ADSR to work in how the filtered sound is going to come into the mix. Do you want the sound so sound dull and then crescendo into brightness? Then set a low cutoff, high EG INT, set the attack to how quickly you want it to swell and then BAM! In some synths you can market the EG towards different things such as cutoff, pitch, or shape. At first watch and read, these can sound confusing. It just takes some time and practice and it will all start to make sense. So, have of a twist of these knobs and see all the magic that’s in store for your synth.

Chapter 5 | LFO

Another great tool to shaping your sound is utilizing a Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO). Before this, we were using our VCO waveforms which we can obviously hear with our ears. An LFO is a nice big sound wave that you can’t hear. When you introduce this to your signal, you get more of a rhythmic effect to your tone. I like starting with square waves because I think it’s the easiest example to hear what’s happening right away with an LFO. So at this point, you’ve chosen your VCO’s, you’ve set nice parameters with your cutoff, you’ve shaped your AMP EG and EG so that your sound swells exactly how you like it, and now with the LFO you have a nice rhyming pulse or otherwise as you hold down the key. Truly amazing stuff.

Chapter 6 | Final Tips

 

Some synths offer some final knobs and switches to play with. In this case I was using a Korg prologue. This synth has some effects at the end of the line such as reverb, delay, and modulation which can really add some final shimmer to your incredible synth patch. You can also utilize keytracking on some synths which makes decision on resonance as you climb up and down the keyboard. Some synths have compression, and overdrive, and all sorts of other things that you can explore to help craft your sound.

Epilogue

I hope this introduction has given you a new found confidence to take on the world of synthesizers head on! Music is this wonderful language that has so many moving parts. A synthesizer is a tool that can help you understand these parts and shape them as you see fit. No matter what your primary instrument it, you’ll definitely benefit from sitting down with a synth occasionally and creating a new sonic world for yourself. Be brave, be bold, and enjoy exploring the new frontier as you break ground on the land called synth.

Check Out Some Synths with the Link Below


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Dave Stutts
Dave Stutts is a native of the greater Hampton Roads area of Virginia. He received his Bachelors of Music degree in Theory & Composition from the prestigious Christopher Newport University music school. He is a music composer living and working in New York City. He specializes in orchestral/symphonic work as well as pop and digital music. His scoring work has ranged from Chamber Ensemble pieces (String Quartets/Brass Quintets), larger ensembles compositions (Wind Ensemble/Symphony Orchestra/String Orchestra), as well as short film and video game work.He is also a songwriter and a regular gigging musician in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. He refers to his style as Pop/Rock and Blues. His musical career began when he started playing guitar at age 5. He later progressed to Bass in middle school, Drums in High School, and finally Percussion and Piano in college. When asked, he has cited Michael Giacchino, Hans Zimmer, and John Williams as his major film and video game inspirations, and John Mayer as his primary pop inspiration.