Introduction: Roots of the Synthesizer in Popular Music

The synthesizer has always possessed a bit of side-show mystique. Without a mechanical sound source—no strings, no reeds—the synthesizer seemingly conjures electrons out of the ether; squeezes them, shapes them, and broadcasts them via loudspeakers as new, unworldly sounds. And indeed, many of the early electronic musical instruments kept this esoteric aura alive. From Thaddeus Cahill’s 200-ton Telharmonium (1897) to Leon Theremin’s namesake invention (1928), these early electronic music machines were puzzling to the basic observer. But their development led to the creation of the instrument we know and love—the synthesizer. Take a moment before you browse through all of the synthesizers available at Sam Ash to enjoy this brief History of the Synthesizer and Synthesizer Buyer’s Guide to learn more about choosing the best synthesizer for your musical style and personality.

What is a Synthesizer?

Simply put, the synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument composed of modules—Oscillators, Filters, Envelope Generators, Modulation sources, etc.—that perform the same functions as the individual components of a traditional instrument. Let’s use the violin as an example. When bowed or plucked, the string oscillates back and forth, creating a pitched sound [Oscillator]. The resonance of the wood, the density of the lacquer, and the shape and size of the body give this sound its tone [Filter]. The motion and pressure of the bow across the string determine the changes in timbre and articulation over time [Envelope Generators]. Slight gestures of the fingers holding the strings on the fingerboard introduce vibrato [Modulation].

The First Synthesizers

In the early days of the synthesizer, each of these modules was a separate component. Modules were connected to one another using patch cords to carry either audio or control voltage signals. This was the era of the analog modular synthesizer. In 1968, Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind put the Moog analog modular synthesizer firmly on the map with the release of Switched on Bach. Listeners were treated to a familiar work, recreated using a rich tapestry of unique timbres in a truly musical context. The next year (1969) saw the release of Gershon Kingsley’s Popcorn, bringing the unique sound of the modular synthesizer into the pop world. By 1970, Keith Emerson’s Lucky Man solo, performed on the modular Moog, had established the synthesizer as a mainstream instrument.

Moog Music's Early Modular Analog Synthesizer
Moog Music’s Early Modular Analog Synthesizer

The next step in synthesizer development was the semi-modular synthesizer—such as the Arp 2600—where frequently used audio and control pathways were hard-wired together; user adjustable cable patch points then allowed these pathways to be modified or bypassed. But it was the integrated synthesizers that followed—the Minimoog, the Arp Odyssey, etc.—that finally allowed nearly any musician to take control of this new and evolving technology. Integrated Synthesizers featured a keyboard that was connected to an analog synth engine which allowed a level of portability not available on the earlier modular versions. These integrated synthesizers continued to fuel innovations in Prog-Rock pyrotechnics, the steady synthetic Disco beat, New Wave pop, modern Jazz explorations, electronic-tinged Funk and Fusion, compelling Motion Picture Soundtracks—nearly every conceivable music genre.

Korg recently released a reissue of the legendary ARP ODYSSEY "Integrated Synthesizer"
Korg recently released a reissue of the legendary ARP ODYSSEY “Integrated Synthesizer”

The Keyboard Revolution and the Birth of the Workstation

As more keyboard players and producers began to embrace the synthesizer, keyboards quickly evolved to include more polyphony, push-button programmability, dynamic keybeds, and newer digital sound creation techniques—additive harmonics; FM Digital; Vector Synthesis and Wave sequencing; Sample/ROM playback, etc. By 1987, instruments such as the Korg M1 had combined a multi-track sequencer, drum machine, effects, and a multi-timbral synthesizer into a single entity known as the keyboard workstation. The workstation category ruled the keyboard world for decades, creating a new generation of producers and artists, as well as generating lavish stage productions and aiding the genesis of the project studio.

Korg's Kronos is one of today’s most popular workstations
Korg’s Kronos is one of today’s most popular workstations

The Synthesizer Renaissance

Even in the glory days of the workstation, there was a feeling of nostalgia for the immediacy of hands-on control and the punchy warmth of an analog sound engine, and the synthesizer began to re-emerge. Starting with the standardization of the Eurorack , the modular approach to synthesis was now available in a convenient format. Some manufactures also released true analog synthesizers to address the demand for the warm analog tone that had become a trademark of vintage synths. Others opted for using digital technology to recreate the behavior and sonic signature of an analog instrument, providing a rich array of real-time controls—albeit with the convenience and accuracy of digital readouts and menu options. This category of synthesizers has become known as Analog Emulation Synthesizers. In addition, the soft-synth (or software synthesizer) began to appear. These software instruments could run as stand-along instruments, or they could live and operate inside the new breed of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) platforms like Pro Tools that power the modern digital recording studio. On screen, theses soft-synths recreated the familiar look of classic instruments—complete with tweakable knob icons and more. This lead to the advent of MIDI Controller keyboards, which transmitted MIDI data to the soft synth over USB. MIDI controllers offer the perfect complement to a computer-based studio and offer interactive tactile control over software.

Roland's JD-XI is an Analog/Digital Crossover Synthesizer that combines the best of both worlds
Roland’s JD-XI is an Analog/Digital Crossover Synthesizer that combines the best of both worlds

Why You Should Buy a Synthesizer

The fact is, the synthesizer is back, and is better than ever. We play our instruments to express ourselves; the more proficient we become as musicians, the more passion we can pour into our playing. And in the end, the mark of a great performance is not just the notes, but how the performer played the notes. The synthesizer was originally created as a soloing instrument; an add-on instrument for the performing piano/electric piano and organ player. Then as now, the monophonic (one note at a time) design proved ideal. As one hand plays the keyboard, the other hand is available to tweak the knobs and sliders in real-time during performance; the addition of modulation wheels, joysticks, bend levers, and second-touch (what we now call aftertouch) key-sensing endow the synthesizer incredible dexterity compared to other keyboard instruments. Arpeggiators, step-sequencers, and onboard effects allow today’s synthesizers to be more self-contained and to expand on the capabilities of their revered ancestors. The synthesizer of today is ripe for taking a soaring solo to a new dimension, or for adding a polyphonic signature sound to the mix. In addition, the micro-instruments like the Korg Minilogue and the Moog Sub Phatty that have appeared as a subset of the category have allowed electronic musicians and DJs to integrate new hardware into their onstage setups. In the studios and dance clubs, the re-emergence of the synthesizer ushered in the latest era of the Electronic Dance movement.


Choosing Your Next Synthesizer

There are plenty of synthesizers out there—so how does one choose wisely? Begin by asking yourself a few questions and answering them honestly. This can help you determine what your needs are, what features you yearn for, and how you will be using the synthesizer. Armed with that information, you can take a critical look at all of the models available and make an educated choice.

How will you use your new Synthesizer?

The answer is probably a million different ways—every way you can think of! But consider a few choices right off the bat.

Live or Studio? On stage, you will want an instrument that is easy to operate as you go from sound to sound, and as you tweak and edit the settings in performance. Keep in mind that stages and clubs are notorious for challenging lighting and poor visibility. In addition to choosing a synthesizer light in weight and easily transportable, make sure you will be comfortable taking this instrument to show after show. Battery power is available on a few models if that type of mobility is important to you. For studio use, look for any extras available for interfacing with other gear—clock out/in jacks, MIDI, USB-MIDI, CV/Gate, etc.

Will this be your only synth? If this is your first synth, or will be the only synthesizer in your setup, you may want to look for an onboard sequencer or programmable arpeggiator that will allow you to get a rhythmic pattern going that you can play along to. Maybe you are not a keyboard player at all, and just want to own a synthesizer for composing or introducing new sounds to your live performance. If you are adding this synthesizer to your existing rig, give some thought to what types of sounds and abilities are lacking in your current rig, and think about how each model would both fit in and augment your setup. Think about how much you need this synthesizer to do, in order to bring your performance up to the next level.

What kind of sounds will you be using? Again, this may seem a bit obvious. The type of music you play—the style, the genre—can have a great effect on your instrument choice. You may be looking to just add some punchy synth bass sounds and a few leads to your cover band. Here, choosing a synth with a large number of great presets may be important. Maybe you will be relying on your new synthesizer for great pads, strings, horns, and other rich sonic backing. If you plan to create original atmospheres and stylized sounds for your compositions, look for an instrument with more controllers and deeper programmability—not to mention more modulation sources, destinations, and types.

Is computer integration a big part of how you work? For some musicians, the computer is the heart of their studio. For many live performers, the computer can change programs, organize patches, and run sequence files with clockwork precision. Others may use the computer to tweak the sounds in their synthesizers; some may not use the computer at all. The point is, nearly all synthesizers provide some level of computer support and interaction—saving programs, graphic editing, etc. Software synthesizers obviously rely on the computer to power their programs and to run the DAW program that will play host to the plug-in versions of these soft-synths. There are also other emulation instruments that benefit from a higher level of computer interaction. For example, certain Arturia hybrid synthesizers and Roland “plug-out” products enhance the capabilities of the instrument through computer interaction. Knowing how the computer will integrate with your new synthesizer and your current gear can help to guide your decision-making process.

Know your budget. The time to set your gear-buying budget is before you start to shop. Knowing how much you are willing to spend can help you to look a little deeper to find the right features without busting your budget. Don’t forget, you may be eligible for a Sam Ash Credit Card to finance for your purchase over time—without tying up your household credit.


Synthesizer Round Up

Sam Ash has the top brands and the latest models of synthesizers to quell your cravings. We’ve highlighted a few Analog Synthesizers and a handful of Analog Emulation models to get you started.

Analog Synthesizers

Analog Synthesizers are the real deal; the oscillator output, filtering and audio output (VCA) sections take place in the analog domain—although digital effects may have been added. Analog synthesizers of today provide the authentic punch and warmth you’d expect, plus enhanced tuning stability and other improvements.

 

5

Moog Sub Phatty: The Sub Phatty honors its Moog heritage with all manner of modern innovations. The oscillators require little or no time to achieve stable tuning. The new Multidrive circuitry begins with the traditional Moog overdrive warmth, and then goes beyond, providing a highly interactive drive circuit that can really get things screaming. The mixer section offers an independent sub-oscillator to really beef up the low end response. It all adds up to one gritty little synth with tons of punch.

25 full-size keys • 16 User Programs • MIDI • USB/MIDI • Editor/Librarian (Download)

 

6

Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 12: Introduced in 1979, the original Prophet 5 delivered the sound that powered the 80s and beyond. The Prophet 12 carries that legacy forward with unbelievable sound and perhaps the most robust voice architecture of any analog synthesizer. Each voice offers four oscillators plus a sub oscillator. Both high pass and low-pass analog filters are provided. The onboard arpeggiator and bi-timbral operation allow this single instrument to generate massive amounts of sound. In addition to extensive modulation capabilities, the Prophet 12 introduces a new Character control, with wave shaping and options such as Drive, Hack, Decimation, Girth, and Air.

61 full size keys • 396 Presets/396 User Programs • MIDI • USB/MIDI

 

7

Arturia MatrixBrute: Arturia payed close attention to the analog legacy of one-knob-per-function when they created the analog MatrixBrute. One of the standout features—both visually and operationally—is the amazing 16 x 16 matrix modulation panel. In addition to providing point-to-point push-button modulation routing, this panel also delivers instant patch selection and offers enhanced step-sequencer/arpeggiator control. The Brute Factor knob packs plenty of punch, and analog effects—five in all—add a finishing touch. The filter section features both an updated Nyle Steiner design and the legacy ladder filter. Offers mono, paraphonic, and duo-split voice modes.

49 full size keys• 256 User Programs • MIDI • USB/MIDI • CV & Gate I/O

 

8

Korg Minilogue: The four-voice Korg minilogue is fun to play and easy to use. The main screen doubles as a waveform/oscilloscope display, providing valuable feedback on waveshape and content. Voice Mode options include Poly, Mono, Dou, Unison, Chord, Delay, Arp, and Sidechain for maximum versatility. The analog sound engine is enhanced by on onboard polyphonic step and motion sequencer plus a tape-echo style delay effect. The assignable slider offers real-time control of a different parameter from program to program. The switchable filter provides both two-pole (±12 dB) and four-pole (± 24 dB) options.

37 slim keys • 200 User Programs • MIDI • USB/MIDI • Sync I/O • Librarian Software & Soundpacks


Analog Emulation Synthesizers

Emulated Analog Synthesis endeavors to provide the best of both worlds. On the surface, they feature the hands-on real-time control of a traditional analog synthesizer. Inside, Emulation synthesizers rely on advanced circuit modeling technology to deliver sound faithful to analog designs while providing performance that opens new doors and new sound techniques.

 

9

Roland SYSTEM-1: Part of Roland’s AIRA line of emulated analog products; the SYSTEM-1 features their exclusive Analog Circuit Behavior technology to coax analog characteristics out of a digital circuit. Unique innovations include the Crusher knob to add a modern edge to the sound, and a Scatter section to augment the arpeggiator functions. Perhaps the most amazing feature of the STSTEM-1 is the Plug Out mode. Unlike software programs that host new software synthesizers, the SYSTEM-1 can host downloadable classic Roland synthesizers, such as the SH-101, and access and play emulations of sounds from that particular instrument without the computer present.

25 non-velocity keys • 8 User Programs • MIDI • USB/MIDI • Hosts “Plug Out” synths

 

10

Roland JP08 Sound Module Part of the Roland Boutique series, the JP-08 Sound module evokes Roland’s legendary JUPITER 8 synth in an ultra-portable footprint. The 4-voice JP-08 features a front panel array of 36 knobs/sliders for hands on control of your sound. At the heart of the JP-08 is Roland’s proprietary Analog Circuit Behaviour technology. This provides the JP-08 with the authentic sounds of its analog predecessor with additional benefits like TRI and NOISE waveforms for the LFO and expanded range VCO’s. The JP-08 also features an on board step sequencer and ribbon controls for quick sound previews. The JP-08 works great with Roland’s optional K-25m Keyboard unit. However, if you are looking for a more portable setup, the JP-08 can be powered by AA batteries and contains a built in speaker for sharing your creations on the fly.

16 Step Sequencer • 36 Knobs/Sliders •MIDI•USB/MIDI• Battery Power

 

11

Novation UltraNova: Part of Novation’s NOVA series, the UltraNova employs sophisticated analog modeling and a generous 36 wavetables to form the basis of the Nova sound. Create sounds as basic or as complex as you desire. Eight touch-sensitive encoders (plus a dedicated filter knob) offer oodles of real-time, hands-on control. In addition to the onboard effects and arpeggiator, the UltraNova also features a built-in 12-band vocoder—microphone included! Providing close computer support, the UltraNova includes a plug-in editor and a Software Librarian. Also built-in is a USB audio interface offering 2 inputs and 4 outputs.

37 full size keys • 300 Programs • MIDI • USB/MIDI & Audio • SPDIF Co-Ax output • Soundpacks

 

12

Korg microKORG: First unleashed back in 2002, the microKORG continues to remain one of the most popular analog modeling/analog emulation synthesizers ever. In addition to analog modeling, the microKORG features 68 wavetables taken from the popular Korg DW-8000 synthesizer of days gone by. The unique arpeggiator allows individual steps to be turned on an off to create new rhythmic variation. There are three onboard effects, plus a built-in 8-band vocoder and includes an attachable gooseneck microphone and an exclusive formant hold feature. This four-voice synth even offers split-dual operation to create two tones at a time

37 mini keys • 128 Programs • MIDI • Sound Editor/Librarian (Download)


More about Soft Synths and Plug-Ins

We’ve already touched briefly on Software Synthesizers, Plug-Ins, and Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) Recording packages as part of our soft synth discussion, but let’s go back and review some of the concepts and learn a bit more.

DAW Programs

The Digital Audio Workstation is a software program that performs nearly all of the functions of a traditional recording studio, but inside the computer. By outfitting the computer with an audio interface, the DAW program can record, overdub, and perform the precision of editing audio data, changing the timing, pitch, and articulation of an individual note in a way that a traditional studio can only dream of. Rather than cluttering a real studio with expensive hardware effects to process the sound, the DAW can instead host effect “plug-ins” that mimic the sound and application of these effects. The same hold true with synthesizers. Rather than sending MIDI data to an external hardware synthesizer and recording that audio, the DAW can host a software version of the synthesizer inside the computer using a plug-in software synthesizer. In addition to DAWS that try to replicate the linear recording of a traditional studio, newer DAW packages such as Ableton and FL Studio (Formerly Fruity Loops) take advantage of the computer to create new formats for composing and creating music using shorter patterns, clips and loops.

Software Synthesizers

The development of software synthesizers (soft-synths; virtual instruments) allowed manufacturers to create an instrument and bring it to market quickly and in an inexpensive format. The software relied on the computers CPU to power the program. The time and expense of designing the cabinet; loading all the hardware sliders, knobs, and jacks; and adding a keyboard could be eliminated. Some software synthesizers came from innovative software companies, other programs came from established hardware manufacturers. For example, Korg created their Component Modeling Technology to replicate how virtual components would behave when laid out to follow the original circuits of their own classic analog synthesizers—Polysix, MS-20—and created convincing soft-synth versions of these coveted instruments.

Stand-Alone Software

Stand-alone software synthesizers function independently. Load them in and the host computer transforms into that instrument, providing virtual on-screen knobs and sliders and generating the sound accordingly. Multiple stand-alone software instruments can be loaded into the same computer at once, and they can be addressed on individual MIDI channels, but it may be challenging to keep everything working in concert. One solution was the software plug-in.

Plug-In Software

Rather than using the computer alone to host a software synthesizer, the plug-in format allows the DAW already running on the computer to host the virtual instrument. The DAW recreates a studio environment, so now the software synthesizer is an embedded part of the virtual studio, not just a program running on the same computer. For the computer-based musician, this has enormous advantages. The plug-in synthesizer can be assigned directly to a track (or tracks) inside the DAW. The DAW can record incoming MIDI control signals—or even mouse movements—that are adjusting and tweaking the software synthesizer’s parameters in real time. These tweaks will be played back perfectly every time. Parameter adjustments can be overdubbed and edited to play a virtual analog synthesizer with uncanny precision as part of the greater DAW playback and performance. The processing power of the computer is the main limitation to how many plug-in instruments and plug-in effects can be hosted simultaneously.

 

Screen Grab of Arturia’s Collection V Soft Synths
Screen Grab of Arturia’s Collection V Soft Synths

Plug-In Software Suites

Software manufacturers will often create “Suites” containing multiple software instruments and effects that are themselves part of one larger plug-in. Native Instruments Komplete production suite is a treasure trove of virtual synthesizers, effects, and sampled instruments that can be hosted inside nearly any popular DAW system. Likewise, Arturia V Collection 5 features a legendary collection of classic synths and keyboards. With Arturia’s proprietary TAE algorithmic modeling, all of your modulations and tweaks have an authentic and dynamic response. These programs—along with all of the synthesizers mentioned above—are available now at SamAsh.com or at any of our Sam Ash music stores across the United States.

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Matthew Stone
Now in his 15th year with Sam Ash Music. Matt DJ’d throughout High School and College to help him pay for recording gear. Saxophone, Trumpet, Clarinet, and French horn player who is familiar with most Band and Orchestral instruments. Matt’s a terrible drummer who loves electronic drums, because they’re easier to fix in software. Keyboards, drum machines, samplers, multi-track recorders and sequencers are his favorites, but he’s comfortable with most DAW’s. If it’s got buttons, Matt has pushed them.