Types of Synthesizers Explained

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Synthesizers are vital tools in music production and sound design. They help create unique sounds. There are many types of synthesizers, each with their own unique sound generation methods and characteristics.

There are analog synthesizers that have a warm, touch-sensitive response. There are also digital ones that offer a wide range of sound possibilities. Now, we even have hybrid and modular types. Choosing one can be both complex and interesting.

We also need to think about the ongoing discussion between traditional hardware synthesizers and software-based ones.

This detailed analysis will give you a strong understanding of synthesizers. It will equip you with the knowledge to make good choices in your journey of music production.

Let’s dive in.

Analog Synthesizers

Analog Synthesizers are the original sound generation systems. They use changing electrical voltages to make unique sounds. This gives musicians a rich and detailed sound to work with. These synthesizers have a classic look and a special way of shaping sounds with a tricky voltage control system.

The heart of these instruments is their oscillator types, mainly the Voltage-Controllable Oscillator (VCO) and the Noise Generator. These parts make the basic sounds, which are tweaked using more analog circuits.

Voltage-Controllable Filters (VCFs) and Voltage-Controllable Amplifiers (VCAs) are important in this process. They let musicians change the tone color and volume of the sound. This gives them a wide range of sounds to create with.

This often leads to the warm and fast sounds tied with these instruments. The filter traits can change a lot from one synthesizer to another, adding to the unique voice of each instrument.

A Vintage Analog Synthesizer

There’s a growing interest in analog synthesizers again. This has brought the classic look back into modern music making. It combines old-style tones with new sound design abilities.

Even with new digital technology, the hands-on experience and detailed control from analog synthesizers keep musicians interested. This shows their lasting place in the world of sound.

Learn more about how analog synthesizers work in this deep dive.

Digital Synthesizers

The 1980s saw the rise of digital synthesizers. These special computers used digital technology to create a wide variety of sounds, many of which couldn’t be made with old-style analog synthesizers. The codes they used turned what people played into a whole range of different sounds, which opened up new possibilities in sound design.

Digital synthesizers can easily connect with other electronic instruments and software thanks to MIDI integration. This has made them popular in live performances and recording studios.

When it comes to sound effects, digital synthesizers are better than analog ones.

They have more built-in effects like reverb, delay, distortion, and modulation that can be used in real-time. This lets musicians and sound designers create unique sounds and moods.

Yamaha DX 7 Digital Synth

People can play digital synthesizers in different ways, from regular keyboard playing to new methods like touch-sensitive pads, ribbon controllers, and motion sensors.

Plus, people can make and save their own sounds, which makes these instruments even more expressive.

Learn all about how digital synthesizers work in this deep-dive guide.

Analog Modeling Synthesizers

In the ’90s and early 2000s, people rediscovered the great sounds of old-school analog synths. This led to the birth of virtual analog or analog modeling synths. These are digital synths, but they mimic the old analog ones. So, musicians get to enjoy both the digital and analog worlds.

When it comes to making sound, analog modeling synths act like subtractive synthesis systems. They use digital models of different oscillator types, like sawtooth, square, and triangle waves, like the ones found in old analog synths.

Digital filters act like analog filters, changing the sound’s character by boosting or lowering certain frequencies. They give the warm, full sound people love in analog synths.

In short, analog modeling synths give you the best of both worlds. They have the versatility of digital tech and the unique sound traits of analog synths. That’s why many musicians and producers today choose them.

Software Synthesizers

Software synthesizers are virtual musical instruments that exist in a computer. Computer programmers use coding languages to mimic the sound generating characteristics of traditional hardware synthesizers. It’s all logic, math and algorithms.

These virtual synths (also known as VST Synths) are affordable, easily fit into any Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), and can be carried wherever you go.

Their digital nature lets them use any type of digital synthesis, from virtual analog to wavetable synthesis. This gives a wide range of sounds to play with.

Because they are virtual, software synthesizers are a cost-effective choice for those starting out in music production. They don’t need to be physically made or shipped, which makes them cheaper.

software wavetable synth

Even though they are digital, software synthesizers can work with MIDI controllers. This gives musicians a physical way to interact with the software. This setup makes live shows more exciting and makes sound design tactile, which can boost creativity.

Thanks to modern computers’ processing power and smart DSP techniques, these virtual tools can copy old-school hardware, make new types of synthesis, and change sound in ways not possible with physical instruments.

Learn all about software synthesizers in this guide.

Hybrid Synthesizers

As great as digital technology has become – for both hardware and software synths – there’s still something missing from the overall warmth and character of digital sounds that analog synths are coveted for.

Enter hybrid synthesizers

Hybrid synthesizers combine the best features of both analog and digital tech. They give you the warm, full sound of analog, but with the exact control of digital. This blend opens up new doors for making unique sounds. You can’t get these with just analog or digital gear, alone.

These synthesizers also shine when it comes to performance. The mix of digital control and analog sound lets you create a huge variety of sounds. You can mimic the subtle sounds of traditional instruments or make cutting-edge electronic music.

Korg Prologue Hybrid Synth

Hybrid synthesizers also connect easily with other gear. Many models have both MIDI and CV/Gate plugs. This means they work well with all sorts of digital and analog equipment. They’re a great choice for any modern music studio.

When it comes to the user interface, hybrid synthesizers strike a good balance. They mix the hands-on feel of analog devices with the visual cues of digital ones. This makes them easy and fun to use.

Learn more about hybrid synthesizers in this guide.

Modular Synthesizers

Modular synthesizers are a type of electronic instrument that creates a wide range of sounds by manipulating electrical signals.

They are called “modular” because they are composed of separate, interchangeable modules that each perform a specific function.

These functions can include creating sound waves, modifying those waves, and controlling how they are played.

Here’s a simplified breakdown of how they work:

  1. Sound Generation: The sound in a modular synthesizer begins in a module called an oscillator. This module generates a raw sound wave. Different waveforms have distinct tonal characteristics, meaning they sound different to our ears.
  2. Sound Shaping: After the oscillator generates the sound, other modules can modify it. For example, a filter can remove certain frequencies from the sound, changing its timbre. An amplifier controls the volume of the sound. An envelope generator can shape a sound by controlling how quickly it starts, sustains, and ends.
  3. Control: The last key part of a modular synthesizer is the control modules. These can include keyboards, sequencers, or other devices that determine when and how the sounds are played. For instance, a keyboard module can control the pitch of the oscillator, while a sequencer can create a series of notes that play automatically in a loop.
  4. Patch Cables: These are used to connect the modules together in a process known as “patching”. By changing the patching, you can achieve a wide range of different sounds. This is where the real power and versatility of modular synthesizers come from.
A Closeup of a Modular Synth Setup With Patch Cables

The beauty of modular synthesis is that the musician has the freedom to connect any module to any other, creating an almost infinite variety of sounds. These various modules can be either analog, digital or hybrid.

Learn more about modular synthesizers in this guide.

Semi-Modular Synthesizers

Semi-Modular Synthesizers are a subset of modular ones. Both have some key differences in terms of flexibility, complexity, and connectivity.

  1. Structure: A modular synthesizer is a type of synthesizer consisting of separate specialized modules. These modules are connected together by the user to create a customized setup. This allows for a high degree of flexibility and customization, but it also means that a modular synthesizer can be more complex and difficult to use than a semi-modular synthesizer.
  2. Flexibility: On the other hand, a semi-modular synthesizer is a synthesizer with a fixed architecture with some aspects that can be re-routed or manipulated via patch cables. This gives you a balance of flexibility and ease of use. You can use it right out of the box without patching anything, but you also have the option to experiment with patching to create unique sounds.
  3. Connectivity: Modular synthesizers use a system of patch cables to connect and manipulate different sound modules, allowing for a virtually unlimited number of combinations. Semi-modular synthesizers also have patch points, but they also have pre-wired pathways, making them easier to navigate for beginners.
  4. Complexity: Modular synthesizers are usually more complex and harder to master, as you need to understand signal flow and the function of each module to get the desired sound. Semi-modular synthesizers are usually simpler and more approachable, as they have a pre-defined architecture that can guide the user to the expected sound.

Essentially, modular synthesizers are for people who want complete control and customization over their sound and don’t mind the complexity and cost. Semi-modular synthesizers are for people who want some degree of control and customization but also value simplicity and cost-effectiveness.

Monophonic vs. Polyphonic

Monophonic and polyphonic synthesizers are two different types of synthesizers that fundamentally differ in the way they generate and play sounds.

Monophonic synthesizers can only play one note at a time.

This means if you press multiple keys on the keyboard simultaneously, the synthesizer will only produce the sound of one note—usually the last note that’s been pressed.

This characteristic makes monophonic synthesizers ideal for bass lines and lead melodies where only a single note is required at a time. Their simplicity makes them a good starting point for beginners as they are easier to understand and manage.

On the other hand, polyphonic synthesizers can play multiple notes simultaneously. If you press several keys at the same time, the synthesizer will generate the sound of all the pressed notes, allowing for the creation of chords and complex harmonies.

This makes polyphonic synthesizers more versatile and capable of producing rich, layered sounds. However, they are generally more complex and may be harder for beginners to grasp.

Considerations When Choosing

When choosing between monophonic and polyphonic synthesizers, several considerations need to be taken into account. Firstly, think about what kind of music you want to create.

If you’re interested in producing music with a lot of chord progressions and harmonies, then a polyphonic synthesizer might be better for you. However, if you want to focus on creating strong lead lines or bass sequences, a monophonic synthesizer could be more suitable.

Secondly, consider your level of expertise. If you’re a beginner, a monophonic synthesizer is a simpler option that could help you understand the basics of sound synthesis before moving on to a more complex polyphonic model.

Lastly, budget is also an important consideration as polyphonic synthesizers are usually more expensive than their monophonic counterparts due to their added capabilities.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some of the most common questions people have about the various types of synthesizers out there to choose from.

How Does the Learning Curve Differ Between Various Types of Synthesizers?

The learning curve varies among synthesizers, with analog versus digital presenting distinct challenges. Understanding synth filters, oscillators, interfaces, and modular synthesis basics is crucial across types, yet complexity and user-friendliness can significantly differ.

Are There Any Specific Maintenance Requirements for Different Types of Synthesizers?

Yes, maintenance requirements for synthesizers involve cleaning techniques, use of protective gear, damage prevention, and potential repair costs. Regular maintenance can significantly prolong a synthesizer’s lifespan and ensure optimal performance.

What Are the Key Factors to Consider When Choosing Between a Monophonic and a Polyphonic Synthesizer?

When choosing between monophonic and polyphonic synthesizers, consider the monophonic’s versatility and the polyphonic’s complexity. Evaluate synth selection criteria like sound quality comparison and synth functionality to make an informed decision.

Can the Same Sounds Be Achieved on All Types of Synthesizers, or Are Certain Sounds Unique to Specific Types?

Certain sounds are unique to specific types of synthesizers due to different sound modulation techniques. Brands vary in quality and price, influencing the synthesizer’s role in music. Analog and digital synthesis also produce distinct sounds.

What Are Some Common Mistakes or Misconceptions Beginners Have When Starting to Use Synthesizers?

Common beginner mistakes with synthesizers include misunderstanding oscillators, struggling with synth programming basics, overproducing sounds, not fully exploring patch cables’ capabilities, and not mastering the understanding of envelope shapes for sound modulation.

What to Do Next

Thanks for reading this post about the different types of synthesizers out there. Next up, deep-dive into another area you’d like to learn about:

  • Analog vs. Digital Sound Synthesis In-Depth – Read Now
  • Types of Sound Synthesis Techniques – Read Now
  • How Software Sound Synthesis Works – Read Now