What is a synthesizer?

A synthesizer (or synth for short) is an electronic-based instrument that is able to generate audio signals. These signals are then processed and converted into sounds. The sounds they produce are wide-ranging and depending on the users’ experience, the possibilities are endless.

Synthesizers can imitate traditional instruments, like the piano or violin, natural sounds such as the ocean or innovative electronic sounds that are beyond the realm of standard music.

The most common synthesizers come with built-in keyboards of varying sizes, from as little as 25-key to the full 88-key designs. You can also control the synthesizer via many other external devices, such as sequencers, instrument controllers and electronic drum machines.

Synthesizers don’t always have built-in controllers, they can also be connected to individual sound modules via MIDI, USB or CV/gate connectors. Setups can range from one or two sound modules to larger experimental layouts with many modules and controllers patched together.

Synthesizers use several different methods to create sounds. The most common and popular method is called subtractive synthesis, in simple terms this method creates new sounds by using various features and functions to remove specific frequencies from the original sound.

Other methods of synthesis include additive synthesis, frequency modulation synthesis, wavetable synthesis, physical modeling synthesis, sample-based synthesis and also phase distortion synthesis.

Synthesizers are able to create these weird and wonderful sounds by using the various functions and features that are built inside of them. The number of features and options will vary with each synthesizer and brand, ranging from simple handheld devices to the very complex.

In summary, the oscillators generate the audio signal and these are the beating heart of the synth. The signal is then passed through onboard filters and effects that will eventually exit the synth in the form of sound, all shaped and crafted by you and the settings you decide on.

The first synthesizers to be used in pop music occurred in the 1960s, from where they grew in popularity and now with the capabilities of modern technology, they are used across all different genres of music and audio production settings.

Nowadays there are many different types of synthesizers from monophonic, polyphonic, analog, digital and software emulators. They all produce a certain style of sound and they all have their advantages and disadvantages, so finding the right synth for your personal requirement is key.

The world of synthesizers is continuously growing and getting ever more popular, mainly due to the fact that the limits are only defined by the users’ creativity. The synthesizer is a very modest looking instrument, but underneath lies a very powerful beast waiting to be explored.