How Do Analog Synths Work? Beginners Guide & Tips

All synths, irrespective of their brands, consist of a handful of essential components that work together to create a sound.  These components include an oscillator to generate waveform and alter its pitch, an amplifier to control the signal volume, a modulator to produce effects, and a filter to change the timbre by carving out specific wave frequencies.

What is a Synthesizer?

A synthesizer is an instrument that generates sounds electrically instead of mechanically. These sounds can then be manipulated to provide an unlimited amount of sweet sonic solutions. The value of a synthesizer lies in the fact that you can generate any instrument sound using a single source.

Add trumpets, violins, bass guitar, timpani, air raid sirens, and even barking dogs with just a synth. All you need is a MIDI interface, and before you know it, you will have complete control over sounds.

With a synth, the possibilities are endless. So whatever you do, never forget these bad boys while setting up your home studio. A home studio without a synth doesn’t sound right, ever!

As far as the accessories are concerned, the only thing you would ever need to pair a synth with is a stand. Something stable and sturdy to hold it in the right place. That’s about it!

How Does a Synth Work?

The oscillator is the primary source of the sound. The filter of a synth is responsible for modifying timber by blocking a few frequencies and letting others pass. A synth is also capable of manipulating the size of a signal by adjusting Attack, Decay, Sustain & Release times.

  • Oscillator

The oscillator is the primary source of the sound. Compare it to the guitar string pluck. The voltage coming from a power source generates a waveform by oscillating electrons.

Since every waveform has a different sound, most of the synths come with an option to select the type of wave from the following four options: sine wave, sawtooth waves, triangle waves, and square waves.

The oscillator section of a synth also controls the pitch or the frequency, i.e., the speed at which vibration takes place, measured in Hertz. A fast frequency means a higher pitch, double it, and you will the pitch go up an octave.

  • Filter

The filter of a synth is responsible for modifying timber by blocking a few frequencies and letting others pass.  Have you ever noticed how a piano and trumpet sound very different even if you play them at the same pitch? That is because of the sound’s timbre, and this is where the synthesizer begins to mess with harmonics.

A sine wave is considered as a single frequency, but every other sound is a collection of multiple frequencies that join together to create a dominant pitch. This is why a C chord on your guitar sounds more like a C even though G and E notes are also played. All this is what you call harmonics; you can’t hear them as discrete pitches but overtones that grant them their unique timbre.

  • Amplifier and Envelope Generator

You are probably aware that an amplifier controls the volume by making the signal bigger and louder. But what you don’t know is it also modifies the amplitude of the signal with time; how quickly the signal hits its peak loudness and for how long it is sustained.

Imagine the sound coming from banging the piano and compare it with the sound of a violin string!

The loudness contour that you often notice is managed by the “envelope generator” in a synth. The most common is known as ADSR, i.e., attack or the onset of the sound, decay, or the fading of sound, sustain or the time for which the sound holds, and release or when the sound ends.

Adjust this contour, and you will change the entire character of a sound.

  • Modulation

Modulators are of many different types, each with an ability to alter the sonic properties. One of these instruments includes the low-frequency oscillator or the LFO. This device oscillates a signal at a frequency lower than the human ear can hear. It is not there to produce sound but to modulate other components of a synth.

For example, a modulator works hand in hand in an oscillator to create vibrato by jiggling the pitch, with amplitude to create tremolo, or with the filter to get the wobble bass.

Choosing a Good Synth: Things to Keep in Mind

Consider synthesizer as a keyboard that only produces sounds. Most of the synths used today make use of the pre-recorded sounds as opposed to the famous analog synths that work by manipulating the electrical signals to create their sounds.

Synths have also undergone a little renaissance during the past few years, mainly due to their knob-per-function control and the unique sounds. The technology has undoubtedly improved, and accuracy has increased.

Some synths can provide more massive sound sets like organ horns and pianos while others have digital recreations of the classic analog synths.

So are you looking for a REAL synth? Unfortunately, we have to call them “real” as the true essence of a synth is getting lost somewhere between all the technological advancements.

In my opinion, technology is impressive and highly influential, but it can also take away the real experience of having a synth at your home studio. That being said, let’s move to the things to keep in mind when you are searching for the best synth for your home studio.

  • Educate Yourself

If you are new to using a synth, I would advise you to educate yourself about what a synth is and how it works. Conduct your own little research and find out as much as possible about a synth.

Why is this important? Because without any background knowledge, you are going to get overwhelmed with the variety of synths available in the market. With no necessary information about its working, you will barely understand the differences between different models and companies.

You will probably end up buying something that you didn’t need in the first place and repent on the money you wasted all your life.

So do yourself a favor and learn everything about a synth first.

  • Decide a Budget

Synthesizers come in different sizes, shapes, sounds, and price ranges. When it comes to picking the best synth for your home studio, the amount of cash you are willing to spend is going to determine what you will buy.

You can go for budget-friendly shopping and grab a smaller synth at a fairly reasonable price. OR you can spend a couple of grand to get the top of the line product for yourself. So whatever you plan to do, decide a budget first.

  • Decide The Type of Sounds You Need

What type of synth do you need? Exciting synths? Fat bass? Vox? Strings? You have to think it through as you get what you choose forever. That is unless you select a synth with a MIDI capability to replace the sounds according to your will.

Or maybe go for a synth that alters the sounds letting you create your own? Decide for yourself. For Example, V Synth from Roland let you create unique and specific sounds. Unfortunately, this model is not for sale already, but many people sell this from the second hand.

  • Choose Customization

Some synths have keys, and some don’t. Others have buttons, knobs, and so much more. Question is: How excited are you to generate your own patches? How much FX and modulation you would use? Do you need a synth that you can use as soon as you get it out of the box?

  • Pick The Portability

Synths vary according to your portability. While some of them are mostly like tanks that settle in your home studio, others can be carried with you to places. If your sole purpose of buying a synth is to set it up at a corner of your house, portability should not be an issue.

But if you travel a lot of like carrying your studio with you, try getting a portable and a more compact synth that is easy to move.

  • Decide on Your Specifics

While buying a synth, you must be clear about the exact type you need. If you are looking for a playable, versatile, and powerful synth, try searching for the one with high polyphony counts and weighted keys.

On the other hand, if you love pushing the sonic boundaries with your music, you must go for a synth that comes with envelope control, filter section, and an LFO. Built-in features like delay, reverb, and chorus may also interest you in this context.

Tips To Get The Best Synth For Your Home Studio

Are you looking for your first synth? Do you wish to use it for composing music or want to make some noise? There’s never been a better time.

Whether you wish to use it as a hobby or set up a professional studio at home, it is always possible to buy the right type of synth with as little money as possible.

However, if you are new to all this, things may get confusing for you. Certain synths meant for beginners don’t even look like synths while others have tons of features, usually more than what you are looking for.

The following tips will help you clear out the confusion and help you buy the synth that best suits your needs.

  • Don’t spend more than $400 if you are a beginner

It seems right to spend all your money on buying a high-end synth and hope that you won’t ever feel the need to buy another one. This is a huge misconception and usually turns out to be a false economy.

With the increase in prices, the functions of a synth also increase, and if you are a beginner in this field, this means trouble. With a high-end synth with tons of features, you will be spending hours reading the user manual instead of making some music.

So always choose a simple synth, no more expensive than $400 and learn how to use it. Once you are done, you will have a better idea of how to proceed next.

If you already have experience working with software synths but want to get out of the box and try something different, never you can go for it! There are a lot of affordable options out there.

Remember, cheap does not always mean low-quality!

  • Purchase a Synth with a Sequencer

If you are buying your first synthesizer, your keyboard ability is likely to be limited or even non-existent. If this is the case, you must make sure to buy a synth with a sequencer.

A synth with a sequencer will ensure that you are able to write a melody into the onboard memory note by note. This will keep your hands completely free to tweak various stuff like resonance and cutoff or maybe add effects.

  • Make Sure the Size is Appropriate

Gigantic synths do look cool, but if you don’t have access to it, they are probably going to waste.

If you are starting your very own home-based studio at the corner of your house and don’t have much space, prefer buying a compact synth. You can place it on your table and use it whenever you want instead of setting it up when you need to work and packing it back when you are done.

If the synth you choose is small enough to be placed in a bag, you can carry it outside your home as well.

  • Prefer an Analog Synth if You Are a Beginner

Some people think that an analog synth produces “warmer” sounds than its digital counterpart while others can’t really tell the difference.

Roland SH-201
Roland SH-201 – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roland_SH-201_(logo).jpg

If you are buying your first synth, the way it sounds is not so important. However, choosing between the digital and analog variety is still an important decision to make, and this depends on whether you wish to use the presets only or want to create your own sounds.

As a beginner, subtractive synthesis- more commonly lined to analog synths- is the logical and the easiest type to learn. Digital FM synthesis, its counterpart is usually confusing, even for experienced users and must not be tried.

It is possible to purchase digital synths incorporated with analog technology but to buy them; the same advice should be considered: get a subtractive synth with properly labeled oscillators and clear controls, filters, and envelops. This will help you understand the basics of a synth in a considerably shorter amount of time.

6. Software Synths vs. Analog Synths: Decide According to Budget

Analog synths are more traditional and slightly different because, in addition to having a MIDI for triggering software synths, it also has a line out for driving speakers. While most of the music players prefer hardware synths, software synths are a cheaper alternative with great functions.

Because the software-based synths lack a physical input, you need to pair them with a MIDI controller. This can get really confusing for most people. So hear me when I say, software-synths only exist in the virtual realm of your PC. Consider them as the plug-ins sold separately or as a part of your audio recording software

To play them, you will require the presence of physical keys for triggering sound (hardware) and an electronic definition of the sound itself, i.e., the software.

Conclusion

Synthesizers are an essential part of every home-based studio. While buying a synth may seem like a piece of cake, it requires thorough research and careful considerations. To land on the perfect synth according to your needs and requirements, consider following the tips mentioned in this article. These handy tips and tricks will ensure that you get exactly what you need in a budget-friendly manner.

Featured Image Anton Shuvalov

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