Can Synthesizers Be Played Without Electricity?


Synthesizers broke through the music scene and redefined the sound of the 70s and 80s as a way to synthesize audio from electricity, hence the name. Synths are still relevant and widely used today, and with so much advancement in synth technology, it’s fair to ask if they still require electricity.

Can synthesizers be played without electricity? Synthesizers need electricity to work. Electricity can be provided by power mains, batteries, USB or computer, depending on the design and whether it’s hardware or software. Power is required to generate sound since a synth isn’t a physical, organic instrument but an electronic, synthetic one.

In this article, we’ll discuss why synthesizers require electricity in greater detail.


Music-Making Is All About Transforming Energy

Music is in its bare elements energy being transformed. This is because whenever you give energy to an analog, organic instrument, it vibrates somehow, creating what we perceive as sound.

To put into an example, let’s pretend you are in a room with a friend and a drum. He or she hits the drum with a drumstick. This is an energy transference from your friend’s arm straight to the surface of the drum (the skin on top).

The drum absorbs this energy and converts it into vibration. This vibration moves the air molecules next to the skin of the drum. Those air particles move the ones next to those. This operation repeats until it reaches your ears. Your brain then translates the moving air into sound.

This sound created by the drum is not random; it’s definite. In this sense, the number of times the wave vibrates in a second defines the frequency, and thus, the pitch. Also, the amount of energy given to the instrument defines the sound’s amplitude or volume.

This way, the more energy we apply to the instrument, the more it will give us back, creating louder sounds. These will move through the air until they reach our ears. This is why if you bang the drums in outer space where there’s no air, there will be no sound either.

The 4 main acoustic instrument types are as follows:

  • Percussion insturments: these instruments are physically struck and their vibrations produce sound waves. Percussion insturments can be tuned/tonal (ie: xylophone) or atonal (ie: kick drum).
  • String insturments: these instruments have strings that ocsillate, and their vibrations produce sound waves.
  • Woodwind insturments: these instruments have either vibrating reeds or columns of air that produce sound waves.
  • Brass instruments: these instruments produce sound via vibrating air in a tubular resonator.

Synthesizers, on the other hand, do not technically produce sound. Rather, they produce audio signals (alternating currents), which can then be converted to sound via speaker or headphone transducers. To synthesize these audio signals (digital/discrete or analog/continuous), synthesizers will require electricity.


Synthesizers: The Sound Disrupters

All of the above is true for all of the instruments we know as organic and analog, but what about synthesizers? Well, something that is synthetic is something created from the synthesis of other bits and pieces. This means that what creates the sound in a synthesizer is not related to acoustics, but to electronics.

The energy that synthesizers need to work is not from a kinetic source (striking, plucking, strumming, pressing, blowing, etc.) but from an electronic source.

In other words, to create sound, a synthesizer also requires energy, but it has to be electric.

This electrical energy is generally used to control one or more oscillators or wavetables, which output audio signals for further manipulation (filtering, amplification, effects, etc.) before the synth’s audio output.


Synths With Different Power Sources

This electric energy we need to provide synths to get sound from them can be either from a socket in the wall, a USB port in our computer, or a pair of batteries. Software synthesizers (soft synth plugins or standalone applications) will run on a computer, which requires electricity itself.

Let’s take a look at some of the best synths in every power option.

Power Mains-Powered Synths

More hardware synthesizers will plug directly into a wall socket to receive their electricity. They will have a three-prong wall connector and an adapter to effectively convert the power mains into the necessary voltage/current the synth needs.

Here are a few hardware synthesizers:

Battery-Powered Synths

Synths can now be played in any open space. If you want to accompany your friend and make their “bonfire song set” much more interesting, get a synthesizer that runs on batteries and experience the ultimate freedom of playing anywhere you like with anyone you like.

In this category, you can find many models ranging from full-on workstations like the Roland VR-09 (link to check the price at Sweetwater). Also, smaller classics like the Roland GAIA SH-01 (link to check the price at Sweetwater). Further down the line, you can find smaller apparatus such as the Korg VOLCA series (link to check the price at Sweetwater).

USB-Powered Synths

Although many people confuse them with MIDI controllers, USB-Powered synths differ from them in an important aspect: they can generate sounds independently. On the other hand, MIDI controllers work as a fancy interface for sounds created by the computer.

Some of the best synths that run on USB power are cutting-edge, brand-new creations by brands looking to cut through the mix and be noticed by current musicians. A great example is the Organelle by Critter & Guitari (link to check the price on Amazon), a Brooklyn-based cartoonish brand making very interesting instruments. Also, the Sound Machines NS1nanosynth (link to check the price at Perfect Circuit) is a great example of a keyless-operation synth running on USB power.

Software Synths

Software synthesizers will be run by the host computer, which requires electricity.

Here are a few software synthesizers:


Mind The Amplification, Too

Finally, beyond the energy source, many synthesizers do not have internal amplification or speakers. For example, if you hit the local park with your KORG K1M on batteries but don’t carry any amplification, nobody will hear you.

This is because, and going back to the beginning of the article, the sound coming from a synth is not the result of a physical phenomenon but a synthetic, electronic one. Hence, it needs an amplification source and speakers to transform it into waves that can travel through the air.

Some, like the new groundbreaking Yamaha Reface Series, are capable of producing some amazing sounds running on batteries and featuring a pair of dedicated speakers.


Conclusion

Synthesizers are electronic instruments that need electricity to work (and an amplification source in most cases). Opposite to what organic, analog instruments need as an energy source (plucking, banging, strumming, blowing, etc.), the energy source for a synth needs to be electricity.

The only synth-like instrument that doesn’t need any electricity to work is the creation of a Turkish musician named Gorkem Sen. You can check this mind-blowing video to see it in action.

It might not need any electricity, but it does take up hefty space.


When buying a synthesizer, it can be challenging to choose the most ideal option within your budget. For this reason, I’ve created My New Microphone’s Comprehensive Synthesizer Buyer’s Guide. Check it out for help choosing the best synth for your applications.


This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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