So you're wondering which synthesizer you should buy, rent or otherwise try out. In this comprehensive buyer's guide, we'll go through everything worth considering before you make any decisions about a synth.
If you've found yourself asking, “which synth should I buy?” this extensive resource is for you.
Please feel free to jump around this article and read all additional resources I have provided links to.
With that, let's get into this comprehensive synthesizer buyer's guide to help you in your next synth purchase!
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Table Of Contents
- What Is Your Synthesizer Budget?
- Consider Software Virtual Instrument Synths
- Desktop Vs. Modular Vs. Semi-Modular Synthesizers
- Analog Vs. Digital Vs. Hybrid Synthesizers
- Types Of Audio Synthesis
- Monophonic Vs. Duophonic Vs. Paraphonic Vs. Polyphonic Synthesizers
- Do You Need A Built-In Keyboard?
- Synthesizer Inputs & Outputs
- Notable Synthesizer Features & Specifications Worth Considering
- Know The Additional Costs Of Synthesizer Accessories
What Is Your Synthesizer Budget?
The first thing to consider when making any purchase is your budget. Money can be a touchy subject for some, and so I'll keep this section brief.
I would never advise anyone to overspend on any audio equipment. Know what you can realistically afford, and do your best to stay within those limitations, whatever they may be.
Synthesizers, like many musical instruments, range significantly in price. The market is rather large, and so there should be a good selection for any budget.
Note that some retailers offer payment plans, which could be an option.
Consider the cost to benefit ratio of the purchase of the synthesizer. For example, if the synth is needed for business, perhaps stretching the budget is more appropriate. On the other hand, if you don't plan on making money with the synth, perhaps a more conservative budget is appropriate.
Also, consider any additional accessories or upkeep that may be required for your synthesizer.
Only you can determine your budget. All I'm here to say is that you should consider it.
Consider Software Virtual Instrument Synths
Before investing money into any synthesizer, it's worth considering if a virtual synthesizer would work just as well (or even better).
Hardware synthesizers are relatively expensive and even more expensive over the long term if you opt for modular synths. Furthermore, hardware synthesizers will require upkeep to maintain their performance.
Software synths, conversely, are typically less expensive and can be utilized on a number of different computers. They don't require any upkeep besides the odd update, and a single MIDI controller can control several soft synths.
Soft synths can be completely original designs, though there are plenty of options that emulate hardware synthesizers (even the modular varieties).
If you opt for soft synths, you can have several loaded up (either in a digital audio workstation or as standalone applications) and rotate through the options with a single laptop and a single controller. This saves money, time, maintenance, and space.
- Click the link to check out synthesizer virtual instruments at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out synthesizer virtual instruments at Plugin Boutique
- Click the link to check out synthesizer virtual instruments at Plugin Fox
Related My New Microphone articles:
• Top 11 Best Virtual/Software Instrument Plugin Brands
• Are Hardware Synthesizers Worth The Cost?
Desktop Vs. Modular Vs. Semi-Modular Synthesizers
A big consideration when choosing a synthesizer is its modularity or lack thereof. Let's consider the three main synth systems:
Fixed Archetecture Synthesizers
Fixed architecture synthesizers, for lack of a better name, are non-modular synthesizers.
These synthesizers are designed with all their functionality within their body. Whatever oscillators, filters, envelopes, sequencers, effects, etc., are included in the synth are what you get. These synths, when digital, often come with pre-defined patches and often allow users to create and save their own.
For more info on synth patches, check out my article What Is A Synthesizer Patch? Traditional & Modern Definition.
The exception here is MIDI connectivity, which may allow separate controllers to input MIDI to the synthesizer.
- Click the link to check out synthesizers at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out synthesizers at B&H Photo/Video
- Click the link to check out synthesizers on Amazon
As the name suggests, modular synthesizers are built with modules. Each module will provide some specified functionality for the overall synth. Module functions include oscillators, filters, envelopes, sequencers, effects, etc. (as mentioned before).
With modular synths, the modules are connected together to build custom synthesizer patches effectively. The modules are often secured into a rack, and each module is powered by a supply. Routing is achieved by patching the various modules together with patch cables.
Eurorack is the most popular format for modular synthesizers, with Moog-Unit being the other dominant format. Buchla, Frac, Modcan, MOTM, and Serge are other lesser-known formats.
- Click the link to check out modular synthesizer modules at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out modular synthesizer modules at B&H Photo/Video
- Click the link to check out modular synthesizer modules on Amazon
Related My New Microphone articles:
• The Ultimate Eurorack Buyer's Guide
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• Top 11 Best MU (Moog-Unit) Synth Module Brands In The World
As we can imagine, semi-modular synths bridge the gap between self-contained desktop synths and full-out modular systems.
These synthesizers are often made of pre-selected and permanent “modules” that cover all the typical needs of a synthesizer (again, these are the oscillators, filters, envelopes, sequencers, effects, etc.).
The individual parts of the modular synth can often be normalled, meaning the synth will follow a pre-designed signal path unless its built-in modules are patched manually. If they're patched, the signal flow will be broken and instead follow where the manual patch leads.
Modular synths can have built-in controllers (keyboards) or rely on external controls.
- Click the link to check out semi-modular synthesizers at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out semi-modular synthesizers at B&H Photo/Video
- Click the link to check out semi-modular synthesizers on Amazon
Analog Vs. Digital Vs. Hybrid Synthesizers
Synthesizers can also be categorized by the type of audio signals that pass through them. A synth may synthesize analog audio, digital audio, or a combination of the two and will be categorized as either analog, digital, or hybrid, respectively.
Let's consider each of these synth types:
Analog synthesizers have a completely analog audio signal path, so the oscillators, mixers, filters, and amplifiers are analog.
Some components that act upon the audio can be digital (envelopes, LFOs, etc.), but the audio path itself must be entirely analog to be considered an analog synth.
Analog audio is effectively a continuous waveform of AC voltage, generally within the audible range of 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz (cycles per second). These waveforms are analogous to the sound waves they will ultimately cause (with the help of transducers such as speakers and headphones).
Analog oscillators effectively produce an analog waveform within the audible range, which will have additional harmonics (unless it's a pure sine wave). This oscillating AC voltage is then passed through other analog circuits, including filters, amplifiers and mixers, before being outputted from the analog synth.
The control paths within the synth can also be analog, meaning that continuous control voltages and/or gates can be applied to various parameters (including the envelopes and sequencer triggers). As mentioned, though, these control signals could also be digital, and the synth would still be considered analog since the control path is not technically part of the audio path.
With analog synths, all the options are laid out before you, making it straightforward to control the sound. This can make them relatively large in order to accommodate all the controls (rather than having menu banks like their digital counterparts).
When polyphony is required (more than one note played at a time), each additional note will require its own signal path, which can quickly increase the analog synth's size, weight, complexity and price.
For purists, analog synthesizers are the way to go because they forego digital conversion and aliasing (more on this later). Analog signals are also subjected to the electrical circuits within the synths, which are naturally imperfect. These imperfections are part of the “analog character” that audio enthusiasts and musicians love so much.
- Click the link to check out analog synthesizers at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out analog synthesizers at B&H Photo/Video
- Click the link to check out analog synthesizers on Amazon
Analog synthesizers have a completely digital audio signal path, so the oscillators, mixers, filters, and amplifiers are digital. With these synths, the effects and control signal paths are also typically digital.
Digital audio is a discrete representation of the continuous waveforms of analog audio. Rather than having a continuous AC voltage, digital audio has defined samples with defined amplitude values.
With digital audio, the signal is sampled so many times per second, according to the sample rate. Each sample is then assigned an amplitude value according to a set number of possible values determined by the bit-depth of the processor.
This digital data is not subjected to the same degradation as analog audio since it's not passed through electronic circuits as AC voltage. Rather, digital audio signals are passed as digital data, which is preserved perfectly unless converted to a different audio format or to a different sample rate or bit-depth.
Digital synthesizers can easily produce polyphony by processing speed alone. There's no need for separate audio paths for each note. This alone drastically reduces the price, size and weight of digital synths compared to their analog counterparts.
Along with polyphony, digital synths can also offer more features and parameters without the need for additional circuitry. These digital audio processors can be designed to affect digital audio in all sorts of ways.
Furthermore, digital synths also tend to offer presets (both manufacturer and user-defined), making them much easier to use in live and studio environments where time is of the essence.
Though digital audio has plenty of benefits, transducers (headphones and speakers) only react to analog audio. So then, digital audio must be converted to analog at some point.
This conversion can lead to aliasing if the sample rate is not twice as high as the highest audio frequency. Though the typical sample rates start at 44.1 kHz (more than twice the highest audible frequency of 20 kHz) and filters can be used to further eliminate the super high-end and ultrasound frequencies, aliasing may still affect the overall performance.
Ultimately, the main con of digital synthesizers (aliasing) can be ignored. Yet, the pros of being lighter, cheaper, and more capable than analog synths make them ideal choices for many musicians and synth enthusiasts.
- Click the link to check out digital synthesizers at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out digital synthesizers at B&H Photo/Video
- Click the link to check out digital synthesizers on Amazon
Hybrid synthesizers utilize both digital and analog components in the audio path and rely on analog-digital and/or digital-analog converters within the synth's audio path. The control component can also be analog or digital.
Hybrid synth designs range pretty wildly but aim to offer the benefits of both analog and digital synths. A common design involves digital oscillators (which never go out of tune), followed by a DAC and a completely analog audio path from then on, including this filters, amps and mixers.
Many hybrid synths also utilize digital and analog control paths, depending on the functions and needs of the synth.
- Click the link to check out hybrid synthesizers at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out hybrid synthesizers at B&H Photo/Video
- Click the link to check out hybrid synthesizers on Amazon
Types Of Audio Synthesis
The subject of audio synthesis is deeply complex. In addition to all the possible analog and digital components and effects, there are different methods of actually synthesizing the sound. Let's consider the various types of audio synthesis in this section:
- Subtractive Synthesis
- Additive Synthesis
- Wavetable Synthesis
- Phase Distortion Synthesis
- Frequency Modulation Synthesis
- Sample-Based Synthesis
- Granular Synthesis
- Physical Modeling Synthesis
- Vector Synthesis
- Linear Arithmetic Synthesis
Subtractive synthesis is the most common type of audio synthesis. It begins with one or more oscillators (analog or digital) that produce an audio signal output. The synth then subtracts information from the signal via filters (controlled by envelopes, LFO, and other control signals).
The idea here is that any timbre can be produced by shaping one oscillator or a combination of oscillators.
By running the oscillators through filters and a specified ADSR envelope, we can effectively subtract what is needed from the oscillators to create a dynamic and interesting sound.
Real instruments have rather complex ADSR/envelope profiles. Subtractive synthesis can recreate many instruments electronically by following the same initial waveform and envelope observed of an instrument in nature.
Additive synthesis goes about things quite differently than subtractive synthesis, though not in an exact opposite fashion as the names may suggest.
This type of synthesis constructs the harmonic makeup of the signal on a per-frequency basis. Individual sine waves (the waveform that only has a single frequency) with varying amplitudes are produced at specified frequencies to build/synthesize the audio.
As you can imagine, this style of synthesis is really only practical with digital oscillators. An additive analog synth would require a completely separate oscillator for each frequency, which would lead to a huge and expensive synthesizer.
The amplitudes of each sine wave oscillator are varied across time to achieve the complex “envelope” of the sound.
We can think of additive and subtractive synthesis in the following ways:
- Subtractive synthesis starts with everything the sound requires and pieces are subtracted to get what we need.
- Additive synthesis starts with nothing and everything we need is added.
I'll add here that additive synthesis is very closely related to resynthesis.
Resynthesis is a process that takes a sampled sound and analyzes it to recreate it synthetically. This recreation is typically done with additive synthesis. The difference between the two is that resynthesis is sample-based, while additive synthesis is strictly from scratch.
Wavetable synthesis is very similar to subtractive synthesis in the fact that the basic signal flow and components are practically the same: oscillator(s) produce audio waveforms that are effectively filtered and amplifier (among other modulators and processes) before getting outputted.
However, wavetable synths utilize wavetables as oscillators rather than distinct waveforms.
A wavetable is effectively a continuously variable waveform that morphs from one waveform to another. The instantaneous position of the wavetable will present a certain oscillator waveform, and this waveform will change as the table is cycled through.
As the waveform changes, the oscillator will present a different harmonic profile/timbre.
In order to produce the complex waveforms within wavetables, digital wave “samples” are required. These digital oscillators represent a single oscillation and offer complex harmonic profiles compared to typical analog waveforms (sine, triangle, square, sawtooth).
These waveshapes within the wavetables can be manipulated further with digital signal processing, including sync, bend, mirror and more, depending on the available processing of the particular synth.
Phase Distortion Synthesis
Phase distortion synthesis utilizes a digital algorithm to produce a sine wave oscillator and then distorts that oscillator with a second algorithm.
Beyond the algorithmic oscillator(s), phase synthesis typically has the typical signal paths found in subtractive synthesis, though FM (frequency modulation) could also be included in the synth design.
Frequency Modulation Synthesis
Frequency modulation (FM) synthesis is a completely different beast than what we've discussed thus far.
As the name suggests, FM synths modulate the frequency of the audio oscillators to produce new waveforms and harmonic profiles.
The oscillators of an FM synth are often basic waveforms and are known as “operators.” These operators have their frequencies modulated by other oscillators within the audible spectrum and can be outputted as audio.
The modulation operators must be faster than an LFO (up into the audible range) to affect the timbre of the carrier oscillator. At low speeds, the modulation would simply produce a vibrato effect.
FM synthesis is tricky but can be put to great use when creating digital/electronic sounds.
Sample-based synthesis does away with any oscillators and instead uses recorded samples as its waveforms. Each sample has its own defined envelope, though further synth processing (filters, LFOs, etc.) can be used to manipulate the sound.
On a sample-based synthesizer, a single sample may be pitch-shifted to fit multiple keys in an effort to save memory and/or save time recording a sample for each chromatic note.
Granular synthesis is another type of synthesis that utilizes sampling.
Samples are split into 1 – 50 ms (typical but not mandatory) pieces known as “grains”, which are played back at different speeds, phases, volumes, frequencies, and with other parameters changed.
An input signal, then, is sampled rapidly and is played back in interesting ways. These samples are essentially the oscillators for the granular synths.
Granular synthesis can get really strange and is capable of producing incredibly complex waveforms.
Physical Modeling Synthesis
Physical modeling is a super in-depth form of synthesis used to synthesize an instrument's sound with utmost precision.
This type of synthesis uses mathematical algorithms to account for every nuance of an intended physical sound source.
With adequate digital signal processing, physical modeling synthesis can effectively take into account all parameters that could alter the timbre and amplitude of the instrument in question.
This type of synthesis requires very complex digital processing, and we don't see it in analog synths.
Vector synthesis is very similar to wavetable synthesis in its focus on waveform morphing.
Wavetable synths will have a sort of continuous back and forth between two distinct waveforms.
Vector synthesis will have four distinct waveforms, all cross-faded seamlessly together. Each of the four waveforms will have its own corner on a square, and we will morph between them by adjusting our point within the square.
This adjusting can be done via a joystick or controls such as envelopes or LFOs.
Linear Arithmetic Synthesis
Linear arithmetic synthesis is somewhat outdated but was useful when invented.
To save space in the early days of digital synthesis, Roland developed linear arithmetic synthesis. This type of synthesis utilized samples of the attack periods of the instruments being synthesized. After the attack was sampled, one or more internally-generated waveforms would complete the sound's decay, sustain, and release.
This type of synthesis worked to varying degrees because much of the timbre we hear from any instrument is based on the instrument's attack. After the attack, the sound of most instruments will transform into a relatively simple waveform, easily achievable via synthesis.
This helped save memory space in the digital synth and allowed for more instruments to be sampled/synthesized in the Roland D-50 synthesizer (which used this type of synthesis).
Monophonic Vs. Duophonic Vs. Paraphonic Vs. Polyphonic Synthesizers
Another critical specification to consider is the voice (polyphony vs. monophony) capabilities of the synthesizer.
Polyphony is a property of musical instruments indicative of the ability to sound multiple notes simultaneously. For example, a 6-string guitar has 6 potential voices and is “polyphonic.” A saxophone, however, is only capable of producing one note at a time (under normal circumstances, not including extended playing techniques) and is, therefore, “monophonic.”
To learn more about synthesizer voices, check out my article What Is A Synthesizer Voice?
With that primer, let's get into the typical voice counts/designs in synthesizers:
Monophonic synthesizers or “monosynths” can only produce one note at a time. These synths can have more than one oscillator, though each oscillator will be controlled by the same single voice and will be triggered simultaneously. Note that harmony can still be achieved by setting oscillators at different intervals.
It's also worth considering the priority options of the synth. With monophonic synths, we have the following general priorities:
- Lowest-note priority: the lowest note held at any time is the one the synthesizer will produce (common)
- Highest-note priority: the highest note held at any time is the one the synthesizer will produce (common)
- First-note priority: the first note to be held at any time is the one the synthesizer will produce (rare)
- Last-note priority: the last note to be held at any time is the one the synthesizer will produce (rare)
Also, consider looking into the triggering of the synth, which will tell you if and when a note played in legato will retrigger the synth's envelope.
Note that priorities and triggers also apply to synths with more than one voice.
- Click the link to check out monophonic synthesizers at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out monophonic synthesizers at B&H Photo/Video
- Click the link to check out monophonic synthesizers on Amazon
Duophonic synths have two independent voices, meaning they have two or more oscillators and two audio signal paths.
Each of the two notes (often the lowest and highest notes triggered) will control its own signal path.
Paraphonic synths can play multiple notes at the same time but only offer a single audio path. In other words, each note played will trigger its own oscillator, but these oscillators all share the same audio path, including the filters and amplifier.
These synths are somewhat tricky to play due to triggering complications. Chords can be achieved by pressing all the notes at the same time. However, each time a new note is pressed, the synth's envelope will be triggered.
- Click the link to check out paraphonic synthesizers at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out paraphonic synthesizers at B&H Photo/Video
- Click the link to check out paraphonic synthesizers on Amazon
Polyphonic synthesizers can play multiple notes at the same time, and each note will have its own independent voice (oscillator and audio signal path) within the synth.
Digital polyphonic synths can have practically unlimited voices, though 16 is more than is typically necessary. Because they require separate audio paths for each voice, analog polysynths are often between 3 and 16 voices.
- Click the link to check out polyphonic synthesizers at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out polyphonic synthesizers at B&H Photo/Video
- Click the link to check out polyphonic synthesizers on Amazon
Do You Need A Built-In Keyboard?
Synthesizers are most often controlled by keyboards, but keyboards aren't absolutely necessary. Many synths can be controlled via internal or external sequencers and CV/gate voltages or by MIDI (from a digital audio workstation, non-keyboard MIDI instruments, etc.).
But again, a keyboard is a very popular method of controlling a synth, so do we need a built-in keyboard? Well, it depends on your preference.
A built-in synth keyboard is convenient, though it does take up space in the form factor. Furthermore, the keyboard may be too large or too small for our needs and the needs of our synthesizer.
Therefore, it's sometimes better to opt for a keyboard-less synthesizer (often referred to as a “desktop synthesizer”) with which you can connect a keyboard controller of your own choosing. This modular approach allows for more variety (key count, key action, additional controls) in the keyboard's control over the synthesizer.
- Click the link to check out keyboard synthesizers at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out keyboard synthesizers on Amazon
- Click the link to check out desktop synthesizers at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out desktop synthesizers on Amazon
- Click the link to check out MIDI controllers at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out MIDI controllers at B&H Photo/Video
- Click the link to check out MIDI controllers on Amazon
Related article: The Ultimate MIDI Controller Buyer's Guide
Synthesizer Inputs & Outputs
When looking over the synthesizer specifications sheet, it's useful to consider the available inputs and outputs. Understanding the I/O will help you to connect the synthesizer within your current setup and give you an idea of whether it'll be a compatible choice in the future.
Here is a list of typical inputs and outputs we'll find on a synthesizer:
- MIDI in, MIDI out, MIDI thru
- Line outputs
- Headphone output
- Sustain pedal input
- Expression pedal input
- Other CV/gate I/O
- Audio input
- Patching I/O
MIDI In, MIDI Out, MIDI Thru
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) data is often used to control synthesizers. MIDI data includes notation, pitch, velocity, vibrato, panning and clock signals. MIDI connections can also be used to sync various MID devices to the same MIDI beat clock.
The MIDI input of a synth allows MIDI from an external device (computer's DAW, MIDI controller, etc.) to control the synthesizer.
The MIDI output of a synth takes the synth's MIDI information and outputs it to be recorded and/or to control other MIDI devices.
The MIDI thru effectively outputs whatever MIDI data is inputted at the MIDI input.
USB (Universal Serial Bus) is one of the most popular digital connections. USB can connect a synthesizer to a computer for use with a compatible software program (if applicable) and can also carry MIDI information. USB can even power the device with its 5V power capabilities in rare synth designs with low power requirements.
The main outputs of most synthesizers are at line level. Oftentimes there will be a stereo pair of balanced 1/4″ TRS outputs. The left output will often double as the mono output in the case that only one output is used.
Headphone outputs are wired to connect to and drive headphones for direct monitoring of the synth's sound.
Sustain Pedal Input
The sustain pedal input is effectively a gate input that accepts a sustain pedal (typically a springloaded footswitch). When the sustain pedal is held down, the synth's notes will continue sounding after the keys are released, or vice versa depending on the input polarity.
With conventional filter envelopes, the sustain pedal gate signal keeps the sustained notes in the sustain portion of the envelope (attack, decay, sustain, release). As the pedal is released, the notes enter the release portion of their envelope.
Otherwise, a sustain pedal may communicate via MIDI information to maintain sustain.
This sustain will work differently in monophonic synths and polyphonic synths, and the synth's note priorities will play a role in which notes are ultimately sustained.
Expression Pedal Input
The expression pedal input is a control voltage input that can be assigned to a variety of different parameters within the synth. Expression pedals are treadle-type pedals that rock between a maximum value (toe-down position) and minimum value (heel-down position). Note that this expression can be a physical control voltage or digital MIDI data.
When choosing a synth with an expression pedal input, be sure to check the manual to understand what parameters can be routed to the expression control. Common expression-controlled parameters include volume and filter cutoff, though the options are often much greater, especially with MIDI.
Other CV/Gate I/O
Other CV/gate inputs can be included in synthesizers. Certain inputs can be directly mapped to parameters such as volume, filter, oscillator pitch, oscillator waveform, sequencer triggers, and more. Certain outputs can use the velocity, pitch, trigger, aftertouch and other information from the synth to control other devices.
An audio input in a synthesizer will effectively mix an external audio signal with the synth's oscillators and send the mixed audio through the filters, effects, amps, etc., before the output.
When it comes to patching modular synth modules, there will be plenty of different patch inputs and outputs to be aware of. All sorts of audio and control voltage inputs and outputs can be patched together to route the synthesizer to your exact needs.
Though perhaps best kept for its own article, the study of gate, CV, and audio patching is worth mentioning in this section on general synthesizer I/O.
Notable Synthesizer Features & Specifications Worth Considering
Let's now turn our attention to the features you may or may not want/need in your synthesizer:
- Onboard Effects
- Number Of Voices & Modes
- Number/Type Of Oscillators
- Number/Type Of Noise Generators
- Number/Type Of LFOs
- Number/Type Of Filters
- Number/Type Of Envelopes
- Routing Flexibility & Number Of Patch Points
- Velocity Sensitivity
- Pitch Bend
- Touchpad Interfaces
- Assignable Controls
- Additional Software
As the name suggests, an arpeggiator is a synthesis tool that aims to produce arpeggios (the playing of a chord one note after the other). Arpeggiators may utilize control voltages or MIDI information to cycle through a series of notes according to the synth's clock rate and note division.
The notes involved in an arpeggiator are often those held down on the synth keyboard. However, some arpeggiators may offer extended ranges to include additional notes (often octave multiples of those notes held down).
Sequencers generate control signals (voltages, gates or MIDI) that effectively tell the synth what notes to play and when to play them. These devices have a series of steps, each with different data, that are cycled through according to a clock signal.
Each step will have its own information to tell the synth what to do (what note to produce, at what volume, with what envelope, etc.).
Onboard effects include gain-based/distortion effects, modulation effects, time-based effects (delay and reverb), and more.
Effects give more interest to the sound by affecting the audio, though they do not change the oscillator or filter sections of the synth.
A synth “patch” is essentially a specific set of values across the synth's parameters that gives the synth a particular sound. Presets allow users to quickly find and engage a patch without the need to manually input settings from memory.
Presets can be factory-made, accessible with any new purchase of a synth, or user-defined, where the user creates a patch and saves it for later recall.
Note that presets are only available with digital synths (and hybrid synths with a digital brain) that have enough memory to store them.
Number Of Voices & Modes
We mentioned the number of voices within a synth in the section on monophonic, duophonic, paraphonic and polyphonic synths.
Synths with multiple voices sometimes offer different modes.
Primarily, polysynths may offer a unison mode, whereby each voice is slightly detuned and applied to one note (or very few notes). The result is a thickening of the sound, similar to chorus.
Number/Type Of Oscillators
Oscillators range greatly, from basic analog shapes to digital wavetables. Synths can be designed with a wide variety of waveform options for each oscillator.
Additionally, synthesizers may be designed with multiple oscillators (and often are). Depending on the voice architecture, these oscillators can be controlled together or individually, mixed together in various ways, and passed through a shared audio path or separate audio paths.
Number/Type Of Noise Generators
Synths often have noise generators to add noise to the signal, which can be useful for texture and percussive sound, among other things.
The styles of noise include, but are not limited to:
- White noise: equal power in any band of a given bandwidth
- Pink noise: equal power in bands that are proportionally wide
- Brownian noise: power decreases 75% per octave with increasing frequency
- Blue noise: power doubles per octave with increasing frequency
Number/Type Of LFOs
Low-frequency oscillators are control oscillators with frequencies below the audible range (sub-20 Hz). LFOs are used to modulate other synthesizer parameters, including filter cutoffs, wavetable positions, pitch, and much more.
The more LFOs available, the more versatile this type of modulation can be in any given pitch. Furthermore, like oscillators, LFO waveforms can often be changed, though they are most often a basic waveshape.
Number/Type Of Filters
The number and type of filters on a synth will increase its versatility and capability in shaping its oscillators to the perfect timbre and sound modulation over time. Though filters are largely used to shape the immediate sound of the oscillator, they can also be used later in the signal chain to affect the synth's EQ and overall timbre.
Number/Type Of Envelopes
The greater the number of envelopes, the greater the potential of any given synth patch. Though envelopes are often used to shape the nature of a triggered envelope, they are also used to control other parameters within the synth.
Routing Flexibility & Number Of Patch Points
If you're going the modular or semi-modular route, consider how many patch points are available on the synth or synth module. How versatile or complicated will this particular synth be, and how will it fit within the greater context of your modular synth?
Synths that are controlled by MIDI may or may not be velocity-sensitive. If a synth is velocity-sensitive, the pressure at which the key is pressed will translate to its output amplitude. If the synth isn't velocity-sensitive, each key will act strictly as an on/off switch for the oscillator(s).
Aftertouch is a feature that sends pressure-sensitive MIDI data after a key has been engaged and held down, hence the name. This feature is often routed to control vibrato or volume but can be routed to many other parameters as well. There are two main types of aftertouch: channel aftertouch and polyphonic aftertouch.
Channel aftertouch reads the aftertouch of all depressed keys and transmits aftertouch data according to the highest value (the key with the most pressure applied).
Polyphonic aftertouch sends separate and independent aftertouch values for each and every key being held. As we can imagine, polyphonic aftertouch has the potential to be incredibly expressive. However, even if this expressiveness is controlled correctly, it still transmits a lot of MIDI data, which will undoubtedly increase response times and latency.
Modwheels are shaped like a wheel and mounted perpendicular to the keyboard surface. However, they are typically not spring-loaded and stay put when let go of. Modulation wheels act to control one or more parameters of a virtual instrument or synthesizer between a minimum and maximum MIDI value.
Pitch bend controls will alter the pitch of the inputted MIDI data. These controls were designed to give keyboardists control over vibrato and pitch bending, similar to the guitar. These wheels generally offer 1 whole tone of pitch bending in either direction and are spring-loaded to return to resting position once let go over.
XY touchpads offer two-dimensional control over an x-axis and y-axis. XY pads allow versatile control over two or more parameters linked together on a 2-D plane.
Digital synths (and some hybrid synths) are often designed with assignable controls, where defined ranges of specific parameters can be assigned to other controls (sometimes called macro-controls). This assignability drastically improves the versatility of the synthesizer.
Some synthesizers come with software to help further the versatility of the synth. Synth software can often access additional features and presets and help update the hardware synth with improved functionality as it becomes available.
Know The Additional Costs Of Synthesizer Accessories
- Synthesizer Patch Cables
- Synthesizer MIDI Cables
- Synthesizer Stands
- Synthesizer Carrying Cases
- Synthesizer Keyboards
- Synthesizer Racks/Cases
- Synthesizer Power Supplies
Synthesizer Patch Cables
If you opt for a semi-modular synthesizer or choose to go fully modular, you'll want to pick up some patch cables to connect the individual modules together effectively.
Depending on the modular format, you'll need different cables.
For example, Eurorack utilizes 3.5mm TS patch cables, while 5U/MU (Moog Unit) uses 6.35mm (1/4″) TS patch cables. Other formats may use other patch connectors such as banana, pin and TiniJax connectors.
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Related My New Microphone article:
• How Do Patch Cables Carry Audio? (Guitar, Bass, Synth, Etc.)
Synthesizer MIDI Cables
MIDI cables come in handy with synthesizers for two main reasons: MIDI in and MIDI out.
If the synth doesn't have a built-in keyboard/controller, it'll likely offer a MIDI to be controlled by an externally connected MIDI controller, DAW or another MIDI device.
Conversely, the MIDI output of a synthesizer can output the MIDI date from the synth to record it and/or use it to control other MIDI devices.
MIDI Thru connections on synthesizers effectively pass the MIDI input data through the synth unaffected.
All of these MIDI connections will require MIDI cables to extend the synth into a greater MIDI system. The vast majority of these connections are the popular circular 5-pin DIN.
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- Click the link to check out MIDI cables at B&H Photo/Video
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Related My New Microphone article:
• Top 7 Best MIDI Cable Brands In The World
Synth stands effectively hold up their synthesizers for easier playability and tweakability.
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Synthesizer Carrying Cases
Synth carrying cases are protective cases to put your synthesizer in while they're being transported or stored.
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If the synthesizer doesn't have a built-in keyboard, you may want to purchase a keyboard controller to connect to it.
If you choose to go down the modular route, synth racks and cases will be necessary for holding your modules in place.
- Click the link to check out synthesizer racks at Sweetwater
- Click the link to check out synthesizer racks at Perfect Circuit
Synthesizer Power Supplies
Though fixed architecture synthesizers will come with a dedicated power supply, powering synth modules is often a different story. Ensure you have enough of the proper power to run each of the modules now and, ideally, into the future.
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- Click the link to check out synthesizer power supplies at Perfect Circuit